The Outlaw Josey Wales: Renegades, Revolvers, and Redemption
To get straight to the matter at hand, Westerns are cool as hell. Tales of larger than life heroes and bandits running from the law, a frenetic mesh between modern action movies, with gunplay, moral ambiguity, and the never-ending forward march of technology, and fantasy, with horse chases, wide open, empty natural spaces, and even the occasional sword. The film we discuss today is not only a Western, but what many would consider to be one of the quintessential Westerns; The Outlaw Josey Wales, starring and directed by Clint Eastwood, and adapted from the novel The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales by Forrest Carter, also known by Asa.
Once a poor farmer, the titular character is sent on a rampage, hunting down and combating the men who destroyed his home and took the lives of his family in a senseless act of violence, becoming one of the greatest gunmen to ever have spurs on their boots. However, when his fellow guerilla soldiers surrender, he maintains the fight alone, leading his pursuers on a wild chase, headed by the man who is responsible for the deaths of those he loved. Now, those of you who have seen the movie might be holding out some reservations thus far, because I haven’t mentioned something important to the film; Josey Wales fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, a rare example in history of a side that was without a doubt the wrong one, as they rebelled in an effort to keep up the abominable practice of slavery upon which their economy rested, valuing their profits as more than worth the life and liberty of African Americans. It is true, his guerilla unit came from Mississippi and did battle with the Kansas militia troops fighting for the Union. But the film manages to do something that so few movies set in the same period do; create a rebel character that is heavily sympathetic as a protagonist without becoming Neo-Confederate propaganda. Josey Wales was a poor man who worked his own land, troubled no one, and certainly didn’t have any slaves. He was a simple man, and lost everything to a band of pro Union militiamen known as red legs, which during the conflict committed some of the worst acts during the entire war, massacring innocents and destroying livelihoods purely for the reason that they lived in a state that was pro-Confederacy. So Josey rose up against the men who thought they could take without consequence, and the government that refused to condemn the actions taken in its name. The film follows Josey as he learns more and more about the world around him, and meets characters of many different races and backgrounds and accepts them as they come, reaching the core of the story. A group of people, made victims by systems and men with power, find solace in one another, forgiving their faults and what they might have done before, looking past their preconceived notions, and forming bonds stronger than blood, or the physical and cultural differences they might have. The score, camera work, and set design all work in tandem to create an unforgettable experience that captures the majesty and wildness of the land Josey and his companions travel. And lastly, in terms of bad-ass one liners so characteristic of this genre, this film is second to none. This movie tells an amazing story, and does so in an incredibly competent and compelling way, and it’s a joy to behold.
As for any flaws with the movie itself, the only ones present to my eyes are those so characteristic of the Western genre. A certain degree of realism and historical accuracy is sacrificed when a lone gunslinger blasts through hordes of enemies single handedly. But as stated before, this is almost essential to what Westerns are, legends about an era gone by, with larger than life figures and sensationalized events. So, in this regard I think much can be forgiven. Despite the timeless quality of Clint Eastwood’s adaptation, the real point of contention for me in regards to viewing this work with the advantage of hindsight is the source material of the film, the novel that started it all. It is not well known among many that Forrest Carter never truly existed, and that it was the pen name of Asa Carter, a notorious segregationist and white supremicist, connected to a repertoire of anti-minority groups and causes. After failing to win the election for governor of Alabama, he fled to Texas, leaving behind everything including his old family, and assumed the identity of a part-Cherokee novelist. I’d like to take a moment here to note that no one involved in making the movie adaptation had any idea of the author’s true identity or past crimes. Given the author’s past, one might expect the book to be wildly different and significantly less tolerant and open, but truth be told it’s the same story, about a diverse group of Americans forming a new family, and a new life, finding hope in a world that had brutalized them, and taking solace in one another. Even when he died and the news of his true identity broke to some degree, it was hard to associate this beautiful story with a man who once wrote speeches for the incredibly bigoted governer of Alabama, who pushed for segregation for the duration of his term, George Wallace. Asa Carter never faced justice for any of his crimes, and while he did suffer, publicly denounced both before and after his death, I am not convinced that counts as atonement for what he did. His choices during his life were repugnant and incessantly born of hatred of others, and after reading the facts for themselves, the audience can and should pass judgment on his character for it. But it cannot be denied that virtually all of his work after his name change, despite degrees of ignorance or appropriation due to his assumed half-Cherokee heritage, championed tolerance in some way, none more so than The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales. I am not arguing for any member of the audience to find his past any less egregious, but if change to any degree is possible for a man like that, I would like to think it’s possible for just about anyone. That idea, along with this wonderful movie about an ex-farmer in a perpetually bad mood finding a family that he can’t help but care for and who accept him as he is, make this movie just as relevant today as it ever was, and are some of the things that give me hope for the sunrise.