Saturday, September 21, 2013

THE LOVE OF WESTERN MOVIES BY STEVEN LAW


(PHOTO CREDIT TO RON MCGINNIS PHOTOGRAPHY)
A couple years ago I started a group page on Facebook called “Western Movie Fans.” It has become a pretty big hit, garnering over 2,100 members, with people all over the world sharing photos and thoughts about their favorite, or least favorite, Western movies or actors. Of course there are a variety of tastes, but it is great to see this coming-together of Western movie fans.

We all tend to gravitate towards those movies that influenced us in our youth. The baby boomers seem to gravitate towards the earlier John Wayne/John Ford classics, like The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Being from a later generation, I gravitate more toward the ‘60s and‘70s John Wayne films, like True Grit, The Cowboys, or The Shootist. But my favorite Western movie is about that Missouri Bushwhacker, The Outlaw Josey Wales, based on the novel Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter.

The Clint Eastwood Westerns were part a new generation of fans, and during a time period of the ‘60s and‘70s when the Golden Age of the Western was starting to pass away. But Clint helped keep it alive for a while, and The Outlaw Josey Wales, to me, had every good quality a Western film should have.

A friend of mine, Todd Allen, who has acted in several Western films, likes to say, “It’s all about the story.” The Outlaw Josey Wales certainly is a great story, full of hardship and conflict, colorful characters with steadfast purpose, and a plot that is driven by a hero that plays them all well. But to me a movie is more than a story. A movie also has to be visually stimulating, and when dialogue is present, it has to be original and compelling.

The Story

In The Outlaw Josey Wales, the story and the dialogue come mostly from Forrest Carter. If you’ve read the novel, you will know this. It’s the quintessential Western story. The Civil War is over, and westward expansion is paramount. The war honed men for battle and conflict, and it bred the stamina needed to tame the frontier and fight for justice. We have a man, Josey Wales, who is minding his own business, plowing his Missouri field, when a group of Kansas Redlegs ride in, murder his wife and child, and pillage and loot his property. There is no reason for living if you can’t get revenge. There’s no surrendering to anyone who can do such a thing to your family. So it becomes a quest to fight them off, as guerilla fighters, but they can’t win. So in end, it’s just beginning for Josey Wales, as he tries to outrun and outwit the men who are chasing him, the very ones who destroyed his life.

The Characters

Besides Josey Wales, we have the kid, Jaime, who is passionate about their cause, but who is also symbolic of the tragedy of war. There’s Fletcher, the hard but reasonable man who was once on their side, but has worked out a deal with the Union to bring them in. Terrill, the vicious, corrupt Redleg who will stop at nothing to hunt Josey down. Lone Watie, the Cherokee sidekick, who is as much of a burden to the journey as he is helpful. Grannie Hawkins, the salt of the earth, pipe-smoking hillbillie, and wise beyond her years. The carpetbagger in an all white suit, loyal only to himself, a representative of the times. The “pilgrims from Kansas,” an outspoken elderly woman and her “odd” granddaughter, bound for New Mexico to a promised paradise. And last but not least, the notorious Ten Bears, the Comanche Chief, who finds himself in a peculiar, if not ironic, situation with Josey Wales, as they are both victims of dishonesty and greed.

The Dialogue

Though none of us have lived in the 1860s, or knew anyone who did, we really don’t know how they talked to one another, but we can surely imagine through diaries and journals of those times somewhat what it was like. I believe Carter captured it wonderfully in the novel, and Clint Eastwood, who also directed the film, incorporated it perfectly onto the screen.

Some examples are:

Senator: Fletcher, there's an old saying, to the victors belong the spoils.

Fletcher: There's another old saying Senator. Don't piss down my back and tell me it's raining.

~
Jamie: You can't get 'em all, Josie.

Josey Wales: That's a fact.

Jamie: How come you're doing this, then?

Josey Wales: Because I ain't got nothin' better to do.

~

Granny Hawkins: They say you're a hard put and desperate man, Josey Wales. They're goin' to heel and hide you to a barn door. You know what I say?

Josey Wales: What's that?

Granny Hawkins: I say that big talk's worth doodly-squat. Now, them poultices be laced with feathermoss and mustard root. Mind you drop water on 'em occasional and keep 'em damp.
~

Jamie: [after Jamie and Josie kill Abe and Lige] I figured you could use some help.

Josey Wales: You get those holes a-leakin', I'm gonna whomp you with a knotted plow line.

~

Jamie: I wish we had time to bury them fellas.

Josey Wales: To hell with them fellas. Buzzards gotta eat, same as worms.

~

Josey Wales: When I get to likin' someone, they ain't around long.

Lone Watie: I notice when you get to DISlikin' someone they ain't around for long neither.

~

Lone Watie: I didn't surrender, but they took my horse and made him surrender. They have him pulling a wagon up in Kansas I bet.

~

Josey Wales: Are you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?

There’s plenty more, strong, rich dialogue, but that is a good taste. The only movie since The Outlaw Josey Wales, ever to produce such well-known, repeated dialogue, is the ‘90s film Tombstone. Though no one will ever forget the originality of “I’m your huckleberry,” neither will they forget, “Well, Mr. Carpetbagger. We got somethin' in this territory called the Missouri boat ride.”

