#293) The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)


#293) The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

OR “Union Buster”

Directed by Philip Kaufman Clint Eastwood

Written by Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus. Based on the novel “The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales” (aka “Gone to Texas”) by Forrest Carter.

Class of 1996

The Plot: Following the murder of his wife and son by pro-Union redlegs, Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood) joins pro-Confederate Bushwhackers and fights in the Civil War. When the war ends, Josey is the only one of the guerrillas not to surrender, and is subsequently one of the few survivors of the ensuing massacre. With his former leader Captain Fletcher (John Vernon) and Union Captain Terrill (Bill McKinney) on his trail, Josey rides out of town with a bounty on his head. As he escapes from Missouri to Texas, he is joined by a ragtag group of outsiders, among them: fellow Bushwhacker survivor Jamie (Sam Bottoms), wise Cherokee Lone Watie (Chief Dan George), young Navajo Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams), Kansas transplants Laura Lee (Sondra Locke) and her grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman), and an assortment of character actors from every Western you’ve ever seen. They arrive in Texas, where a final showdown awaits.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Eastwood the director, Eastwood the actor, and Chief Dan George…the actor.

But Does It Really?: If you’re going to pick a Clint Eastwood movie for the Registry, and “Unforgiven” isn’t eligible until 2002, “Josey Wales” is the natural choice. I’m still not entirely sold on its cultural significance, but overall it’s a well-made, entertaining western. The anti-Vietnam parallels aren’t too obvious, and the inherent episodic nature gives the film a nice variety. Even more impressive, the film’s vision isn’t muddled by its well-known production setbacks (more on those later). I give “Josey Wales” a “minor classic” designation among the NFR entries: This isn’t the definitive Clint Eastwood movie, but it’s a well-crafted encapsulation of the man’s strengths as actor and director.

Everybody Gets One: Screenwriter Sonia Chernus was a story assistant on “Rawhide”, the TV western that gave Eastwood his big break. Eastwood and producer Robert Daley hired Chernus to pen the first draft of “Josey Wales” before Philip Kaufman came along. And shoutout to Cissy Wellman and Kyle Eastwood as “the vics”.

Wow, That’s Dated: As is often the case with period pieces, the hairstyles can be a giveaway of the times. Sondra Locke’s in particular looks downright Farrah Fawcett-ian.

Seriously, Oscars?: Despite mixed critical reception, “The Outlaw Josey Wales” became the first Eastwood-directed film to be nominated for an Oscar. Jerry Fielding was up for Best Original Score, losing to Jerry Goldsmith’s work in “The Omen”. Eastwood movies wouldn’t become automatic Oscar bait until “Unforgiven”.

Other notes

  • The big story behind this film: original director Philip Kaufman was fired by Robert Daley during production at the insistence of Clint Eastwood, who frequently clashed with Kaufman on set. Eastwood took over production, alienating crewmembers and infuriating the Directors Guild of America (see “Legacy” below).
  • It’s still unclear what parts of the final cut Kaufman directed, but that pre-credits scene is pretty great. Minimal dialogue, maximum storytelling; we are in for quite a ride.
  • That’s the richly voiced John Vernon as Fletcher. He was no doubt cast in part because of his previous experience with Eastwood on “Dirty Harry”, and was a few years away from his most famous role: Dean Wormer in “Animal House”.
  • So much mistreatment of horses; I’m gonna need to see this movie’s PETA disclaimer.
  • This film has all kinds of character actors roaming around. Keep an eye out for Len Lesser (aka Uncle Leo from “Seinfeld”), Royal Dano (aka Mr. Lincoln), and Matt Clark (aka that guy who’s in everything).
  • This movie really is a testament to Clint’s star power. I don’t care for Clint’s somewhat conservative film persona, but I was rooting for Josey Wales the whole time.
  • How much tobacco juice does Josey go through? Does he have an unlimited supply just off-camera?
  • I was not expecting this film to have such a dark sense of humor, most of it stoically delivered by Chief Dan George.
  • I guess there was too much gunplay in this film, so let’s move on to attempted rape. Critics at the time said this film tested the limits of the PG rating, and they were right.
  • I wouldn’t necessarily call what Josey and Laura Lee have “chemistry”, but there’s enough sparks there to hint at things to come. Sondra Locke’s naturally expressive eyes help sell it.
  • Were Helen Hayes and Jeanette Nolan unavailable to play Grandma Sarah?
  • One last cameo from a recognizable character actor: Will Sampson (aka Chief Bromden from “Cuckoo’s Nest”) as real-life Commanche leader Ten Bears, despite the fact that the real Ten Bears would have been in his mid-70s right after the Civil War.
  • I’m still holding out for one final twist: They were all Civil War reenactors this whole time.


  • Shortly after production wrapped, the Directors Guild of America fined Clint Eastwood $60,000 for firing/replacing Philip Kaufman. The DGA also passed new legislation, stating that no actor or producer can fire a director and take over filming themselves, and that if a director is fired during production, the position will be filled by someone from outside said production. This legislation is still commonly referred to as “The Eastwood Rule”.
  • Philip Kaufman may have been kicked off of “Josey Wales”, but his film career remained steadfast for the next 35 years. Highlights include the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” remake, future NFR entry “The Right Stuff”, and the original treatment for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with George Lucas.
  • Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke started their relationship during production, and stayed together until a very public separation in 1989. They made six films together, including “Sudden Impact” and “Every Which Way But Loose”.
  • Original author Forrest Carter penned a second book: “The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales”, which saw our hero heading down to Mexico to avenge the death of his friends. The book was turned into the film “The Return of Josey Wales”, starring and directed by…Michael Parks?

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