Cinema: Classic Heroism

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Josey Wales' situation is a classic one for a western hero. A peaceable border-state farmer in the days before the Civil War, he is attacked by Northern guerrillas. His farm is burned out, his wife and child killed. That causes him to join some Southern guerrillas and fight vengefully through the war. Then he sees his comrades—his new family—massacred by the Union soldiers who tricked them into surrendering. That converts him into a bit of unfinished business for the victors, and he must flee deeper into the Western wilderness in order to escape their relentless pursuit.

Killing Skills. One knows the conventions of this sort of thing: how Josey will show himself on every possible occasion to be a man of honor and gallantry, despite his beard and his rough clothes; how his killing skills will always be placed at the disposal of other outcasts and unfortunates he meets along the way; how finally he will dispose of his enemies and, in the end, find a good life similar to the one he was enjoying before evil descended on him.

One man's classicism, however, is another man's cliché. It may be that audiences will no longer respond to so familiar a tale and, truth to tell, the trail that Clint Eastwood's Josey follows is a very long one, with a fair amount of dull slogging along the way. On the other hand, the film has its pleasures as well. For example, and not a moment too soon, Josey allies himself with Chief Dan George, playing a wise and humorous old Indian, much the way he did in Little Big Man. Then, too, Eastwood as a director manages his action sequences in a no-nonsense manner. He gets to the heart of the matter briskly, orchestrates his confrontations intelligently and gets off without lingering unduly over the resultant ugliness.

This directorial style seems to spring naturally from the man, assuming that Eastwood's screen character, in its mature, or post-spaghetti, formulation is a true reflection of his sensibility. The flat, quiet voice, the understated grace of his movements, the sweet almost boyish manner, contrasting so curiously with the violent deeds he performs, have a remarkable way of gaining sympathetic interest not so much through command as through insinuation. In a western, where spacious landscapes and historical distance seem to soften the impact of his brutal methods of problem solving, Eastwood is not simply a symbol of the modern taste for random and gratuitous bloodletting in films. Rather, he reminds us of a traditional American style of screen heroism—a moral man slow to rile but wonderfully skilled when he must finally enforce his conception of right and wrong. In these moments, he links us pleasingly, satisfyingly with our movie pasts, rekindles briefly a dying glow. Richard Schickel