After his home is burned and his family murdered, formerly peaceful farmer Josey Wales joins a band of Confederate guerrillas, determined to get his revenge against those that hurt him. But no matter how dark his path, he cannot escape his own decency.
A strong prelude to the elegiac mastery of Unforgiven, this biting, intelligent, intense Western from Clint Eastwood, both as actor and, after he fell out with and fired writer-director Philip Kaufman, director, pitches the virtuous man against the corrupt government as if the Man With No Name possessed a soul. The journey of Josey Wales is from the disillusioned loner, striking out for empty territory, who becomes the father figure again, picking up a band of misfits along the way.
The film is set in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, atrocity has struck the nation and death has become second hand (it allows the reading of the movie as post-Vietnam). The taciturn Eastwood, his face so set it might as well be stone, passing through a scoured landscape of drifting souls, an America scattered to the four winds. Yet, for all his coldness, Wales is a magnet for need, people attracted to some inescapable central humanity in the man. Here is where the film refuses the operatic, almost comic styles of Sergio Leone and Eastwood defines a style of his own — the man beneath the hat. He’s ably assisted by some characterful turns from Chief Dan George as a genial old Indian, Paula Trueman as a grabby old grandma, and love interest Sondra Locke, rescued from rape — a regular motif of rescued-women found in all Eastwood’s films.
As strange a territory as the movie encounters, it still holds to genre traditions. Hot on Wales’ tail are bounty hunters, including the scowling John Vernon, giving the film its momentum, even if it is slender on outright action — the violence is abrupt, with a more shocking recoil. Josey Wales, and his film, are slowly drifting West as if venturing into myth, but this is a tale strong with the sour scent of disenchantment: “We all died in that damn war,” a cowboy muses as he rides into the dusk.
A truly great Western from Clint that is bleakly atmospheric and charming in turns.