Bounty hunter: You’re wanted, Wales.Josey Wales: Reckon I’m right popular. You a bounty hunter?
Bounty hunter: A man’s got to do something for a living these days.
Josey Wales: Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.
This is as close as this list is going to get to an anti-war movie. Liberals and isolationist libertarians, I don’t care if you’re offended by that, your foreign policy beliefs are an offense to everything this nation stands for.
Now, certainly an argument could be made that many of Eastwood’s movies (and I mean his work as a director) have a strain of patriotism. The virtue of the common man as seen in Gran Torino, the somewhat dark take on the American Dream in Million Dollar Baby, the blatant patriotic high of Space Cowboys, the high and low points of war in Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, even his mildly sympathetic treatment of J. Edgar showed Hoover, for all his faults, as being motivated by love of country. But while I think Gran Torino is Eastwood’s masterpiece, it is a work that focuses more on the man than the nation…meanwhile The Outlaw Josey Wales is very much a film that looks at what makes America America.
Now, unlike some of the previous films, I feel this movie might be one of those some people may not have seen recently. So a quick recap. The movie begins with Josey Wales a Missouri farmer with a wife and young son being set upon by a Kansas guerrilla division known as the Red Legs. The Union soldiers knock out Wales, kill his wife and son and burn his house to the ground. When he recovers he takes out a gun and re-acquires the skill of using it in only a few hours and spends the rest of the Civil War attempting to get revenge. His unit is the last to surrender at the end of the Civil War and are massacred by the Union, with only Wales making it out alive but chased by federal authorities. As he tries to go South and West and stay out of the hands of bounty hunters, soldiers, Comancheros and the Comanche he acquires an odd family of an old Cherokee man, a Navajo woman, a Kansas woman heading west and her granddaughter. Finally this small group settles in a ranch somewhere in the Arizona territory where Wales, just as he was about to head further southwest has a final battle with Union soldiers who killed his family.
Now so what makes this a patriotic film?
Well first off is it’s recognition of what makes America. Near the end, after having avoided a battle with the Comanche, Wales’s group celebrates and revels in the new family they have put together. By this point you have Northerners, Southerners, two different tribes of Indians, plus the most recent additions the local town folk which include an Irish prostitute, two Mexican gentlemen, and an Easterner. It’s quite the American melting pot of people from all different origins and walks of life. And Eastwood isn’t very subtle about making this melting pot imagery clear.
Now I said this movie is anti-war and to a degree it is. It is not anti-war in the sense of all war is wrong and all violence must be avoided at all costs, as many liberals and libertarians (cough cowards cough) would have it, even if that cost is the liberty of others or themselves. Wales is not afraid to fight to survive or to protect those he loves. But the movie does not delude itself into portraying war as not having consequences (as Flags of our Fathers would do again many years later). The fact that out of it come people who only know how to fight; the emotional scars and the all around suffering. The last lines of the film between Wales and a man he thought had betrayed him recall the pain of war.
Fletcher: I think I’ll go down to Mexico to try to find [Wales] [at this point Fletcher is pretending to not recognize Wales]
Josey Wales: And then?
Fletcher: He’s got the first move. I owe him that. I think I’ll try to tell him the war is over. What do you say, Mr. Wilson?
Josey Wales: I reckon so. I guess we all died a little in that damn war.
And disgust at the horrors of war is actually one of the strengths of this nation. The odd thing about America is that (1) we have the ideal of spreading liberty no matter the cost and (2) we have no stomach for war. And that’s a good thing. Probably more than any other nation we tire of war very quickly, even if we’re winning, even if we’re doing the right thing (for instance did you know that we never lost a battle in Vietnam? Or that in some of the battles for every U.S. soldier we lost the VC lost 50+…logically it would be hard to portray a war like that as a loss or a hopeless cause, yet somehow we did it.) Even in Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers it’s pointed out that by Iwo Jima America had just tired of war (a whole 4 years in a battle against unquestionable evil) and just wanted it over. (And the same is true historically of the Civil War). For all the liberal BS that Americans love war and bloodshed, there is no historical proof of that. Any war we get into we try and get out of it as quickly as possible. It’s why American Imperialism (a silly term, when compared to the historical reality of European Imperialism) amounted to a few islands, most of which don’t want to leave the U.S. And dare we forget that our biggest gain from our “imperialist” Spanish-American war was Cuba, which we immediately gave up so the Cubans could have self rule (that one worked out well). And, I’ll admit, it’s a good thing we tire of war easily. There are cultures that don’t tire of war quickly and just keep throwing wave after wave of people into suicidal assaults all for the glory of their county or their perverse ideal of God…can you imagine the bloodshed if it was mixed with an actual just cause from a country whose national anthem includes the line “and conquer we must when our cause it is just”…it’s a good thing we tire of war. It allows us time to take stock of our losses, to let the world try and progress without us saving it every time, and hopefully, to learn from our mistakes (like next time we invade a country maybe we could have a plan on what to do after their military is defeated.
And finally the film is patriotic because it expresses what is best in both our foreign policy and our economic behavior, that we deal with everyone pretty much in the same way, we “hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.” Or in the words of the film.
Ten Bears: These things you say we will have, we already have.
Josey Wales: That’s true. I ain’t promising you nothing extra. I’m just giving you life and you’re giving me life. And I’m saying that men can live together without butchering one another.
Ten Bears: It’s sad that governments are chiefed by the double tongues. There is iron in your words of death for all Comanche to see, and so there is iron in your words of life. No signed paper can hold the iron. It must come from men. The words of Ten Bears carries the same iron of life and death. It is good that warriors such as we meet in the struggle of life… or death. It shall be life.
Notice also the typical loathing of government in this conversation, and the mutual contracts of individuals placed as highest…the beauty of American Capitalism.