The Outlaw Josey Wales is arguably one of the best Western films of all times. The film is a spaghetti Western directed by and starring the face of Westerns, Clint Eastwood. The Outlaw Josey Wales follows a Josey, played by Clint Eastwood, a Missouri farmer. The Union Army kills Josey’s family so he joins up with the Confederates to exact revenge. His unit is a guerilla Confederate group that is coerced into surrendering at the end of the Civil War.
However, the Union soldiers execute them anyway. Josey escapes the massacre. He’s now on the run from the entire Union militia and bounty hunters seeking the $5,000 on his head—no small amount back then. Josey’s travels accumulate his own posse of misfits. They settle down at a ranch near Santo Rio but the sanctuary doesn’t stay safe long. The Union finds them. An all out assault on the ranch ends with Josey and his crew victorious. More bounty hunters come by the local town but everyone comes to an unspoken agreement that the war is over. They are done killing.
All Westerns carry with them the inherent theme of absolute freedom of the open frontier. Lawless but unforgiving. On an external level, this story holds this overtly. But Josey’s tale is also one of specific lawful oppression. The Union militia is an extension of the U.S. government. They were given the authority for all of the horrific things they did including the murder of Josey’s family. The oppressive hand of the government seeking to control its citizens. This movie is considered a revisionist version of the Civil War but the Union did commit quite a few atrocities of its own. History won’t point this out readily because it is written by the victorious.
A large reason for the Civil War was the issue of slavery, which is obviously wrong and the absolute opposite of liberty. But can we ask of ourselves whether the Union’s version of governing was itself “liberty?” I’m not making the argument that the North’s abuses were as horrible as slavery but the film seems to argue that the sides were not diametrically opposite. It wasn’t oppression versus freedom. The Civil War was closer to absolute oppression versus moderate oppression. The film ends with an ultimate personal resolution for Josey but a somewhat ambiguous ending to the external conflict. Although Josey ends up “free” from his pursuers, is he actually free since he now lives under the law of the Union he was fighting? What does this film suggest about freedom and lawlessness? It ends in a grey area.
Lawlessness is ultimate freedom in the wild west but Josey finds his truest freedom under Union law. Or does he? Is his safety actually the same thing as personal freedom? How free do you think Josey would seem if the film had a postscript five or ten years later?