A Requiem for Josey Wales

28 Nov

In 1976, Clint Eastwood directed and starred in “The Outlaw Josey Wales”, which could be considered the last great film of the Western heyday. Obviously, “Dances With Wolves” and “Unforgiven” won Academy Awards in later years, but they came after the popularity of the genre had passed. “The Outlaw Josey Wales” marks the end of an era when Hollywood saw the Western as a major aspect of its production. The next year saw the release of “Star Wars” and the advent of modern Science Fiction. There would be new heroes to fill the minds of kids, and the quick draw cowboy would become a thing of the past. Few of the Science Fiction lovers realized that space and post-apocalyptic earth were mere replacements for the plains and deserts of the American West, and they were watching Western stories with special effects. But, that is another story for another day.

“The Outlaw Josey Wales” is a favorite of many Western lovers for its hero/outlaw who operates in solitude and kills anyone who gets in his way. As Lone Watie, who rides with Josey, says, “I notice when you get to dislikin’ somebody they ain’t around for long neither.” However, this is a misconception of the movie and the meaning behind it. Westerns have been the perfect genre to portray the issues of our world. “High Noon” was about the Red Scare and actions of Joseph McCarthy. “The Searchers” is an exploration into racism. “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” is about the destruction of the West by American society. “The Outlaw Josey Wales” is about the evils of war.

In the beginning, Josey Wales is a simple farmer who witnesses his family being killed in an attack on his land. The Civil War is raging, and gangs under the guise of military action are terrorizing the border of Missouri and Kansas. Josey joins marauders from Missouri to gain revenge on his attackers, Redlegs of Kansas. When the war ends, Josey finds himself an outlaw simply because he was on the losing side. The rest of the movie is an epic chase as Josey is chased by his enemies through Indian Territory and Texas.

This is where the misconception of the movie begins. First, Josey does not kill for the sale of killing. He fights to protect himself and to protect others. He shoots men who are attempting to rape a Native American woman and kills Comancheros who have attacked pioneers from Kansas. Josey also finds himself face-to-face with Ten Bears, a Comanche chief. Instead of fighting, Josey states that “men can live together without butchering one another.” Second, Josey Wales is not the lonely rider of the plains. He rides with marauders during the war, and, as the movie continues, he finds allies along the way:

Jamie – the young man who fought with Josey during the war and died along the trail.

Lone Watie – the Cherokee elder who saw his way of life destroyed just as Josey had.

Little Moonlight – the Native American woman whose life was filled with abuse.

Grandma Sarah and Laura Lee- the pioneers from Kansas attacked by Comancheros.

Rose, Travis, Ten Spot, Kelly and Chato – the only residents of a dead mining town who help rebuild the ranch of Grandma Sarah’s son, who was probably one of the men who attacked Josey’s farm.

“The Outlaw Josey Wales” is not about a lone gunslinger. It is about a man whose life was destroyed by war. His family was taken away, but he found a new family whose lives had also been affected negatively. People who faced tragedy created a new community of happiness and hope on a ranch far away from the pain that drove them there. Unfortunately, Josey’s peace did not last long as his trackers finally arrived. But, the man who thought he was alone learned that he never really was. Captain Terrill, Josey’s archenemy states, “You’re all alone now. Wales.” Lone Watie sticks his rifle out of a window and declares, “Well, he’s not exactly alone.”

At the end of the movie, Josey has killed his enemy but been shot in the process. After lamenting the destruction of war, he rides away bleeding and slightly slumped in the saddle. Did Josey return to the ranch and the love of his new family? Did he ride off into the sunset never to be seen again? Did he die from his wounds? That is left to the imagination, but it really doesn’t matter. In the end, Josey realized that he wasn’t the only victim of war and that he was never really alone.

12 Responses to “A Requiem for Josey Wales”

  1. booksnob November 28, 2011 at 04:17 #

    Ohhhhhh, this is still one of my favourite westerns. I watched this one all the time with my dad when I was small. Many, many years later, I still get sucked into it every time it’s on tv and watch the DVD at least once a year.

    • Tennessean-Historian-Blogger November 28, 2011 at 15:31 #

      Thanks for your comment. I watched it with my dad as well. It is one of the experiences that led me into a love of Western history and a career as a historian.

  2. fekesh May 19, 2012 at 10:36 #

    A couple of things struck me last time I was watching ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’. (Neither of which contradcit anthing you’ve said about it). The first is that while he draws people to him and becomes the centre of a community, as you’ve pointed out, he does so reluctantly. He consistently tires to push people away,but they just keep hanging on. I suspect his reluctance to accept company is a fear of loss, just before the line you quoted from Lone Wati Josey comments that whenever he gets to liking someone they aren’t around for long.
    Another point (and maybe I’m stretching things here a bit) is that we only see Josey bleed twice in the film. Once at the start of his journey when Terrill slashes him with a sword and then again, as you said, just before he kills Terrill, which to me represents the end of his journey. Probably that’s why I’ve always felt that he goes home to the ranch and his new family.
    As you rightly say, Josey Wales isn’t a lone gunman. He’s a family man before the war destroys his family, and I like to think he goes back to being a family man after he kills Terrill and is reconciled with Fletcher. (I like to think that killing Terrill is a chore that Terrill himself forces on Josey Wales while the reconciliation with Fletcher is closer to the heart of what the film’s really about.
    (PS I wonder what becomes of Fletcher? He was sick of the war and wanted to go home, but at the end of the film he seems to have nothing in mind except drifting around).

    • surroundedbyimbeciles May 20, 2012 at 19:39 #

      The bleeding idea is interesting. It begins with a wound and ends with one. That also leads me to believe that the journey had ended (and another reason there should never had been a sequel). Fletcher always interested me. I always had the sense that he was trying to slow the Red Legs down during the chase.

  3. Jim January 10, 2017 at 23:17 #

    I could not refrain from commenting. Very
    well written!

    • Rick January 13, 2017 at 03:34 #

      Thank you

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