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Turning Over New Leaf

Thursday, September 9, 2010

An Archetypal View of The Outlaw Josey Wales






An Archetypal View of The Outlaw Josey Wales


Hate Westerns? Perhaps you don’t appreciate the underlying moral code of the good guys. An archetypal approach to literature allows readers see different sides of characters often overlooked with a traditional focus. The Clint Eastwood classic Western flick, The Outlaw Josey Wales, certainly fits into the heroic quest pattern with perfection.


Based on the novel, Gone to Texas, our hero Josey is a mundane character seen plowing a field in the opening scene. Little do we know that this ordinary, gentle family man with no knowledge of gunplay is destined to be a giant. Set toward the close of the American War Between the States, the protagonist’s family is slaughtered by Union soldiers not content to let things be after surrender. Victimized to the highest degree by his alter ego Captain “Redlegs” Terrell, Josey is reluctantly thrust into a dangerous journey in his quest for revenge, as he heads to Kansas with holdout Confederate troops “to set things a right.”

As with any human life venture, the hero finds helpers along the way, whether or not desired. First among the outstanding sidekicks is Cherokee Lone Watie, played superbly by the late Chief Dan George. His spoken lines are among the best in movie history, beginning with his description of the downfall of the Indian Nation on the Trail of Tears – “They call us civilized because we are easy to sneak up on.” With no horse or food but a piece of hard rock candy, which was “not for eatin’ ” but “just for lookin’ through,” the chief is invited to tail along with Josey. The association becomes permanent, as the hunter Wales has a price on his head, making him the hunted in grave need of a friend. While Union soldiers, assorted bad guys, and bounty hunters seek to keep him from his quest, Josey perfects his skills as a guerilla fighter and an expert pistolero.

Despite the obstacles, Josey Wales has not changed internally from the moral persona he enjoyed before his ordeal began. He saves several other victims equally wronged, who also join his rag-tag band of outlaws. Yet, he never waivers from his vengeful mission. We realize no man is an island, but Wales claims he does not want anyone to get close to him because “When I get to likin' someone, they ain't around long.” Lone Watie quickly replies, “I notice when you get to dislikin’ someone, they ain’t around for long neither.”

 
One of the most brilliant scenes in cinema history is the hero’s encounter with Comanche Chief Ten Bears. The moral message of this tale is summarized by their intense verbal exchanges. “I came here to die with you, or to live with you. Dyin’ ain’t hard for men like you and me, when all you ever loved has been raped or butchered.” We learn a vital moral truth – living is hard. Ten Bears acknowledges, “There is iron in your words of life and death...” Both giants agree that men can “live together without butchering one another.” Treaties among rivals can be lasting, but no “signed paper” can secure peace. “It must come from men.” An ordinary quest might have ended here. But this story is much more than a typical shoot-‘em-up. It is a morality play.

Before Josey can continue his life following an archetypal transformation, justice must be attained. And, of course, it is. In a face-to-face moment second to none in cinema, Josey closes his eyes twice, and the awful vision of his terrible loss disappears. The hero symbolically dies, free to start anew. Eastwood is at his pinnacle of success. Chief Dan George is immortal. This is a must-see movie for all of us who seek more from books and movies than superfluous entertainment. The dialogue is both humorous and very deep. If you enjoy the art of thinking, let your mind wander through this masterpiece.

Chief Dan George

6 comments:

  1. Is this a spaghetti western?

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  2. I don't think so. It came later, around 1976.

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  3. JJ,
    Brilliant analysis. I don't think I've seen this film since '76. Guess it's time I took a second look. Eastwood is really something special. He keeps evolving. Gran Torino absolutely blew my mind.

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  4. I agree Clint got better. Many people ignore the Westerns, but they are really great morality plays. Good stuff.

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  5. Where would you recommend we obtain this movie? Can we DVR? See it on NetFlix?

    Inquiring mind wishes to know!

    To #167 Dad: I have Gran Torino DVR'd and have yet to sit and watch it. Must be because I don't sit and watch very often at all, LOL.

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  6. A-M: You can get it that way easily. If you have trouble, let me know and I'll send you my copy. Just send it back - I watch it several times a year!

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