Saturday, March 7, 2015

War in The Outlaw Josey Wales

I have for years thought that I needed to catch up with The Outlaw Josey Wales... but it turns out I have seen it. I don't know how long ago, but I distinctly remembered almost every scene, and knew the general outline of what was going to happen next. I also remembered that I didn't think much of the film, that it seemed a pretty standard Western story (which probably meant that I saw it when I was much younger as well, as this story isn't especially common.)

I have to say that I'm really glad that I watched it again because it has certainly gone up in my estimation in this viewing.

Clint plays the title character who finds himself in the middle of the Civil War after a Union troop destroys his house, rapes and kidnaps his wife and kills his son. When the war finishes and he finds himself on the losing side, he cannot pledge allegiance to the Union, and finds himself an outlaw, being chased across the land, from Missouri to Texas.

But my question about this film comes in the short introduction that Clint, in his current aged appearance, makes to the film. He says that it is "about the destructiveness of war"... which puzzled me. There is a brief war montage at the beginning of the film, but almost all of the film takes place in the aftermath of the Civil War. I believe the director, so it caused me to reconsider what this film was really about. Suppose it was all about war, how would it be read?

First, the situation comes as a result of war. Clint's family is killed and he is thirsty for revenge because a group of men was given licence to ravage uncontrollably, which really would happen only in wartime. The betrayal of his men comes from the hatred and distrust of even honorable men that occurs in wartime. Clint is declared an outlaw because he refused to put the war behind him. Everywhere he went the bodies stacked up because no matter where he was the war followed him. Even though many had put the war behind them, he didn't because his thirst for revenge hadn't been fulfilled, and there were many who wanted to take revenge on him. The large price on his head was also an aftermath of the war, in which war crimes were overlooked (or even rewarded with promotions). Because of this continuing war, Clint could never settle down, never relax, never create a new homestead.

There are signs of peace between individuals. Hatreds can be set aside between individuals, and battles can be agreed to be avoided between individual leaders. But this cannot happen, it is agreed, between governments. Governments must fight and kill the innocent because they have no choice. [spoiler]At the end, the man whom Clint thought betrayed him declared his peace, saying, "The war is over." But this is only because the government's official records declared the outlaw dead. War can only end in the face of a lie. [/spoiler]

How does this fit into Clint Eastwood's filmography and politics? I think it is clear that Clint supports the individual right of violence, but opposes any institutional violence. Institutional violence kills too many innocents, ruins the independent nuclear family/homestead ideal, and destroys lives long past the war's cessation. Clint is close to a libertarian, seeing government as a largely malevolent force, creating a context in which the individual is forced to be an outlaw to survive.

While the ethics and politics I might question (especially any support of redemptive violence), I think that this film presents such an ideal in a marvelous way. It is often subtle, and the brutality of the story is often softened by the beauty of the landscape, not unlike The Searchers. The cinematography and pacing is certainly reflective of Leone's influence, although Eastwood doesn't have the patience of Leone to really develop an intense suspense. This film is about as close as I've seen Eastwood get to an epic film, in both theme and size of landscape. 

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