Before the dawn of the end of civilization (my hyperbolic way of referring to the advent of streaming services), people like me used to consume films at home on cable television. Commercials were moments to get up and get something to eat, or use the facilities, rather than something that, if present, can be skipped. If you were fortunate, you lived in a house that had premium movie channels. The constant complaint of people with these luxuries, though, was that with these options, there was still nothing to watch. That is why when certain titles came on the regular channels, people were willing to endure ad interruptions to see them. For me, though I was rarely the one picking these things, one of these appointment (quite literally) viewings was The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).
Though The Outlaw Josey Wales is considered a Western, it starts out peaceably. Our title character (Clint Eastwood) is a small-time farmer in Missouri at the start of the Civil War when a pro-Union guerilla unit from Kansas, known as Redlegs, attack his homestead and murder his entire family. They are led by a brutal Jayhawker named Captain Terrill (Bill McKinney), a face that is burned into Josey’s memory. This drives him to get his pistols, hone his shooting, and join up with pro-Confederate counterparts known as Bushwhackers led by William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson (John Russell). His nickname should tell you a bit about this historical person, though his portrayal is surprisingly sympathetic. At any rate, Josey spends the war fighting the Redlegs in an increasingly desperate struggle for his chosen side, though he does not get any closer to Captain Terrill. By the war’s end, with nothing left to do, his remaining compatriots head to the nearest Union camp to surrender, though Josey remains defiant. While the officers converse, the rest are led to an area that turns out to be an ambush. He and one other fellow Bushwhacker, Jamie (Sam Bottoms), intervene, but Jamie is mortally wounded. Before they make their getaway, though, Josey turns the tables on the attackers, getting to the hidden gatling gun and opening fire. His acts earn him a $5,000 bounty, and one of his former commanding officers, Captain Fletcher (John Vernon) agrees to help Captain Terrill track down Josey. Now we know why he is called an outlaw, though it has nothing to do with anything we typically relate with such films. While on the run, he has to dodge not only the army, but several bounty hunters attracted by the large reward. However, he is soon joined by a number of people in his journey. One of these is Lone Watie (Chief Dan George), a Cherokee who originally hoped to collect the reward. Together, they encounter Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams), who saves Josey from another attempt by Lone Watie to earn the bounty. Later, they come across a wagon train that has been attacked by a group of marauders on their way to a new farm near the Texas town of Santa Rio. Josey agrees to help them as escorts to their destination, partially because he is attracted to one of the young ladies among them, Laura Lee (Sondra Locke). Unfortunately, two of their group are later captured by Comanches, and Josey must go to get them back from the native peoples. Doing so secures peace with the Comanche that border the farm upon which they all settle, forming a kind of commune. Hey, it was the 1970s when this was filmed, so they were going with what they knew. At any rate, throughout all this, Captains Fletcher and Terrill had not given up looking for Josey. In Santa Rio, one of the bounty hunters that Josey had contended with spots him among the group passing through to the farm. This brings Fletcher and Terrill to town with their forces. Still, it also gives Josey and company time to prepare the homestead for an invasion. In the ensuing battle, all of Captain Terrill’s men are killed, though he manages to escape. This prompts a wounded Josey to take off after the source of his vengeance quest, chasing him back to Santa Rio. Cornering Captain Terrill, but out of ammunition, Josey ends up killing the Redleg leader with his own sword. Job done, and as anyone else would do in these films, Josey visits the local saloon for a drink. While there, he finds Captain Fletcher there parleying with some other men. He is conversing with some bounty hunters about Josey, pretending to not know his former compatriot. Instead, Captain Fletcher tells them that Josey is dead, which seems to satisfy the bounty hunters. Before heading back to the farm, Captain Fletcher tries to tell Josey that the war is over, and that is basically where the film ends.
In my description of The Outlaw Josey Wales’ plot, I mentioned how it was made in the 1970s. It was released at a time when the country was coming to grips with the end of another conflict, The Vietnam War. As that struggle raged in Southeast Asia, many in the. United States, like hippies, protested the war. I referred to the farm that those who traveled with Josey as forming a “commune” when they arrived at their destination. I describe it as such because it is not the typical community, whose root word is commune, that you see in Westerns. It is a diverse group, to say the least, with non-married peoples carrying on in rather un-Christian ways. I suppose that you might expect this Catholic reviewer to focus on the Bible thumping ways of the group’s matriarch, Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman). Instead, I am going to discuss this community. When you look at the early Church, diversity is something that typified it from the beginning. Jews and Gentiles got together to worship God, something which had been practically unheard of before Christ. As the Gospel spread into Europe, you have the message being spread to peoples who had previously been hostile to any outsider. You can thank the Romans for their leeriness. Yet, as the Word came to be accepted, one of the first things done in these new places was to form still more communities. By this, specifically, I mean religious orders going in and establishing monasteries where people lived in, say it with me, communes. The word simply means a group of people living together and sharing possessions and responsibilities. This exactly defines a religious community. Now, just like their 1960s and 1970s hippie counterparts, it is hard to imagine them taking up weapons to defend their surroundings from those who wished them harm. Indeed, many a monastery were burned by Vikings in the eighth century. There is also the 1970 massacre at Kent State to consider. Then again, the residents of the Santa Rio farm are no hippies, or monks or nuns. Still, Josey wants peace and stability, and these are two things early religious orders pursued as well, they just arrived at them differently.
The Outlaw Josey Wales is considered an example of the anti-hero subgenre of Westerns prevalent at the time of its release. I do not agree with this sentiment. Josey is far more of a sympathetic character than this appellation would suggest. Yes, he is not above violence. At the same time, the goal seems to be to find an escape from this lifestyle, and one into which he reluctantly entered. As such, despite some brief nudity, I recommend this film.