"Dyin' ain't much of a livin', boy."
—Josey Wales to doomed bounty hunter
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Among Clint Eastwood's greatest westerns, The Outlaw Josey Wales is a more traditional western story than Eastwood's typical myth-deconstruction efforts (which include Unforgiven and High Plains Drifter). It's a linear story of parallels: One man's quest for both personal revenge and Rebel victory in the midst of warring Civil War factions; one man's sulky efforts at camaraderie and a sense of place in an era of racial brutality and brothers against brothers. Where before Eastwood was the Man With No Name (in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, which included The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), this film gives Eastwood's character a legendary name—The Outlaw Josey Wales is Eastwood's attempt to give his persona a life.
The Civil War is winding down, and Union soldiers are hunting down scattered Confederates. After guerrilla Union marauders (called Red Legs) butcher his family, Josey joins a desperate bunch of Rebels in a last-ditch and bitter denial of Northern victory. When a turncoat betrays the rest of the group, Josey becomes a lone and haunted crusader, a man of instant legend on a series of quests—not least of which is to avenge the murder of his family. Within this setting, Josey wanders from town to town, encountering snake-oil salesmen, displaced Indians, and bounty hunters, gradually assembling a ragtag group of fellow losers. One of the movie's more fascinating subtexts is the way these lost people are drawn to Josey, despite his closed and cynical exterior.
The cast is fun to watch. John Vernon has a major role as Fletcher, and it's nearly impossible to take him seriously after his similarly stone-faced role in Animal House. Watch out for Sondra Locke, who looks both gorgeous and scrawny depending on how the camera looks at her, and also Richard Farnsworth in a bit role.
Josey Wales isn't a perfect film. Sometimes its politics overwhelm its story. I can endure its portrayal of Union soldiers as unredeemably cruel and Confederates as innocent victims of Northern aggression, but the movie strikes a sour note in its few scenes that sermonize Indian injustice (hmmm, Injun-stice?). Chief Dan George—an actual Cherokee general who delivers an otherwise brilliant performance—soliloquizes at one point about the White Man Taking His Land. The scene's saving grace is Josey's all-too-appropriate reaction, which is to walk away and find a place to sleep. Equally, Josey's dialog with Will Sampson's Ten Bears, in which he wonders why everybody can't just get along, is almost worthy of eye-rolling. That being said, the film portrays Indians admirably, as real humans rather than as feather-sporting cigar-store statues.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Warner presents The Outlaw Josey Wales in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The transfer is surprisingly fine, especially when characters are in close-up. Background detail suffers only somewhat, giving the film a slightly soft look in spots. Some scenes appear a bit too dark, but that may be an element of the cinematography. Overall, the transfer is more than I would have expected from a 25-year-old film.
In a comparison with the previously released DVD, I found that this new special edition is a revelation. The old transfer suffered from distracting softness and wobbly film weave, resulting in a headache after 20 minutes or so.
A final note about the film's cinematography: Bruce Surtees has shot a western that truly feels like a western. It's dusty, occasionally washed out, earthy, and naturally lit. It's gorgeous.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
This DVD's remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is mostly terrific. The front stereo imagery is great, giving the movie a nice wide feel. Surround speakers also get quite a workout during battles and even as horses gallop past. I was surprised by the degree of envelopment. However, some of the surround effects seemed a bit gimmicky. You can almost hear the sound designer saying, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool to isolate this gunshot in the rear left?" I was startled by the use of the LFE channel in a couple of the battle sequences. Union cannon fire made my entire house teeter on its foundation. The film's patriotic score comes across as strong and clean. Unfortunately, the fidelity of some of the dialog has suffered over 25 years.
A comparison with the previous DVD revealed that the older version provided virtually no activity in the surrounds. Overall, the new version provides a far more enveloping experience.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The DVD's first extra appears just after you plunk the disk in the player: Clint Eastwood talks about how important Josey is to him in a short, nonanamorphic introduction. I didn't appreciate that I had to change my 16x9 TV's aspect ratio back and forth during and after the clip, but no big deal. But you might want to skip past this introduction if you've never seen this movie: It gives away the fate of a primary character.
The highlight of the special features is a 30-minute 1999 documentary titled Hell Hath No Fury: The Making of The Outlaw Josey Wales. This is a very fine documentary that features recent interviews with Clint Eastwood, Bill McKinney, and John Vernon (who looks a bit like Yoda these days). There's lots of behind-the-scenes footage of Eastwood, in full Josey Wales attire, directing scenes. There's also a great end-credits sequence in which Eastwood muses about "the art of spitting."
The DVD also includes an 8-minute 1976 featurette called "Eastwood in Action." It's a promotional piece that nevertheless contains some nice behind-the-scenes stuff.
Both this new special edition and the previous release include three sections of production notes that detail adapting the novel, casting, and shooting. The theatrical trailer is also here.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
I'm more impressed than I thought I would be with this new special edition of one of my favorite westerns. The picture and sound restorations are almost perfect, and the extras are rewatchable. Go out and treat yourself to one of the high marks in the genre.