Outlaw Josey Wales, The (1976): Eastwood’s Great Revenge Western

In the 1970s and 1980s, after the decline and death of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood was the only actor in Hollywood to keep the venerable genre of Western alive.

Eastwood’s fifth film as a director and eighth Western as a star, The Outlaw Josey Wales chronicles the hero’s violent journey westward after the Civil War.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

The Outlaw Josey Wales
A man, two guns, held high by his face.

Theatrical release poster

The film was adapted by Sonia Chernus and Philip Kaufman from author Forrest Carter’s 1972 novel “The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales,” republished as “Gone to Texas.”

Burdened by memories of his family’s slaughter by Red Leg soldier Terrill (Bill McKinney), the Confederate Josey Wales (Eastwood) refuses to join his captain Fletcher (John Vernon) and the rest of his peers in surrendering to a U.S. Army regiment.

Labeled dangerous outlaw after a bloody battle with that regiment, Josey is pursued by U.S. cavalry soldiers led by the unwilling Fletcher and the murderous Terrill, as well as by bounty hunters.

Despite his wish to remain a lone fugitive, Josey gathers a crew of companions that includes Cherokee Lone Watie (Chief Dan George), the pretty Laura Lee (Sondra Locke) and her vigorous Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman), settlers on their way to a ranch near Santa Rio.

The few Santa Rio residents of this ghost town welcome Wales, but his romance with Laura Lee are soon interrupted by Terrill’s arrival.

A skillfully violent man of few words, the coolly lethal Wales resembles Eastwood’s previous Western heroes in Sergio Leone’s trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966).

This bloody ultra-violent revenge saga benefits from the sharp images of ace cinematographer Bruce Surtees, who shot the Wester with DeLuxe Color Panavision.

Narrative Structure (Detailed Synopsis)

Missouri farmer Josey Wales is driven to revenge by the murder of his wife and young son by a band of pro-Union Jayhawker militants.  After grieving and burying  them, Wales practices shooting a gun before joining some pro-Confederate Missouri bushwhackers led by William T. Anderson, taking part in attacks on Union sympathizers and army units.

At the end of the war, Josey’s friend and superior Captain Fletcher persuades the guerrillas to surrender, promised by Senator Lane amnesty if they hand over their weapons. Wales refuses to surrender, and he and young guerrilla Jamie are the only survivors when Terrill’s Redlegs massacre the surrendering men.

Wales then intervenes and wipes out most of the Redlegs with a Gatling gun before fleeing with Jamie, who dies from a wound after helping Josey kill two militiamen.

Lane forces a reluctant Fletcher to assist Terrill in finding his friend and puts a $5,000 bounty on his head, which attracts the attention of Union soldiers and bounty hunters seeking to hunt him down.

Despite his aversion to traveling with company, he gathers some diverse companions, including an old Cherokee, Lone Watie; Little Moonlight, young Navajo woman; Sarah Turner, an elderly woman from Kansas; and her granddaughter Laura Lee, whom Wales and Little Moonlight rescue from the marauding Comancheros. Josey and Laura later sleep together as does Lone Watie and Little Moonlight. At the town of Santo Rio, Travis and Chato, who had worked for Grandma Sarah’s deceased son Tom, join the group.

Wales and companions find an abandoned ranch owned by Tom and settle in after Wales makes peace with the neighboring Comanche tribe leader, Ten Bears. A bounty hunter, whose partner was gunned down by Wales at Santo Rio, guides Captain Terrill and his men.  The Redlegs launch a surprise attack on the ranch. Wales’ companions take cover and open fire, gunning down Terrill’s men.

A wounded Wales, out of ammunition, pursues the fleeing Terrill back to Santa Rio. When he corners him, Wales dry fires his four pistols. Terrill attempts to draw his cavalry sabre, but Wales stabs him in the chest, finally avenging his family.

Returning to the Santa Rio saloon, Wales finds Fletcher with two Texas Rangers. The locals at the saloon, who refer to Wales as “Mr. Wilson,” tell the Rangers that Wales was killed in a shoot-out in Monterrey. The Rangers accept this story and move on, but Fletcher sees through the lie, and pretends to not recognize Wales. He says that he will go to Mexico to look for Wales himself and try to tell him that the war is over.

The last word belongs to Wales, who says, “I reckon so. I guess we all died a little in that damned war,” before riding off.

The Outlaw Josey Wales would be Eastwood’s last western before 1985’s Pale Rider.

Although it did not garner similar critical praise when it was released, Eastwood considers The Outlaw Josey Wales to be as good as his 1992 Oscar-winning Western, Unforgiven.

Critical Status:

In 1996, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”


Josey Wales was portrayed by Michael Parks in the film’s 1986 sequel, The Return of Josey Wales, and his wife Laura Lee was played by Mary Ann Averett.

The film was a huge commercial success, earning $31.8 million against a $3.7 million budget.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Original Score: Jerry Fielding

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Original Score Oscar was Jerry Goldsmith for The Omen.


Directed by Clint Eastwood
Produced by Robert Daley
Screenplay by Phil Kaufman and Sonia Chernus, based on Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter
Music by Jerry Fielding
Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Edited by Ferris Webster

Production company: Malpaso Company

Distributed by Warner Bros.

Release date: June 30, 1976

Running time: 135 minutes
Budget $3.7 million
Box office $31,800,000

Clint Eastwood as Josey Wales
Chief Dan George as Lone Watie
Sondra Locke as Laura Lee
Bill McKinney as Terrill
John Vernon as Fletcher
Paula Trueman as Grandma Sarah
Sam Bottoms as Jamie
Charles Tyner as Zukie Limmer
Geraldine Keams as Little Moonlight
Woodrow Parfrey as Carpetbagger
Joyce Jameson as Rose
Sheb Wooley as Travis Cobb
Royal Dano as Ten Spot
Matt Clark as Kelly
Will Sampson as Ten Bears
John Quade as Comanchero Leader
John Russell as “Bloody Bill” Anderson
William O’Connell as Sim Carstairs
Len Lesser as Abe
Doug McGrath as Lige
Madeline Taylor Holmes as Grannie Hawkins
John Verros as Chato
Frank Schofield as Senator Lane