Warner Bros. // 1976 // 136 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // May 30th, 2011
In The Outlaw Josey Wales, five-time Academy Award winner Clint Eastwood is ideally cast as a hard-hitting, fast-drawing loner, like the "Man with No Name" from his European Westerns. Unlike that other mythic outlaw, Josey has a name -- and a heart.
Union soldiers generally come across as the bad guys in this take on the Civil War told from the viewpoint of a Southern protagonist, but The Outlaw Josey Wales, loosely adapted from a novel by Forrest Carter, is not a Confederate screed or a paean to the glory of war. Neither is it a typical tale of vengeance and vigilante justice set in the Old West, though the beginning scenes suggest otherwise. The story takes several unexpected turns. Although justice is served in the end, the mood is not exulting, but thoughtful.
Near the beginning of the Civil War, a farmer by the name of Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven) loses his wife and young son to a murderous group of Red Legs -- a sort of mercenary outfit employed by the Union, but not part of the actual military. Josey buries his family, retrieves a pistol from the still-smoking pile of ashes that was his cabin, and embarks on an extended period of shooting practice.
He spends the rest of the war with a group of Confederate guerillas who strike back at the Red Legs and Northern renegades. At the war's end, the guerillas are offered a general Amnesty, but instead are slaughtered by Union troops. Josey Wales overcomes a Union soldier and turns the Gatling gun on the bluecoats. Henceforth, he is branded as an outlaw and hunted by the very Red Leg leader that led the murderous raid on his family's farm. Wales' attempt to live the life of a loner is thwarted time and again as he picks up a ragtag group -- one after another -- of settlers, Indians, and even an old hound dog.
The Outlaw Josey Wales was director Clint Eastwood's second Western (the first being High Plains Drifter). It was relatively successful at a time when Western films were losing favor with the movie-going public, yet the film strays out of the familiar territory of previous classic Westerns. It does share marginal similarities to films such as Rio Bravo, The Magnificent Seven, or Shane, but The Outlaw Josey Wales fuses Sergio Leone's dirty, gritty version of the Old West with the expansive vision of a mid-nineteenth century frontier populated by common people -- farmers, ranchers, and other settlers who attempt to wrest a living out of the new, raw land of America, or on the obverse side of the coin, Native Americans struggling to survive as their ancestral land is stolen and their way of life destroyed.
Against this American landscape, Clint Eastwood gives us a character, haunted by the tragic death of his son and wife, who tries mightily to withdraw from society. Unlike his iron hard, mythical persona in The Man With No Name series, Eastwood's Josey Wales seeks equal measures of vengeance and solitude, but cannot emotionally reconcile himself to such a lonely and bitter existence. The castoffs and disenfranchised folk who gather around him become his new family.
The cast delivers at least competent, sometimes excellent, performances. Sandra Locke does a nice turn in her short role as a fey waif from Kansas who falls hard for Josey Wales; John Vernon, as the ambiguous turncoat who rode with Wales and the other guerillas, is suitably steely and stern; and the wily Cherokee, Chief Dan George -- who only bested this role once, with his performance as the Cheyenne, Old Lodge Skins, in Little Big Man -- simply owns every scene he is in.
The story has the grand, epic sweep of a great American Western, complete with gunfights, showdowns with bloodthirsty villains, and panoramic scenery, all ably filmed by cinematographer Bruce Surtees. His lensing masterfully captures the light of the late autumn landscapes, the dusty brown prairies, and the mostly weathered faces of the heroes and villains who populate the rugged country settings. Surtees' photography is well-served on the new Blu-ray release. The last DVD transfer was a decent standard definition offering, but the new HD remastering is visually stunning.
The Blu-ray 1080p image is remarkably close to my memory of the theatrical release. Fine grain is present, more noticeable in some of the dark scenes, but never entirely gone, preserving the look of the original film. Colors are rich and deep. The red and yellow burst of fall foliage, the fabric and stitching of the Civil War era uniforms and civilian clothing, and the shots ranging from close-ups to distant views, are all strikingly detailed. Flesh tones look natural, not boosted. Some of the night scenes are exceptionally dark, with faces seemingly floating in the blackness with no background detail, but I believe that is how the scenes were lit. It's an all-around great, highly filmlike transfer.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is first rate for a mid-seventies film. Dialogue is clear and well-centered most of the time, only occasionally muffled during loud action sequences. There is not a great deal of surround action, but when it does occur it can be startling. Gunshots crack and zing realistically, sometimes shooting from front to rear speakers, and thunderous hoof beats match the onscreen action, moving towards or away from the viewer. Equally impressive is the movie soundtrack written by Jerry Fielding, an uncompromising composer who earlier scored Eastwood's The Enforcer and The Gauntlet. The dense, slightly dissonant score is hauntingly beautiful in the HD audio format, and its unobtrusive elegance becomes more evident after repeated viewings.
The extras include two older featurettes from the DVD release, Hell Hath No Fury: The Making of The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Eastwood in Action. A new featurette entitled Clint Eastwood's West, and an audio commentary by Eastwood's biographer, Richard Schickel, round out the supplementary materials. The short features include comments from director Frank Darabont, and actors Morgan Freeman and Kevin Costner, among others. Eastwood, always an affable interviewee, provides a few humorous anecdotes and stories about his Westerns, and discusses some of his film-related philosophy. The Blu-ray is housed in a so-called digibook (reminds me a bit of a child's Little Golden Book) that contains a glued-in, full-color, thirty-two-page booklet. It offers a decent bit of information about the movie, and a fairly detailed section on Eastwood's directorial and acting career.
The Outlaw Josey Wales is not the equal of director and star Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven -- his dark and powerful summing up of all his previous Westerns -- but it is an early template for that movie, and a lighter and funnier picture that has held up well over the past thirty-five years. It is a joy to revisit from time to time.
More than likely, most of the folks reading this review have, like me, watched the film multiple times, and it's a foregone conclusion that you will be grabbing the latest and greatest high-definition incarnation of The Outlaw Josey Wales the moment it's available for purchase. For everyone else, I promise you that the Blu-ray remaster is the way to go.
Review content copyright © 2011 Russell Engebretson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Catalan)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (German)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Italian)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 136 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated PG