Set during the aftermath of The American Civil War, the film follows its title character, a man whose whole family was killed, leading him to join a group of Confederate guerrillas to track down the killers. After eventually being sold out, however, he is on the run from bounty hunters and Yankee soldiers (including the group who killed his family). Along the way, while racking up a prodigious body count, Wales meets a group of people whom he reluctantly allows to join him. Hilarity Ensues. And by "hilarity," we mean "murder." This is a Clint Eastwood movie, after all.
Based on the novel Gone to Texas: The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales, by Forrest Carter. The original printing of the book was less than one hundred copies, but one of those copies happened to be sent to Eastwood.
The movie received a Direct to Video sequel in 1986, The Return of Josey Wales, starring Michael Parks as Josey Wales instead of Eastwood, with Parks also taking over as director. It was based on the second Wales book, The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales, which Eastwood had planned to adapt, but wasn't able to.
Well, are you gonna list those tropes or whistle Dixie?
- Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: Two fantastic examples in Wales' confrontations with Ten Bears and Fletcher. (From the latter: "We all died a little in that damned war.")
- Adaptational Villainy: The Redlegs in the book are pro-union guerillas rather than Union regulars, and a hell of a lot more blood-thirsty in the film than the original novel.
- Adaptation Title Change: The film was based on the novel The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, aka Gone to Texas.
- Age-Gap Romance: Josey and Laura Lee end up forming a relationship. Their ages aren't stated in the movie, although Josey is clearly the older of the two. The book had a ten-year difference in their ages, and Clint Eastwood was fourteen years older than Sondra Locke.
- Alas, Poor Villain: The bounty hunter that Josey kills at Santo Rio, who is killed by Josey in self-defense. Josey himself seems to regret having to shoot him, viewing it as another unnecessary death.
- Anti-Hero: Wales himself is a Type 3.
- Anti-Villain: Fletcher was horrified when the surrendering guerillas were slaughtered and needed to be strongarmed into joining the manhunt for Josey. In the end, he gives up the hunt, leaving Josey free to live out his life in peace.
- Artistic License – History:
- Lone Watie (implied to be a relative to Confederate general Stand Watie), tells the title character that, when the The American Civil War broke out, the Cherokee chiefs declared war on the Union due to their mistreatment on the Trail of Tears and on the reservation. The real Watie family (and the "New Echota" faction they were among the leaders of) was in favor of removal to Oklahoma, and settled there voluntarily before troops were sent in to force the matter. In addition, the Cherokee tribe was split on the matter; despite being slaveholders, many of them remembered that they were forced out from a Southern state by a Southern president. Principal Chief John Ross (who had always been opposed to removal, and led the "National" faction that opposed the New Echota faction and murdered some of its leaders) paid lip service to the Confederates at first, then emphatically threw his weight behind the Union as soon as he could without fear of reprisal.
- In reality, the Old West had a significantly larger black population than the movie implies.
- Author Tract: The portrayal of the Union soldiers in the film make it quite apparent that this film and the book it was based on were written by a Southern apologist.
- Interestingly, although the author of the original book (Asa Earl Carter, writing under the pseudonym Forrest Carter) was both an active segregationist and a member of an independent Klan group, he was actually fairly even-handed in the novel. The Union massacre of surrendering guerrillas, for instance, was an invention of the film. In the book, Carter wrote the Union soldiers as simply accepting the surrender as agreed. Also in the book, the Redlegs were also guerillas (but pro-Union) rather than Union regulars.
- Big Bad: Captain "Redlegs" Terrill, a Union guerrilla-turned-soldier who killed Josey's family and spends the film pursuing him.
- Blood Oath: Josey and Ten Bears take a blood oath to seal the "words of iron" peace treaty between the Comanches and Josey's friends at the Turner Ranch and Santo Rio. It is strongly implied, though unstated, that this also makes Josey and Ten Bears Blood Brothers.
- Bounty Hunter:"A man's got to do something for a living these days.""Dyin' ain't much of a living, boy."
- Catchphrase: "I reckon so."
- *Click* Hello: This is done twice. First, when Clint Eastwood pulls a "click hello" on Chief Dan George; and later, when Dan George returns the favor, an Indian girl Eastwood freed pulls her own "click hello" on Chief Dan George (again):Lone Watie (Chief Dan George): I'm gettin' better at sneaking up on you like this. Only an Indian can do something like this.
Josey Wales (Eastwood): That's what I figured.
Lone Watie: You figured?
Wales: Only an Indian could do something like that.
[Lone Watie hears a gun cock behind him; turns and sees Moonlight]
- Death Seeker: Implied with Josey early on; he refuses the Union's offer of surrender despite knowing that doing so makes him an outlaw, and he stages a one-man counterattack on the Redlegs after the rest of the bushwhackers are slaughtered. It's only when he feels a need to protect Jamie that he shows any concern for his own well-being, and a lot of Josey's Character Development during the rest of the movie concerns him regaining the will to live for both others and himself.
