The Outlaw Josey Wales (Warner Bros., 1976)
Clint Eastwood and the Old West go together like Adam Sandler and dick jokes, so if you aren’t a film buff or a Western aficionado, all of Clint’s cowboy flicks can be hard to tell apart; if you aren’t looking closely, it might seem like he spent the ’70s doing nothing but riding horses or rasping “Make my day” in Dirty Harry sequels. But a niche is a niche for a reason; Eastwood was damn good at this stuff, and while most of his Westerns were pretty solid, some are better than others. The Outlaw Josey Wales rides near the head of the pack.
Synopsis: As The Outlaw Josey Wales, five-time Academy Award winner Clint Eastwood is ideally cast as a hard-hitting, fast-drawing loner, recalling his “Man with No Name” from his European Westerns. But unlike that other mythic outlaw, Josey Wales has a name — and a heart.
After avenging his family’s brutal murder, Wales is on the lam, pursued by a pack of killers. He travels alone, but a ragtag group of outcasts (including Sondra Locke and Chief Dan George) is drawn to him — and Wales can’t leave his motley surrogate family unprotected. Eastwood’s skills behind and in front of the camera connected with audiences for its humor and tenderness as well as its hair-trigger action.
Video: I’ve yet to be disappointed with the video quality in a Warner digibook Blu-ray, and Josey Wales is no exception. They had their work cut out for them with Josey, which is not only 35 years old, but full of poorly lit shots that would have been easy to coat with digital noise. Instead, this transfer remains faithful to the film, keeping the desert shots bright and bleached (while retaining an appropriate amount of grain) and letting shadowed interior shots and campfire scenes wallow in their inky black tones. Cinematographer Bruce Surtees did some smart work here (and pulled off some surprisingly arty shots for an Eastwood movie), and it’s given its just due here.
Audio: It’s an archival title, so you know the drill — don’t expect Michael Bay-style audio pyrotechnics. But Josey Wales delivers an immersive, full-bodied 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack that places you solidly in the action without being showy about it. Surround effects are minimal, but the score and ambient noise are given sufficient room to breathe without intruding on the dialogue. (Personally, I wished the music had a little less room — Jerry Fielding’s score earned a Grammy nomination, but I think it’s the one consistently irritating element of the movie; it often beats you over the head with unnecessary emotional cues.)
Special Features: You get a handsomely designed digibook, containing essays, artwork, and trivia, as well as a few holdovers from the DVD (the theatrical trailer and the featurettes Hell Hath No Fury: The Making of The Outlaw Josey Wales and Eastwood in Action), plus new audio commentary from film critic and Eastwood documentarian Richard Schickel, and a new (and, frankly, rather inessential) featurette, Clint Eastwood’s West. Not the biggest pile of extras that was ever attached to a 35th anniversary reissue, but it’ll do.
Bottom Line: Not all of Wales works. Most of Eastwood’s scenes with Sandra Locke are unintentionally funny, and Wales’ big showdown with Ten Bears (a quietly menacing Will Sampson) is derailed with a wobbly monologue that tries too hard to hammer home the movie’s anti-war message. But these are minor complaints with a film that manages to blend laugh-out-loud humor (the way Josey puts an end to the barge pursuit is brilliantly underplayed, and Chief Dan George is consistently funny) with grueling, horrific violence. Eastwood lingers over the movie’s misery, but there’s no joy in it; it’s a cross for the viewer to bear along with Josey, a ruthlessly efficient merchant of death who takes no joy in the delivery. Even in the climactic showdown between our hero and his pursuers, there’s no catharsis, because the conflict at Wales‘ heart isn’t about good and evil, it’s about the need for violence weighed against its terrible cost. Pretty surprising stuff for a movie adapted from a Klansman’s book about a guy who does more shooting than talking.