Clint Eastwood fired the original director, Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff), and took over the reins of this project himself. He may have had a point: this brutal, thoughtful western, a near-tragedy about a Civil War veteran whose past comes looking for him, is probably Eastwood''s most mature frontier drama prior to the Oscar winning Unforgiven. Hoping to build a quiet life in a cooperative community of settlers, Eastwood''s Wales blames himself when his enemies attack the homestead, and he has to revert to his warrior instincts to help fend off the threat. The jittery intensity of Sondra Locke (who would be Mrs. Eastwood, at least for a while), and the screen-filling charisma of the late Chief Dan George harmonize beautifully with Eastwood, who had finally figured out how to add depth and texture to his stock-in-trade Man of Steel persona. This one may be too short on action to satisfy fans of Eastwood''s Dirty Harry films, or of the Italian westerns he made with Sergio Leone, but it''s an honorable effort. --David Chute
During the Civil War, Union "Redlegs" attack Southerner Josey Wales''s dirt farm and wipe out his family. Seeking vengeance, Wales throws in with a company of Reb guerrillas. Tagged as a renegade after the surrender, he flees west into the vastness of the Indian Territories, where, quite unintentionally, he finds himself cast as the straight-shooting paterfamilias of an ever-growing, spectacularly motley community of misfits and castaways. Which is to say, Josey''s personal quest for survival and something like peace of mind evolves into a funky, multicultural allegory of the healing of America.
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Clint Eastwood''s 31st film as an actor, 20th as international star, and 5th as director, was the first to win him widespread respect. Critics had grumbled when the producer-star replaced Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) in the director''s chair a week into shooting. They ended up cheering when Eastwood delivered both his most sympathetic performance to date and--with the heroic collaboration of cinematographer Bruce Surtees--an impressive Panavision epic that stresses the scruffiness, rather than the scenic splendors, of frontier life.
Though it''s been honored with a place in the National Film Registry, Josey Wales is good, not great, Eastwood. The big-gun fetishism can get tiresome, and too many characters exist only to serve as six-gun (and at one point Gatling gun) fodder. But mostly the film is agreeably eccentric, and almost furtively sweet in spirit--a key transitional title in the Eastwood filmography, and one of his most entertaining. --Richard T. Jameson
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