- Downer Beginning: The film opens with Josey's wife and young son being murdered by the Redlegs.
- Due to the Dead:
- Defied by Josey when two bounty hunters nearly capture him. Josey says "to Hell with them," spits tobacco juice on one and leaves their corpses to be eaten by buzzards.
- Played straight with Jamie; when he succumbs to his injuries, Josey puts his body on a horse and sends it towards the Union soldiers, reasoning that they can give him a more decent burial than Josey can.
- Exact Words"You promised me those men would be decently treated.""They were decently treated. They were decently fed, decently clothed, and then they were decently shot. Those men are common outlaws, nothing more." This from a US Senator allied to the Redlegs, themselves murderous (but pro-Union) guerrillas.
- The Film of the Book: Based on a little-known book by Forrest Carter... which was the pen-name for Asa Carter, infamous segregationist who wrote stuff like the "Segregation Forever" speech during The '60s. And yet this film (and the novel its based on), given the author's political sympathies, still surprises people for its remarkably sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans, and the fact that the book is far kinder to the Union than the film. For example, the bushwhacker massacre is an invention of the film, and in the book the Redlegs were pro-Union bushwhackers rather than Union regulars.
- Final Battle: Josey and his band's showdown with the Redlegs.
- Freudian Excuse: The death of Wales' family pretty much gives him a reason to go on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
- Gatling Good: The US troops used a Gatling mounted on the back of a wagon to kill all the bushwhackers that had just surrendered to them and turned their own guns in
- Guns Akimbo: Josey almost always uses two pistols at once.
- The Gunslinger: Well, duh.
- Gun Twirling: Josey defeats a couple of mountain men with the technique known as a "road agent's spin": ordered to hand over his two revolvers, he holds then out butt-first, then flips/twirls them into firing position and guns down both men before they can even blink.
- Hand Cannon: Josey's pair of Walker Colts.
- Historical Villain Downgrade: The film glosses over the fact that the Confederate bushwhackers in Missouri (including Josey) committed plenty of war crimes themselves.
- Hitchhiker Heroes: The film is a good example of the Antihero version.
- Honor Before Reason: An uncommon example from an antagonist. A bounty hunter who tracks Josey down is given a chance to turn around and ride away. He does so, only to walk back into the saloon:"I had to come back.""I know.
- I Surrender, Suckers: Happens twice, once with a couple of amateur bounty hunters (Josey gets help from a wounded buddy with a Hidden Weapon) and again with two particularly stupid mountain men (whom Josey defeats with a road agent's spin).
- Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Josey kills Terrill in the end by skewering him with his own Army saber.
- Karma Houdini:
- The Senator faces no repercussions for having the bushwhackers slaughtered after promising amnesty. Then again, he is a Senator, and everyone who knows of his involvement in the attack ends up dead (the bushwhackers and Redlegs), presumed dead (Josey), or out of the country (Fletcher).
- The outpost owner who scams Natives and beats Little Moonlight never gets his comeuppance.
- Kick the Dog:
- When Abe and Lige find Josey and the kid, Lige kicks the wounded (and apparently fevered) kid to shut him up.
- The two mountain men are interrupted while attempting to rape Little Moonlight.
- The Comancheros are first seen in the immediate aftermath of attacking the Kansas settlers, killing the men and attempting to rape the girl.
- And of course, at the very beginning, the Senator's Union soldiers murder all the surrendering guerrillas. Oddly enough, this extra bit of villainy was not in the original novel, which was itself written by the man who came up with the "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" speech.
- A more literal comical Running Gag version is Josey spitting on the "mangy hound."
- Kick The Son Of A Bitch: Most of the enemies that Josey kills get at least one kick in immediately before he shoots them.
- Leitmotif: The Rose of Alabama keeps popping up after the kid sings a bit of it.
- Magnetic Hero: Josey, he even lampshades it:"I suppose that mangy hound's got no place else to go, either."
- May–December Romance: Lone Watie and Little Moonlight.
- Multi-Ranged Master: Josey packs two Walker Colts, two smaller revolvers and a scoped Sharp's rifle.
- Names to Run Away from Really Fast: "Name's Anderson. Bloody Bill's what they call me."
- One-Man Army: Josey at first. It's even the film's Tag Line.
- Perma-Stubble: Josey Wales himself. Eastwood always has some of this in his Westerns but this movie has it at its thickest, straddling the line between Perma-Stubble and a Beard of Sorrow. Its probably there to make his scar stand out more.
