"A man like Wales lives by the feud. After what you've done here today, I'm going to have to kill that man."
"He'll have to run now, and Hell is where he's headed."
"He'll be waiting there for us, Senator."
Josey Wales' journey from darkness into light.
The film opens with Josey Wales as a simple man, leading a simple life. We see him tending to his farm, which is little more than a small piece of rough land. He has a wife and a son, a life he seems to treasure for its simple pleasures. He is representative of the good man, who tends to his field, cares for his family and asks nothing more.
The American Civil War is underway and chaos reigns across the land. Irregular troops flying under the Union flag plunder and burn Josey's farm and kill his wife and son in the process. Seeking vengeance against them, Josey signs on with a band of men whose lives have taken similar turns thanks to the methods of the irregular "Redlegs."
The war rages and Josey's band, under Captain Fletcher does plenty of killing of their own. As the war ends, they are asked to turn in their weapons and surrender. The band begrudgingly agrees, with the exception of Josey Wales who refuses to surrender. He will fight his personal war until the death. He has nothing to go home to.
At this point Fletcher is thrown into the Judas role. In exchange for a bag of gold coins, he has convinced the men who were under his command to surrender. From the outset of the surrender sequence, you can see he is troubled, despite promises from the senator in charge that the men will be treated fairly and decently. Seeing that the hated Redlegs are present along with their leader, Captain Terrill, he knows something bad is going to happen. Fletcher rejects the money he has, in effect, sold out his own men for.
"They were decently treated.
They were decently fed and then they were decently shot."
Still wracked by the need for vengeance, especially after seeing the men he rode with all these years gunned down execution style after they surrendered in good faith, Josey takes to killing. He would gun down the entire United States Army if they were there, because, "I've got nothing better to do." He is convinced to give up on this mad quest by Jaime, the youngest member of Josey's old band and the only one who escaped being executed. Jaime is wounded, and Josey comes to a realization.
This is the point at which his journey changes. His mission of vengeance against the U.S. Army camp where his brothers in arms were murdered is a suicide mission. Josey has no reason to live, citing the loss of his family and home to himself in his fight until the death mindset. Now he has someone who needs him, someone he can help. If he stays and fights to the death, Jaime's life will be over as well, so Josey instead takes Jaime and they go on the run.
When they reach the ferry to take them across the river, they encounter two characters who are extremes of human nature. The ferry boat master, who will gladly take any side and sell them out in return for ten cents per person, is the kind of person who can obviously never be trusted.
"In my line of work, it pays to be able to sing Dixie and the Battle Hymn of the Republic with equal enthusiasm."
On the other side is Granny Hawkins, the shopkeeper who is true to her beliefs and is a visionary who sees the future in elements of the present. In the scenes with her, she sees through the bullshit, she knows the nature of anger, retribution and revenge. She knows the nature of the journey and she knows each man's place in the journey.
She knows Josey Wales on sight, she knows his past and she sees the journey he is now only beginning. After providing him with the supplies he needs for the journey, she tells him:
"You can pay me when you see me again, Josey Wales."
"I reckon so."
As she listens in on the debate between Fletcher and Terrill, who wants to continue hunting down "rebel scum" in Texas, we again see her true nature. After their exchange, she looks at Fletcher and laughs. He has sold his soul.
Fletcher: "We get Josey Wales and it ends."
Terrill: "Doin' right ain't got no end."
Wars of retribution have no end until someone steps forward and stops. Fletcher's perception that this is about hunting down Josey Wales is shattered. Terrill will never stop, Josey Wales won't stop, and if no one stops it will never end. Whether it is intentional or not, Fletcher's face becomes darker as the film progresses until it is seen in the light at the end.
Still filled with anger and rage, shown in the scene where the two lowly reward seekers come upon Josey and Jaime, we see that Josey's journey is far from complete. A lesson must be given. In the next scene, Jaime dies as a result from the wounds he suffered in his escape from execution. His companion and the reason for carrying on is lost. Jaime was not enough, and so Josey Wales encounters the Cherokee Lone Waite, who will bring him the wisdom needed to continue the journey. Confused and seemingly resigned, Lone Waite is more than just a bumbling old Indian.
