The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Netflix review #9: The Outlaw Josey Wales

It would have been hard for Clint Eastwood to improve on his directorial debut in the genre that made him a star, High Plains Drifter. Three years later, he made an even better western with The Outlaw Josey Wales, a Civil War western that was one of the best to come out of the 1970s and genre as a whole.

The Squinty One plays title character Josey Wales, a Missouri farmer looking for revenge after his family is brutally murdered by a gang of Kansas Redlegs, renegade Union troopers, and his farm burned down. He joins a guerilla outfit of Confederate raiders, spending the war wreaking havoc on Union forces. But it's late in the war, and Robert E. Lee has surrendered. Convinced by their commander, Fletcher (a great part for John Vernon) to surrender they turn themselves in only to be massacred. The one man who didn't go? Josey Wales of course.

Now with a bounty of $5,000 on his head, Wales heads west into the Indian Nations and Texas to escape, building a quirky, motley crew of a family along the way of other people in equally troubling situations. All the while, a group of Redlegs is on his trail, and making it worse, the bounty has brought anyone who can handle a gun out looking for some easy money.

Eastwood's previous American westerns are all good in one way or another, but other than HPD I don't really consider them classics. Working as director and star here, Eastwood really puts everything together. The story is good, dealing with a subject most westerns don't deal with. There are very few Civil War movies and fewer that talk about the border wars of Kansas and Missouri. The location filming is dead on, including Arizona, Utah and California, giving the feeling that these characters are actually traveling. Jerry Fielding's score earned him an Oscar nomination, and it's a good one, certain parts reminiscent of The Wild Bunch score.

Action-wise, Eastwood's Josey Wales is a killer who racks up quite a kill count but is humane at the same time. He looks out for those around him, even if he may pretend to be the tough guy. The director packs plenty of gunplay in as Wales deals with Redlegs, Comanches, bandits, bounty hunters, and a ruthless gang of Comancheros. The finale is the most memorable as Wales single-handedly faces at least 20 Redlegs, getting some help after the initial showdown. Another couple of great exchanges, Wales talking with Comanche chief Ten Bears, and one of the best dialogue exchanges to ever come out of a western, watch it here.

Talking about the cast, it's about as dead-on as a western could be. Eastwood's a given, he's always great. Chief Dan George is perfectly cast as Lone Watie, an old Cherokee man Josey meets on the trail. An unlikely friendship develops between two men who have more in common than you'd originally think. Sondra Locke plays Laura Lee, a young woman traveling west with her family who Josey rescues from Comancheros. John Vernon is the quasi-villain as Fletcher, a man who tried to help his troopers surrender to Union forces only to see them massacred. Fletcher is ordered to hunt his old partner and kill him, even as his gut tells him otherwise. Super 70s villain Bill McKinney is Terrill, leader of the Redlegs hunting Wales. Was there a better villain than McKinney in the 70s? I can't think of one.

It's not just the leads that are strong, the whole supporting cast stands out. Paula Trueman, Sam Bottoms, and Geraldine Kearns are three people who join the outlaw on the trail, Trueman is Grandma Sarah, Bottoms is Jamie, a wounded guerilla fighter, and Kearns is Moonlight, a Navajo woman. Just some of the other supporting roles include Woodrow Parfrey, Sheb Wooley, Joyce Jameson, Matt Clark, Charles Tyner, John Davis Chandler, Royal Dano, Will Sampson, John Quade, Richard Farnsworth, and John Russell. You couldn't ask for a better cast.

The DVD is a steal at under $10. Widescreen presentation looks great and special features include a 30-minute making of documentary, "Hell Hath No Fury," with some great cast and crew interviews including Eastwood, an 8-minute featurette made during filming, a trailer, and three or four interactive menus about the cast, crew, and movie background. A western that is good on many levels, definitely give this one a try.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976): ****/****

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