Video Graveyard: A monthly look at classic and underrated films.
They don’t make many Westerns nowadays, and the ones that are made are little-seen by the movie-going public.
The reasons for this decline in popularity would take more time to go into than I have here, but just because the Western is a dying art form doesn’t mean that the Westerns of the past aren’t enjoyable entertainments anymore.
Westerns are also of interest these days because they present iconic images and stories that have, more or less, disappeared from the cinematic landscape.
Clint Eastwood’s “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976) is one of these kinds of Westerns, a marvelous and exhilarating film that hasn’t lost its grit or its ability to entertain, despite being over thirty years old.
Eastwood stars as the Josey Wales – a peaceful, Southern farmer who joins the Confederate army after his family is slaughtered by Union guerrillas.
But while his fellow Confederates reluctantly surrender at the end of the war, Wales becomes a fugitive and spends the rest of the film dodging the same guerrillas that killed his family.
Wales is a familiar character for Eastwood, who cut his teeth acting in the TV Western “Rawhide” and in a trilogy of Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns, including the masterful “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (1966).
But whereas Blondie (in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”) didn’t hesitate to kill, Wales, despite being a talented gunfighter, is sick of bloodshed and war, and Eastwood infuses him with a melancholic center that foreshadows his character in “Unforgiven” (1992).
However, unlike some of Eastwood’s more recent films, “Josey Wales” is not devoid of humor or levity.
Chief Dan George gives a wonderful performance as Lone Watie, an old Cherokee chief who meets Wales in a terrifically humorous scene by sneaking up on him in a forest, only to be snuck up on himself by Little Moonlight, an Indian woman Wales rescued from an abusive trader.
As with all Westerns, this one features a host of great action scenes, including a personal favorite of mine where Wales leaps behind a Gatling gun and unleashes hell on an encampment of Union soldiers.
But the film also has a sweet romance between Wales and Laura Lee (Sandra Locke), a quiet, pretty settler on her way to New Mexico with her cantankerous grandma (Paula Trueman).
As a director, Eastwood handles all these disparate elements with the unpretentious assurance of a master storyteller, proving that he is just as skilled behind the camera as he is in front. (Eastwood is a Best Director Oscar nominee this month for “Letter from Iwo Jima.”)
And so, while we can lament that relative dearth of Westerns in the modern day, we can also rejoice in films like “Josey Wales,” films that are both of their time and timeless.
Jeff Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the individual author and not necessarily those of the Collegian.