Clint Eastwood’s career as a director has gone through many stages, from “hey, he’s an actor, that’s not bad” to underground favorite, to Oscar winner, to the foremost prestige picture-maker of the modern era. But while the prestige films seem to float from memory, it’s fair to say that Eastwood’s legacy will reflect heavily on his westerns. And the first film he made that can be called a masterpiece is The Outlaw Josey Wales. Warner Brothers new Blu-ray of the film cements its place as one of the great westerns. Our review of The Outlaw Josey Wales on Blu-ray follows after the jump.
Eastwood plays the titular Wales, who joins up with the South after Northerners burn his house and kill his wife and child. He was a bushwhacker, fighting with Quantrill, and when the war comes to an end his squad is rounded up and taken in as the last of the Southern resistance. But Terrill (Bill McKinney) doesn’t want them released, and with the help of fellow rebel Fletcher (John Vernon), he guns down Josey’s outfit, save Jamie (Sam Bottoms). Wales and Jamie make an escape, but they’re now also being followed by bounty hunters. And Jamie took a bullet.
Wales soon meets Lone Waite (Chief Dan George), an Indian who he is able to sneak up on. The two start as unlikely partners, but a friendship builds – especially when they take in Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams). And when Wales comes across of men trying to sell Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman) and Laura Lee (Sandra Locke) to Indians, the Wales family grows. But all the while Fletcher and Terrill are on his trail.
Like almost every western made after The Wild Bunch, The Outlaw Josey Wales is a post-modern commentary on the western genre. The civil war is a big component of the film, and Wales is an anti-hero figure in the sense that he’s a southerner, but he also acts for justice. The film toys with the conventions of the gunslinger, and though Wales is good, he’s never cut from the same cloth as Randolph Scott or even John Wayne. And that’s part of the fun, the subversion of genre.
Some of this may be old hat by now, but Wales is one of the earlier films (though the great masters of form played with this before) that didn’t turn the Indians of the picture into a looming threat, and mostly treats them as equals. It doesn’t mythologize to the heights of later Westerns like Dances with Wolves, though – which is good. In hindsight, they are treated as perhaps they should be in Westerns. Perhaps some of this comes from Phillip Kaufman, one of the writers on the film, and the original director.
There’s a great cast here, too, with people like Royal Dano and Matt Clark showing up in a forgotten saloon, and the leads are all solid. Eastwood always had an eye, and his use of widescreen here is beautiful – but like most Eastwood efforts – never showy. He has a great sense of landscape, and the film (especially in this restored edition) is gorgeous. The only moment that rankles is the near rape of Laura Lee. It’s an especially rough sequence, and she is stripped down and thrown around for what seems like an eternity. Perhaps it’s the period, but it’s a decidedly uncomfortable moment made more so because Eastwood was involved with Locke at the time, and the two were in a relationship for fourteen years. You throw in Eastwood’s later film Tightrope, and it makes for an interesting reading of the moment. Still, this is a great Western, one that is as engaging as it was upon release, and the Blu-ray is a treasure.
Warner Brothers Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) in a transfer that is one of the best I’ve seen of something from this period. A film that could have been washed out or grainy is given a great restoration, and the film’s soundtrack is remastered into an unobtrusive 5.1 DTS-HD surround mix. There’s a new commentary by Richard Schickel that goes through what makes the film great, and the new featurette “Clint Eastwood’s West” (29 min.) that gets historians like Christopher Frayling, and directors like Frank Darabont to wax on about the director. Then there’s a making of called “Hell Hath No Fury” (30 min.) with interviews with Eastwood, and cast members John Vernon, Sam Bottoms and the star himself (among others), and is narrated by John Millius. This was done in 1999, so it must have been done for the first DVD. Then there’s “Eastwood in Action” (8 min.) a period making-of. Rounding out the set is the film’s theatrical trailer. This comes in Warner Brothers’ Digibook packaging, which means it comes with some pages, but I don’t really like this format because often there’s nothing new compared to the DVD, but comes at a higher price than the non-digibook packaged titles. This one is worth the upgrade, and comes with new content.