American Outlaws

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Western films can often be silly and childish, derivative and cliché-ridden, excuses for murderous rampages and vengeful retribution, macho displays of bullying and bludgeoning. But the best and most authentic celebrate its physical beauty and honor its characteristic heroes – those for whom personal freedom and independence are not to be bartered away, not for lucre, not for security, not even for life. Thus Wes Studi's Geronimo, from the 1993 film of the same name, is just as much a western hero as the chivalrous Virginian-born cavalry officer, Lt. Gatewood (Jason Patric) who pursues and befriends him. It is surely significant that many of film's greatest western heroes reveal a natural kinship with Indians. In The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), the hero (Clint Eastwood) rides with an old Cherokee chief (Dan George); in Jeremiah Johnson, the hero (Robert Redford) lives in peace with the Crow Indians (until the U.S. army disrupts things) and marries the comely daughter of a French-speaking Flathead chieftain. If this kinship is more a matter of art and myth than historical reality, it is no less meaningful.

Of course, some western heroes, no less admirable and authentic, can be incorrigible Indian-haters, such as Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) of the Searchers (1956), but the cavalry officer, being the vanguard of advancing government, falls short of the heroic ideal. So do the outlaw and the gunfighter. Butch Cassidy (1969) is a great western, as is the Wild Bunch (1969), but their characters seek a selfish and narcissistic kind of freedom: freedom from law, from all restraint, from morality itself. Their characters have an adolescent quality about them, however competent they may be as riders or gunmen – skills which they pervert to prey on their fellow man.

Both Ethan Edwards and Josey Wales represent one of the highest types of western hero: the former Confederate soldier who goes west to find the freedom, land and space that is vanishing back east. He is not an outlaw, although he may be labeled as such. Nor is he a former planter. He is usually a border-state yeoman who resists the federal juggernaut because he senses, rightly, that despite its moralistic pretensions it represents tyranny and centralized power. Thus, many of these ex-Confederate westerners hail from Missouri, which reflects truthfully the history, for many Missourians who fought on the losing side of the war did indeed move to Texas, Oregon or Idaho.

Josey Wales is surely one of the greatest westerns with one of its greatest heroes. The writing is pithy, full of subtle humor, often inspired. Wales is a Missouri farmer turned Confederate guerrilla who refuses to surrender his pistols and swear loyalty to the Union after the war; as a result, he is branded an outlaw, pursued and hunted. Captain Terrill (Bill McKinney) commands a detachment of Union Cavalry, formerly a band of pillaging Kansas Jayhawkers, ordered to capture or kill Wales. Fletcher (John Vernon) is another guerrilla fighter who has been deceived into betraying his men and thus finds himself hunting his former comrade, whom they've just caught up with at a ferry crossing in southern Missouri. The following dialogue is classic:

Captain Terrill: "We got 'em now. We'll get these two first, then we'll get the others."

Fletcher (startled): "What others? Wales and the kid are the last ones."

Captain Terrill (dismissively): "Nahh. Texas is full of rebels. Lot's of work to do down in Texas."

Fletcher (sternly): "We get Josey Wales and it ends."

Captain Terrill (grimly and with finality): "Doin' right aint got no end."

That last line could serve quite well as the closing sentence for every American presidential inaugural address of the twentieth century – or maybe even as the American national motto. It certainly is more appropriate than the anachronistic, "Don't Tread on Me," or "Land of the Free – Home of the Brave." Terrill and Wales each represent one of two archetypical American character types: the belligerent moralist, whose self-righteousness is leavened only by greed; and the liberty-loving self-reliant individual who only wants to be left alone. The war may have ended in which these two antagonistic but authentic embodiments of the American mind and character were arrayed against one another, but the battle goes on. Fletcher pleads with Republican Senator James Lane of Kansas, who is in charge of the postwar occupation: "Let Wales be. Let me be. I'm finished with you." But letting people be is exactly what Lane and Terrill cannot do, just as their descendants cannot leave coca-growing Columbia peasants alone – or anyone else in the world, for that matter. They are driven men, laboring under some psychological compulsion, determined that no one should escape justice, that everyone must surrender and conform to the new order, that the last flicker of dissent be snuffed out. Lane orders Terrill to "curry comb the countryside. Beat the brush and root out everything disloyal from a Shanghai rooster to a Durham cow. (Gritting his teeth) We've got to clean up this country." He then turns to Fletcher:

Senator Lane: "You're going after him after all. Hound this Wales to kingdom come."

Fletcher: "Hound him Senator? A man like Wales lives by the feud. Because of what you did here today, I've got to kill that man."

Senator Lane: "Well, he'll have to run for it now, and hell is where he's headed."

Fletcher: "He'll be waiting for us there Senator."

I suspect that most Americans think of themselves, both collectively and individually, as Josey Wales. I can imagine a band of U.S. Marines recuperating in one of Saddam's palaces watching the movie and cheering as Wales outwits his pursuers or engages in the final climactic battle with Terrill and his fanaticized men. They probably think of the burning of Wales' farm and the murder of his wife and son as the equivalent of the destruction of the Twin Towers. Americans seem to be incapable of viewing themselves as anything other than outraged innocents and noble altruists, hated because they are so good, so rich, and so free. That they are really a nation of happy-faced Lanes and Terrills is a truth, so at odds with their deluded perception of themselves, their "education," and the sycophantic speeches of their leaders, that they may never accept it, however necessary it may be for a recovery of sanity and a less imperialistic foreign policy.