The Visuals

Movies are a visual art, and the trick is to take a story and adapt it in a way that the film watcher can’t take their eyes off the screen. The auditory part—the dialogue, background sound, sound effects, music (which in this film, an original score was nominated for an Academy Award)—take on a similar role of attraction, but what stimulates the eyes is truly what makes a good story a great film. The Outlaw Josey Wales gave us all of the elements of period culture during the post Civil War era. The costume was authentic, as were the weaponry. The cap and ball pistols, as many as they could stuff in their waistbands, loaded and ready. The “lindsey, woolsey, shirt” with all the fancy stitching, also known as the “guerilla shirt,” was treated authentically. Close attention was paid to the landscape, and the scenery, which was captivating as much as it was authentic.

Not many will argue about the quality of this film, though many will disagree as to what their favorite is, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I gauge the quality of a film on whether or not I want to watch it again. The Outlaw Josey Wales stands as my most-watched Western, and there’s not been one since that has risen above all that this film has to offer. Due to the sparse releases of Western films today, and Hollywood’s addiction to remakes, there’s not much competition for its place, either. But just like those John Wayne/John Ford loyalists, I’m fond to my era as well, and it will take an incredible film to rise above my expectations. Yep, I reckon so.

Steven Law is the author of Yuma Gold (Berkley, November 2011) and El Paso Way (Berkley, October 2013). Visit his website at www.stevenlaw.com.

16 comments:

  1. Steven, I appreciate you talking about the 'whole' picture when it comes to film. Having done my share on a smaller scale with film, I can appreciate your comments about the authenticity of the costumes and location. Eastwood is very good at taking in the whole picture when he makes a film. (I still love 'Letter from Iwo Jima' and think it is one of his best.) Guess this is a long way of saying 'great job'. Doris

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  2. Steven,
    I enjoyed your post! Makes me want to see the movie. :)

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  3. Steven, The Outlaw Josie Wales is my husband's favorite western. That's really saying something, too, because he is a dyed-in-the-wool John Wayne fan. I really enjoyed your post and the way you broke it down--also the dialogue examples you gave. This is one of those rare movies that I enjoyed more than the book. I don't say that very often, but it was true in this case, and I think a lot of it is because of the things you cited, the visuals being so important. It seemed to me, in The Education of Little Tree, Carter used more "visual" writing than he did in the Josie Wales tales. So, the movie of TOJW was such a treat, to see his stories of Josie Wales brought into the visual medium where they could be seen even more vividly--and casting was a huge part of that. That could have broken that movie, just as surely as it "made" it, in this instance. Thanks so much for your thoughtful insights into western movies, and this one in particular.
    Cheryl

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  4. We saw The Outlaw Josey Wales when it came out at a drive in in Nacogdoches Texas while going to Stephen F Austin State University,even had the Movie poster hanging in our Dorm room,times change!Sad!We need to find a horned toad he`ll tell us which way to go! Thanks Stephen!

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  5. Steven--I absolutely love Western movies. For a few years after early retirement, I only read westerns--the paperback kind, several different authors. But then I discovered Western romance, and my life took a different turn.

    I wonder about the writers of the tv series Hell on Wheels. The plot is so much the same, but then many plots are used over and over, with variations. Even Cullen Bohannan could be the Outlaw Josie Wales.
    Movies--I grew up watching black and white movies on Saturday Matinee, from age 10 to about 12 or 13--Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and Lash Larue. The latest Western movie I adore it Open Range. I'd love to see that one again.
    Thanks for this great post.

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  6. Steven,

    Well done. I agree with every word. I saw this movie when I was in Grad school and the going was tough. Mostly too little money to pay tuition, eat, and live on. I had my doubts about finishing. One Saturday, all alone, I saw this movie and was reinvigorated. That year, I graduated with a Masters from the University of Michigan.

    The movie certainly means a lot to me with its many twists and turns and ultimate triumph.

    Charlie Steel

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  7. Great post, Steven. I would rank this movie right up there, as well. And you have given me the hankering to watch it all over again.

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  8. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Celia, I hope you'll give Western books another look now that Indie publishing has taken such a giant leap. Lot's of great stuff out there.

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  9. Just sashayed over from the FB at your recommendation to see what's the score, and am not surprised at your choice.
    I hung big, B&W posters of The Good, The bad and The Ugly in my freshman dorm room, fall, 1968 ... while I flirted with Existentialism, it was my favorite movie.
    I can't say for sure that THE ALAMO is a 'western', per se, but it is my favorite period movie, period.
    I would put that movie in my coffin.

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  10. I know I saw this movie, but can't recall as vividly as you portray here - great job breaking down the film as a whole, Steven. My fave is Hang 'Em High of the Eastwood revenge films. Not sure I can say why as well as you have here. Just the premise, I guess. Happy trails!

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  11. Hi Steven, great blog.
    I am an Aussie, but I have always loved watching western movies or reading western novels. My favourite western author was Zane Grey, and Wagon Train with Ward Bond, also Bonanza were two of my favourite shows.

    Regards

    margaret

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  12. Just add Western movies to my list of addictions. although The Outlaw Josie Wales is not among my favorites, I agree with authenticity being an important element in western movies. My favorite is Tombstone. I think it's about as close to reality as we'll ever get from Hollywood.
    Great post, Steven.

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  13. Good post. It made me want to pull the DVD out and watch it again. A good film has to hit many levels, but visual, dialogue, and story are the big three. The Outlaw Josie Wells gets all three right.

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  14. patsygifford@yahoo.comSeptember 22, 2013 at 11:04 AM

    Steven,This a good movie.I liked how the people came together to make a real family.To me that was great!
    We need more westerns like this today.
    Love your writing!

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  15. Doris, I agree about Letters from Iwo Jima. That movie is a classic.

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  16. Since I wrote this blog post, Western Movie Fans has grown considerable. We are not at 24,000 members, and still growing.

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