The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

Dir. Clint Eastwood. Starring Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, Bill McKinney

My favorite piece of film criticism from the past five years or so is probably Angelica Jade Bastien’s review of The Beguiled, and if it’s not my favorite it’s the one I spend the most time thinking about. When The Beguiled was released, the film was quickly chastised for getting rid of the Black characters in that Civil War drama, removing characters from the original text as well as the original film adaptation by Don Siegel. Bastien writes:

Much of the criticism of the film has hinged on the idea that by exorcising a character like Hallie, race itself doesn’t exist within the landscape of the film. But blackness and racism in general can never be fully removed from stories set in the South, even if black characters themselves are not present.

From there, Bastien details how the white women of The Beguiled find themselves filling roles which were traditionally given to Black people. (It is worth noting that the thrust of the article is more about the representation of the Southern belle in film, and especially through the lens of Bastien favorite Bette Davis.) For example, the belles of The Beguiled do not have slaves anymore; they are forced to maladroitly farm the land, and a garden which would otherwise have been kept neatly by Black hands now rests in chaos now that white hands are meant to tend to it. What Bastien is suggesting, in other words, is that we can study from omission in film. This is not a revolutionary call to action or anything, seeing as studying from omission is something you can find in any mid-level university English course. What it calls critics to do (especially white people like myself) is to ask where people of color are in a story, especially when that story is set in a time and place where their presence is to be expected. What is the film doing when it asks us to focus primarily on whiteness, or to see whiteness as a generic starting point, and does it sow seeds within itself which complicate matters? For Bastien, who has the wisdom to see what the film says and what an auteur intends to say separate entities, The Beguiled is a text which can critique a type of convenient antebellum Southern myth which has happened to creep into the postbellum years until it is as inexorable as kudzu.

I also agree with Bastien that not every film must be intersectional, and that some filmmakers would do better to leave off:

Could The Beguiled have taken a more unflinching approach to the history of the Civil War-era South and its lingering scars that affected black people most acutely? Undoubtedly. But Coppola isn’t the filmmaker to do so—her greatest strength and weakness has always been her myopia.

What to do, then, with The Outlaw Josey Wales?

Before and during the opening credits, the film is set in the Civil War. After those credits, the war has just ended. Throughout the rest of the film, the war is very much in the rearview mirror. A ferryman openly notes that for some men, you ought to sing “Dixie” and for others you ought to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” an ethos which basically guides the film. In the film’s first sequence, Josey’s wife and son are murdered by Jayhawk guerrillas under the command of Terrill (McKinney). Later on we meet some Kansans in Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman) and Laura Lee (Sondra Locke) who lost family to Bushwhackers; that Josey Wales was first recruited to fight by Bloody Bill Anderson, probably the most violent Bushwhacker of them all, and fought through the end of the war of the Confederate side is not lost on Sarah. At the end of the film, Josey’s former commander, Fletcher (John Vernon) comes face to face with him for the first time since the day where Fletcher’s command was massacred after surrendering their arms. Fletcher, who has been part of the group of men responsible for tracking down Josey—though, to be sure, his efforts have been halfhearted at most—reminds Josey that the war is over. Josey replies that “I guess we all died a little in that damned war” and then rides off into the sunset. Notably, as this conversation is going on, blood from Josey’s last fight with Terrill and his command is now dripping onto his boot; in short, Fletcher is barely right when he says that the war is over now.

It’s a busy movie. Josey seems to find himself in trouble more often than not, and that trouble seems to be solved most frequently at the muzzle of a gun. He doesn’t always kill—in one scene he snipes the rope holding a ferry in place in order to get away from a group of Terrill’s men, a choice which results in zero casualties—but most of them time that’s the solution to his problems. For someone who’s trying to make it through the postwar years by his lonesome, he picks up quite a few hangers-on. At first, that’s a young member of his troop, perpetually the Kid (Sam Bottoms), who escapes the massacre with Josey but dies from a wound he picked up there some time later. Then it’s one Indian, a wizened Cherokee named Lone Watie (George) whose name is interestingly similar to a Cherokee Confederate brigadier, Stand Watie; then it’s another, a young woman named Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams). Once they pick up Sarah and Laura Lee and meet some amiable people in a little town named Santa Rio, Josey is about ten seconds from being named the sheriff of this impromptu hamlet. Yet there are no Black people, no freedmen or former slaves who join this group.

