Outlaw Josey Wales, The (1976)

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), directed by and starring Clint Eastwood.

Westerns fell out of favor in the 1970s. Clint Eastwood continued making them and they are all worth seeing: gritty and real-looking but with heroic action plots. When seeing his movies I always have a shock of adjustment: it sometimes seems he is using scenes and dialog as blunt instruments, all fraught with drama and emotion and message. But inevitably he pulls you into that universe.

"Revenge" has been a continuing theme in his movies, a passion we all understand but still recognize as somehow dark and unworthy. Sometimes revenge is sweet (High Plains Drifter (1973)), sometimes it is dirty (Unforgiven) and sometimes it entails complete self sacrifice (Gran Torino). In The Outlaw Josey Wales we have a more complicated structure: the man who goes to war for revenge, then tries to escape to peace and freedom, still pursued by the objects of his revenge until he deals with them. After that cathartic moment he finds forgiveness and reconciliation.

In his journey West Josey picks up the lonely and oppressed, the other losers in the war of life, and together they try to find a new paradise in the wilderness. He becomes their Knight and is particularly good at rescuing women in dire straits, performing Herculean feats of gunplay. He makes peace with the Comanche because they have common cause against the White Man and his governments.

It's very moving. Josey is more or less dead after his family is killed at the start of the story and the war has not brought him back to life. It's only when he starts picking up the others and caring for them that he comes alive again. "Dyin' ain't much of a livin', boy" he says to one of the bounty hunters, a truth he well knows.

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