"Sometimes, trouble just follows a man."
People have been debating which Western movie is the best one ever made since the days of Broncho Billy Anderson. OK, so which one really is the best Western of all? "Stagecoach," "Red River," "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon," "High Noon," "Shane," "The Searchers," "Rio Bravo," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," "Unforgiven," "Tombstone," either version of "3:10 to Yuma" or "True Grit"? The front-runners go on and on. For my money, "The Outlaw Josey Wales" (1976) is as good as they get.
Directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, clearly the only actor since John Wayne to have assumed the mantle of ultimate Western hero, "The Outlaw Josey Wales" demonstrates every characteristic that marks a legendary film about the Old West. It features the laconic loner in the white hat, the rousing shoot-outs, the rescues in the nick of time, the glorious outdoor scenery, the colorful cast of supporting characters, and, of course, the inevitable pretty girl. Add a touch of sentiment and a dose of soul to the stirring action, and you get a quintessential Western and an extraordinary motion picture.
The story begins in the waning years of the American Civil War, Josey Wales a peace-loving farmer with wife and child. But a marauding band of Red Legs, cutthroats working for the Union and led by a man named Terrill (Bill McKinney), attack and kill his family and burn his house. Seeking revenge, Josey joins a group of Rebel guerrillas in the hope of catching up with the villains. It doesn't happen. The War ends, and the law puts a price on Josey's head for being among the few men not to surrender to the North. Instead, he heads West--Southwest, to be exact, perhaps to Mexico, through the Indian Nations and down to Texas, he isn't sure. Ironically, the very man Josey is seeking, Terrill, heads up the posse assigned to track him down, accompanied by one of Josey's former friends, a man named Fletcher (John Vernon).
On his journey, Josey acquires a reputation as a notorious gunfighter, most of it justified, some of it not. In addition, he meets up with a rich variety of castaways, who, despite Josey's penchant for independence, insist one by one upon tagging along with him. At first it's a young soldier (Sam Bottoms); then it's an aged Indian (Chief Dan George); a young Indian woman (Geraldine Keams); an elderly lady (Paula Trueman); her beautiful granddaughter (Sandra Locke); and, finally, a mean red hound that Josey continually abuses with his expectorations. Josey also encounters on the trail veteran character actors Royal Dano, John Russell, Woodrow Parfrey, and Sheb Wooley (from Eastwood's old "Rawhide" days), as well as Will Sampson as a tribal leader, Ten Bears.
Phil Kaufman (whom Eastwood replaced as director of the film) and Sonia Chernus wrote the screenplay based on the novel "Gone to Texas" by Forrest Carter. Jerry Fielding ("The Wild Bunch," "Scorpio," "The Enforcer," "Semi-Tough") wrote the music.
"The Outlaw Josey Wales" combines the easy pace and amiable humor of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" with the grand, sweeping vistas of "Jeremiah Johnson"; and it throws in some of the picaresque adventure of "Little Big Man" with a lot of the mythic heroism of "A Fistful of Dollars."
But Eastwood's hero is more than a "Man With No Name" coming out of nowhere. We know who Josey Wales is, we know his background, and we know his motivations. He's bigger than life, certainly, but he is also a troubled fellow with genuine doubts and limitations. Indeed, it's his very indecisiveness that is indirectly one of his most favorable qualities, especially as the movie proceeds, since it is because of his hesitations that he finds new acquaintances and confronts new experiences.
There is nothing profound about "The Outlaw Josey Wales," no heavy messages, deep psychological insights, or intense social issues at stake. It's just welcome entertainment, straightforward Hollywood filmmaking at its best.
Using a dual-layer BD50 and MPEG-4/AVC encoding, the WB video engineers do a good job transferring the movie to Blu-ray disc in its original aspect ratio, 2.40:1. The image quality is not quite so vivid or detailed as some other HD films, but it conveys as fine a sense of realism as any. The definition ranges from average at worst to excellent, a little soft in some scenes, with colors that are mostly natural, the greens, browns, and yellows particularly lifelike. Facial tones are sometimes a bit intense, there's a modicum of inherent print grain visible at all times, and the overall picture is somewhat dark, owing, no doubt, to Eastwood's and director of photography Bruce Surtees's desire for capturing natural lighting conditions. In other words, it looks on disc pretty much the way I remember it in a theater.
Warners use lossless DTS-HD Master Audio to reproduce the film's soundtrack in a 5.1 remix. There is both depth and clarity to the sound, tremendous deep bass, an exceptionally wide left-to-right stereo spread in the front speakers, and good channel separation in the back. Indeed, one would swear when listening to this remix that the engineers had originally made it specifically for five-channel reproduction, with the surrounds used to advantage in gun battles, musical ambience, and environmental noises. What's more, there is a strong transient response involved and some terrific impact. Yes, the 1976 soundtrack still gives away its age in occasional lapses into hardness and nasality, but on the whole it's quite attractive.
There's a welcome collection of bonus materials on the disc. The first of these is a new audio commentary by film critic and historian Richard Schickel, whose words are spare and informative. Next comes a newly made featurette, "Clint Eastwood's West," twenty-nine minutes, in widescreen and HD that covers the actor-director's career, especially in Westerns. Then, we find two vintage featurettes, "Hell Hath No Fury: The Making of The Outlaw Josey Wales," thirty minutes in non-anamorphic widescreen and standard definition, and "Eastwood in Action," eight minutes in standard screen and standard def.
After those items we get thirty-five scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish spoken languages; French, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Spanish subtitles; and English, German, and Italian captions for the hearing impaired.
Finally, because this is a Blu-ray Book package, we have the disc attached to the back cover of a handsome, thirty-six page, hardbound book of text and pictures.
Some years ago, my best friend, a professor of film, told me flat-out he considered "The Outlaw Josey Wales" the best Western ever made. I hadn't looked at it that way. He said Eastwood did nothing particularly new in the film, but like Orson Welles years earlier, he combined all the best ingredients that came before him in a new, fascinating, and highly captivating way. For him, I guess you could say "The Outlaw Josey Wales" was the "Citizen Kane" of Westerns. Although I wouldn't go quite that far, I still love the film.
"I reckon so."