"I Reckon So"

The Outlaw Josey Wales REVIEW

The_outlaw_josey_walesThe other day, I was in my local library and found a recently published magazine, The American Rifleman. “The world’s oldest and largest firearm authority,” the banner reads. On the cover was a picture of Clint Eastwood in his role as “The Outlaw Josey Wales” in the movie of the same title (1975). Eastwood suggests that it was wildly popular because in 1975, the U.S. was dealing with the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the film depicts the messy psychological and social adjustments that had to be made as soldiers and the culture untangled their traumas and violent pasts. The film uses the aftermath of the Civil War to provide a cathartic tale of a psychologically damaged Vietnam vet 100 years before his time.  

The cover of the magazine provides a number of avenues for exploration. The image of Clint Eastwood brandishing his two large handguns is about as iconic as it comes. The title of the article is “’I Reckon So’ The Guns of the Outlaw Josey Wales.” The cover page includes reference to the fact that the magazine contains an official NRA Ballot inside. One article is entitled, “This Election Could Determine the Future of the Second Amendment.” An ad for a semi-automatic weapon contains the moniker, “50 Rounds of Functional Defensive Artistry” and another “The Easiest Way to Get a Silencer.” The annual meeting of the NRA will be held in Texas we are informed. Would anyone be surprised? The magazine is full of such articles and advertisements relating to the use of guns, and Josey Wales is portrayed as a sort of standard bearer for the NRA.  One is tempted to wonder why, of all the Westerns with overtly masculine gun-toting heroes, Eastwoods’ Josey Wales was the winning contestant.  

I decided to rent the film to learn more. The film introduces us to Josey Wales in the opening scenes. He is a hard-scrabble Missouri farmer just trying to plant crops and feed his lovely wife and young family when tragedy in the form of a band of marauding Union-sympathizing terrorists (i.e. rowdy abolitionists) from Kansas descends upon his home, sets it on fire, and kills his wife and child.  Bereft, Josey Wales gets out his guns and learns to shoot (we are thus given to understand that he was not a violent man before but that he has been forced into it by the brutality of Union soldiers). A band of Confederate sympathizers arrives and invites him to join their rabble of counterinsurgents and off they go to fight the Union. Flashbacks of all the violence parade across the screen for several minutes. One is not sure which side is right or wrong. It is just a lot of men shooting at one another.

Eventually, the War concludes, and Josey’s band of guerrilla fighters decides to surrender. They are promised amnesty and, without any hope of carrying on their personal wars of revenge (no one in the band seems to have any idea that they are fighting for slavery here) they head down to the Union camp where they turn in their weapons and begin to pledge their allegiance to the U.S. Government. Suddenly the dastardly Union men open fire on them from a covered wagon with a gatling gun. Josey Wales, the only Missourian fighter who refused to surrender, is spared, but not before he attacks the union camp to save his mates, commandeering the Gatling gun and decimating Union soldiers right and left before he escapes. The viewer is meant to breath a sigh of relief that he did not hand his guns over to the double crossing government.

By this time, we have established that Josey Wales is an honorable family man driven to fight a violent and corrupt Union army and government that not only slaughters women and children in cold blood but also deceives those who surrender, murdering them while they are in the act of surrendering. Clearly, according to the film, Josey Wales was correct in refusing to surrender his weapons for now that he is a hunted man, he will surely need them (you can see where the NRA bit is coming in). Over the next hour of the movie, Josey Wales is hunted by a posse of bounty hunters and Union soldiers while outdueling and killing a whole congregation of bad men – rapists, thieves, scoundrels, carpetbaggers, frauds, sex-traffickers, corrupt politicians, and hooligans. The whole while, he treats Native Americans, women (and Native American women in particular) honorably (I don’t think there are any Black characters in the film, but at one point, Josey insists that he does not have any interest in “owning any other human” thus establishing that while he despises Northerners generally, and abolitionist settlers from Kansas particularly, he did not fight in the Civil War to defend slavery – he was just protecting his family from violence subtext: as any honorable man would do).

The genius of the subterfuge is that he uses the Native Americans in the story as a stand-in for White Southerners – people who have been “abused” by the forces of the Federal government and had their “culture” “destroyed” for an inability to resist assimilation by force. Josey Wales has no intentions of demanding that proud indigenous cultures stop resisting the evils of Federal power.  Indeed, he celebrates their continual armed resistance.

The Outlaw Josey Wales is something of a morality story about the need for armed resistance in the face of a corrupt but powerful government and in a world of criminals, thieves, drunks, and scum-bags looking for opportunities to pillage and rape. “I reckon so,” Josey is wont to say. But he says other spectacularly defiant things as well:

A bounty hunter tells him that “a man’s got to make a livin somehow,” and Josey says to him, “Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’.” “Are you gonna pull those pistols or whistle ‘Dixie’?” he asks a group of Union soldiers about to draw their weapons on him. Josey Wales is full of spit and raw nobility. He dispenses with his own justice. He uses his handguns for courts.

What not many people may know is that the novel the film was based on was written by a former Klan member and the speech-writer for the segregationist Alabama governor, George Wallace.   The author, Forest Carter, was the adopted name of Asa Carter, formally of Alabama. The name “Forest” was adopted to honor the founder of the Klan, Confederate General, Nathan Bedford Forest. Asa Carter was the speech writer who came up with George Wallace’s famous line, “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.” You might say that like Josey Wales, he was a bad man in a former life.

You can learn about Asa (Forest) Carter’s double life from the documentary, “The Reconstruction of Asa Carter” a man who literally got two different gravestones for having successfully pulled off two different lives. One as a racist Klan leader and one as a writer of books celebrating law, order, and the humanization of American Indians.

It is interesting that at the end of the film, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Josey masquerades as “Mr. Wilson” while some of his supporters tell the law men in the saloon who have been sent to find Josey that Josey was shot down in Mexico, going so far as to sign an affidavit to that effect.  One law-man who knows Josey from his days as a Missouri Confederate decides to let Josey go though, telling  him in the films closing words, “I think I will go down to Mexico and try to find him [Josey Wales] . . . . I think I will try to tell him the war is over.” “I reckon so,” Josey replies, “I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”

Wounded, dripping blood on his boots, Josey returns to his small farm in Texas, we assume to either die in peace or carry on with a new life as “Mr. Wilson.” Just like Asa had become Forest when it became clear that the world was not safe for leaders of the Klan and segregationists any more, Josey holsters his guns and hopes that his past will leave him alone now.    

Question for Comment: Just today, I read about a man in Texas who changed his name to “Literally Anybody Else.” If you could pack up and be someone new – someone better situated to succeed in the world than you live in now, who would you become? Or are you the sort to go down fighting a changing world to the bitter end?