The Outlaw Jesse James

The film American Outlaws (2001) directed by Les Mayfield, and starring Irish actor Colin Farrell, with supporting roles by Scott Caan (the son of actor James Caan), Timothy Dalton, and Kathy Bates, did not receive much critical attention or praise. Yet I would argue that it deserves to be ranked among the finest westerns and its major character, Jesse James (Farrell) as one of the best western heroes. Other noteworthy aspects of the film are the excellent musical score, intelligent writing, authentic accents, humor, and the addition of an Indian to the band, Comanche Tom (Nathaniel Arcand), who is accepted as an equal and behaves as such. The movie is loosely based on the history of the James-Younger gang of post-civil war Missouri, but the screenwriters (Roderick Taylor and John Rogers) regard the history as a mere starting point for a story about heroism, freedom, chivalry, camaraderie, and resistance to unjust authority. It is one of the most innovative and daring westerns ever made.

The film begins when a detachment of Federal troops, armed with cannons and Gatlin guns, ambush a large body of mounted Missouri rangers, who counter-attack, rout the enemy, and win the day. Soon after, they encounter a column of ragged Confederate infantry who tell them that General Lee has surrendered in Virginia and the war is essentially over. Weary of war and having anticipated this day, they are elated with the prospect of peace; they ride back to their home-town of Liberty, only to find it occupied by Union troops and the Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. The railroad, using the army as muscle and the power of eminent domain as a legal cudgel, is coercing farmers to sell their land at below market prices, or be forcefully evicted. Progress it may be, but free enterprise it is not. The president of the railroad, Thaddeus Rains, is an arrogant and privileged plutocrat, working closely with the government which both subsidizes and protects him. The price he is offering, two dollars an acre, is outrageously low, but it is "the price approved by the Department of the Interior of the government of the United States of America."

After having fought an occupying army for four years, the James and Youngers are not about to submit to such extortion, so they declare war on the railroad company, robbing its trains and banks, blowing up its tracks, raiding its construction sites, and distributing a generous portion of the spoils to local churches and distressed farmers. The eastern-bred railroad men gravely underestimate the intrepidity of their foe, contemptuously referring to them as "local thugs" or "simple farmers," but not Allan Pinkerton (Timothy Dalton), whose detective agency has been hired to provide security. After a particularly devastating raid, there follows the following exchange:

Thaddues Rains (mad): "I'll kill them for blowing up my railroad."

Thaddeus Rains (flustered): "Pinkerton. What is going on here?"

Allan Pinkerton (just arrived): "My professional opinion is that you've managed to piss off the wrong bunch of farm boys this time."

Thaddeus Rains (grimly): "I want them arrested and hanged."

Allan Pinkerton (shaking his head): "Do you think a jury in these parts would convict one of their own? Noh; I doubt it. We're beginning a very interesting game here, Mr. Raines."

Thaddeus Rains: "This is no game."

Allan Pinkerton (pushing a newspaper at Rains): "Oh? I'm afraid our adversaries, don't agree."

Thaddeus Rains (reading from the front page of the Liberty Democrat): "The Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Depot was robbed two nights ago just outside of St. Louis, Missouri. The brave and daring James-Younger gang was heavily outnumbered by Pinkerton detectives, but the city lawmen were no match for the guns of the West."

Allan Pinkerton: "Fine piece of writin."

Thaddeus Rains (continues reading, increasingly irritated): "The gang made off with thirty five thousand dollars and also destroyed the Thaxton Switch construction, meaning that for a few months, honest farmers will be able to sleep without fearing the railroad is coming to steal their land." (stops reading, infuriated): "Now who wrote this? I'll see him hanged every Tuesday for a month."

Allan Pinkerton (pointing to below the article): "Ohhh, that's the best part."

Thaddeus Rains (resumes reading): "The foregoing article was sent to this newspaper and was reputedly written by the outlaw Jesse James himself." (Pauses, silent for a moment; grimaces, then violently throws the paper down onto the ground.)

Allan Pinkerton (smiling, laughs quietly)

With his thick Scottish brogue, sardonic grins, and sarcastic put-downs, Timothy Dalton almost steals the show with his portrayal of the Scotsman who founded the famous detective agency bearing his name. Far from being the stock western villain, Pinkerton is complex. He may be working for a scoundrel, but he is honorable and moral (refusing to resort to terror tactics and keeping his word), and he respects Jesse James and his men. When Rains, impatient and imperious, asks him why he can't catch "these farmers" who are costing him "millions of dollars and months of delay," Pinkerton replies: "Hardly farmers sir. Each one of these men has four years of hard fightin' experience. They are disciplined. And have a charismatic leader. If I were to design the perfect outlaw band, this is the one I'd create."

Their charismatic leader is, of course, Jesse James. He is scrupulously polite, always in control of his emotions, fearless, carefully weighs the consequence of every action, and never kills unless it is necessary to save his life or escape imprisonment. He takes up arms, but only in defense of his state, his land, and his people. He is not the kind of man who would fight a war for an abstraction, or to mend the ways and mind the sins of others. He is the western hero.

The following piece of dialogue is inspired. Admiring his watch, Rains turns to a shackled and bristling Jesse James: "Solid gold. My father had it made when he started this railroad. He gave it to me. I'll give it to my son when he takes over the company, and he'll give it to his son. The right sort of men will always run this country, Jesse James. Not your sort. You'll always suffer. And you haven't changed anything." His words are only too true. The "right sort" of men – corrupt, unprincipled, ambitious – do run this country, and have for a long time. It wasn't always so, but the northern victory in the Civil War inaugurated the era of plutocracy; in the twentieth century, plutocrats, bureaucrats, politicians, and judges have merged into a despotic managerial ruling class. Yet the spirit of freedom lives on. The spirit of Jesse James lives on, as this splendid film attests. We can hope that the younger generation will take inspiration not only from the great books like Human Action but from cinema art that celebrates the western heritage of freedom.

August 6, 2004