- Pet the Dog: Josey is by no means a dog, but this trope appears in the final scene, when Josey's friends tell the two Texas Rangers he's dead. Wales shows up, his friends are clearly uncertain of what to do before one of them greets him as "Mr. Wilson" and swiftly explains what's going on in a manner that seems perfectly natural. It's implied by the demeanor of the two Rangers that they're not buying it, but they were sent to find Wales and they've got a signed statement by a witness swearing Wales is dead, so they see no reason to pursue the matter further. Upon leaving, one of them tells "Mr. Wilson" that it was "nice seein' you." and the other pointedly says they won't be coming back. They leave, Fletcher stays, and both Wales and Fletcher make peace with one another.
- Pragmatic Villainy: The Comancheros' leader stops them gang raping a young woman since it would radically decrease the price they could trade her for. He suggests they rape the old woman instead, since she isn't worth much, but none of them seem to take him up on this.
- Pre Ass Kicking One Liner: "You gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?" Also, more sadly, "Dyin' ain't much of a livin', boy."
- Present Company Excluded: The old woman and Lone Watie do this back and forth at one another when preparing to be attacked by either Indians or soldiers, edging into Vitriolic Best Buds.
- Protagonist Title: The Outlaw Josey Wales.
- Rape as Backstory: Moonlight was enslaved by the Cheyenne, then gang-raped by a group of Arapaho men during a raid. The Cheyenne chief believed she didn't fight back hard enough and had one nostril cut in half so that when it healed, it would leave a visible 'dirty nose' scar.
- Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil:
- The mountain men who try to rape Moonlight are portrayed as particularly vile.
- The Comancheros' murder and robbery is certainly bad, but it's their attempted rape of Laura Lee that really puts them over the line.
- Rated M for Manly: It's a Western starring and directed by Clint Eastwood. Most specifically, the whole scene with Ten Bears is one of the manliest exchanges of words in film history.
Bounty Hunter: I had to come back.Josey Wales: I know.
- Summed up in this short exchange:
- Reconstruction: The film is essentially an old-style "sagebrush" western incorporating the violence and moral ambiguity of "spaghetti westerns," along with the trademark Behind the Black and tight facial shots.
- Retired Badass: Josey attempts to become one of these.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Why Josey signs up with Bloody Bill's troops at the start of the war when the Redlegs killed his wife and son. Subverted by Terill and a reluctant Fletcher who pursue the fleeing Josey Wales fearing the outlaw would continue his rampage after the war's end (when Wales seems more interested in just fleeing to Texas, and is more annoyed by the bounty hunters and soldiers he has to keep killing to survive).
- Role Called: The Outlaw Josey Wales.
- Sadist: "Redlegs" Terrill, a guerrilla who spends his days butchering people for fun. Despite working for the Union, anything he says endorsing their cause is obviously lip-service so they'll sign his paychecks.
- Second Love: Laura Lee becomes this for Josey.
- Shoot the Rope: Josey Wales uses a sniper rifle to cut a ferry's tow-rope from over a hundred yards away and up-slope, sending the ferry and its passengers - a group of Redlegs - on a ride downriver.
- Small Role, Big Impact: The Senator only appears in one scene near the beginning, but he's the main authority behind the manhunt for Josey that drives most of the plot for the rest of the film.
- Snake Oil Salesman: One shows up as a Butt-Monkey.
- Sniper Rifle: Josey uses a Sharps 1865 sniper rifle to cut a ferry's tow-rope and send a group of Redlegs on a "Missouri boat ride".
- Spiteful Spit: Josey does this on anything that moves. It doesn't always scare away the ones he's spitting on.
- Tonto Talk: Subverted. The Comanche chief Ten Bears does tend towards whimsical turns of phrase, and his English is a bit stilted, but he sounds like someone who has learned a second language as an adult and is trying to translate untranslatable concepts rather than a caricature. He even manages to get one over on Josey.Josey: You be Ten Bears?Ten Bears: I am Ten Bears.
- Too Dumb to Live: The two bounty hunters in the forest, particularly the first one, who ignores his friend's sensible advice that Josey probably has another gun on him. He does.
- Truth in Television: The fighting in Missouri during The American Civil War really was as savage as the film implies, and in more than a few cases was used as an excuse to address old arguments and rivalries that may not have even had anything to do with the causes of the war itself. In fact some parts of the Missouri/Kansas border area still maintain bitter animosity over the war to this day.
- Walking Armory: Josey never carries less than four pistols at any one time, two of which are Hand Cannons of their day.
- War Is Hell: And Josey's enemies (except, eventually, Fletcher) are intent on not letting that hell end.
- The Western: While it's mostly an anti-war movie, it's based in the Western theater of the Civil War and contains many of the tropes - Indians, gunmen, settlers, cavalry - found in standard Wild West films. It might rightly be called a "Pre-Western". And still something of a Deconstruction/Reconstruction of Westerns at that.