What initially brings Josey and Lone Watie together is that they both share a grievance against the government. Josey is wanted by his government, after initially rebelling against it because rogue actors presumably working on its behalf burned down his property and killed his family while he was plowing one day. Lone Watie’s family died on the Trail of Tears; even his horse, he says, is probably working in Kansas somewhere. Is it strange to think that former slaves might also have a grievance against their government, which left them in bondage for so long? The movie goes to some pains to show how race doesn’t seem to matter much to Josey and his little band. Sarah calls Lone a “redskin, no offense,” and he says none taken; later he calls her a “paleface, no offense,” and she says none taken. (This is basically a Fox News segment about all of us just saying the words once we get permission from one dude made to represent an entire group, thus only snowflakes will get their feelings hur.) Josey becomes blood brothers in a scene with a Cherokee chief, Ten Bears (Will Sampson), after promising that the new settlers on this land will not infringe on the Cherokee in any way. (I don’t mean to degrade Ten Bears’ skill as a negotiator, but he agrees to a deal with a white man faster than any Indian I can imagine after *gestures vaguely at 250 years of history* as a precedent.) Although it’s a little repetitive and sometimes feels longer, the film is only 135 minutes long, and, as I find myself saying over and over again, a movie is under no obligation to be about what a viewer wants it to be about. If the movie doesn’t want to include Black people as part of this group of desperate anti-government survivors, it certainly doesn’t have to. Thus we get a movie which is about white people and Native Americans, in some numbers, and so we have to deal with a movie set in Missouri and Texas in the mid-late 1860s which literally does not have a single Black person. Seeing as that’s not historically accurate (or even historically feasible), it’s worth asking, in the manner that Bastien does, why this Civil War story has erased its Black people, and to tease out why that decision has been made. What is the film after?

What the film is after, ideologically speaking, is a statement about how the government trickles down in violence and adversely affects the lives of the people it should be protecting. This is Josey Wales’ origin story as well as Lone Watie’s; the government gives Terrill and his Redlegs the authority to operate with total impunity; the lawlessness of the frontier which nearly gets Sarah and Laura Lee sold into white slavery is the fault of the government as well, for creating the situation which allows the comancheros the latitude to pillage, rape, and slaughter. Without Black people in this story, no one in the film has to interrogate what it means to have fought for the Confederacy (or the Union, for that matter). Josey’s personal war is the one at the center of the film, but it requires the context of the Civil War to make it legible, just as Gone with the Wind requires the Civil War to make Scarlett’s pair of rises and falls legible. The film’s decision to then strip the context of its own context is remarkable. When you erase Black people from the story of the Civil War (which has been at the heart of conservative influences on history education), then all of a sudden that interpretation of the Civil War as wrongs done by misguided brothers against one another makes sense.

That story that Shelby Foote tells about a treed reb who tells his Yankee captor that he’s fighting because you’re down here gets taken out of context a little bit in the discourse; Foote is discussing how it must have been easier to convince Southerners to take up arms than to take up Northerners, at least until Lincoln shifts the aims of the war to eradicate slavery. Yet there is that one itchy little clause at the end of Foote’s story, in which he refers to Johnny’s response to Billy as a “pretty satisfactory answer.” It’s only a “pretty satisfactory answer” if this is such a fight between white people alone, but when the war is the result of racial slavery lasting hundreds of years in America, it’s not any kind of satisfactory.

That kind of colorblindness—and to reiterate, that blindness is outright elision—in The Outlaw Josey Wales is what allows the film to suggest that Josey Wales and Lone Watie have gotten the same kind of raw deal from the United States government. The literal details of what happened to those men match up pretty well, but think about for more than half a second and the comparison is ludicrous. What happens to Josey is a tragedy, an enormous miscarriage of justice fueled by the weakling policies of weakling antebellum politicans. But to suggest that his situation mirrors Lone’s, who is a survivor of centuries-long genocide, is risible. It would be more obviously risible within the film if the world were not bisected neatly into people whose families came from Europe and people whose families always hailed from America, but if it included the largest minority group at the time, people whose families were forcibly brought from Africa. In keeping Black people out of the film, Eastwood gets his parable about the sins of government overreach and the benefits of leaving honest people alone. He also makes it fundamentally valueless, because a parable which does not reflect the lived reality of its audience is all cipher.

I guess it’s worth it to say that Bruce Surtees’ cinematography is absolutely stunning, with great command of color and shadow. Eastwood packs in a few shots reminiscent of The Searchers in the last ten to fifteen minutes, totally beautiful stuff. But after watching the film and seeing what it has to say, it’s hard to care about command of shadows.

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