"We dressed ourselves up like Abraham Lincoln... and they said we looked so civilized... and we met the Secretary of the Interior and told him how our lands had been stolen... and he said we should 'endeavor to persevere.' And the next day our picture was in the paper... and the headline said 'Indians Endeavor to Persevere.' And we thought about that and what it meant, and when we were done thinking about it we declared war on the Union..."
The encounter with Josey Wales causes Lone Waite to reconsider these things. They have the same inner battle and the same enemy, but they have faced it in different ways and now their journeys brings them together. Lone Waite's wife and two sons died on the Trail of Tears. He burns his top hat and his "civilized" clothes and goes back to being what he was before he became "civilized." He will join Josey in his journey.
Once they are joined, they begin to collect a following of other travelers in need of some kind of assistance. Although they seem to indicate they need the protection Josey can give them, riding with a marked man is not a very good way of seeking to stay out of trouble.
"You might as well ride along with us. Hell, everyone else is."
--Josey to the mangy red-boned hound whose head he likes to spit on
The squaw, Little Moonlight, is the next to join with them. Unfairly marked as an unclean woman who has "been with too many bucks," she is facing rape at the hands of two "pilgrims," as Josey later calls them. They are distracted from this by the opportunity to "get us the Josey Wales," a mistake that costs them their lives. She feels she now belongs to Josey for what he's done for her, but Josey wisely notes, "I don't want anyone belonging to me."
Coming into the town where they encounter Laura Lee and Grandma Sarah, there is an underrated scene where Josey and his flock see the results of the war. A carpetbagger hawking "Indian scalps" and a collection of crippled and beaten veterans. Josey's long, sorrowful look as they pass by tells us he is beginning to understand that all this killing and revenge comes at too high a price. Beyond that we also see that following a war supposedly fought to end slavery, human life has become very cheap and people can be bought, sold and traded.
The judgmental and self-righteous Grandma and the timid and awkward Laura Lee are out of their element. In this world Josey Wales often refers to as Hell, they are taking a journey to a ranch they believe to be a promised land. Believing in their rights and in a free and just country, they are waylaid by comancheros, traders who make money by trading with the Commanche. Those possessions worth nothing in a trade are destroyed, but the women may bring a price, especially the fresh young one, Laura Lee.
Josey does not want to get involved, but Stand Waite's fumbling on the hill overlooking the scene sets off a chain of events in which Josey must fall back on what he knows how to do best, kill men. Stand Waite is captured and Josey rides in, kills all the comancheros and find himself taking responsibility for Laura Lee and Grandma, whose experience has made her more bitter and angry with people she feels are not as good as she is.
The journey out of Hell and into Heaven now begins. As Grandma goes on about her son Tom's Crooked River Ranch, near Santa Rio, Josey does not believe it to be true. The place she describes cannot possibly exist where she believes it to be, but he cannot call her son a liar and agrees to lead them there, expecting them to be disappointed when they learn it is not the paradise they have anticipated.
Santa Rio is a ghost town, formerly a bustling silver mining community. There isn't even any whiskey or beer to be had in the local saloon. Josey provides, bringing in whiskey he acquired from the comancheros after his bloody defeat of them. This is a symbolic turning point. Soon after, as Grandma discusses her son Tom with the Santa Rio locals, Josey Wales discovers that he is helping the mother and daughter of a man who rode and died with the Redlegs, his most despised foes. The ranch in question was built and owned by a member of the Redlegs regiment. Tom was killed by, in Grandmother's words, "Missouri ruffians," the people she most despises. This is what Josey Wales is and it is quite possible, given the history, that Josey killed Tom during the war.
The encounter with the bounty hunter shows us Josey's continued journey and his realization of his own nature. He offers the bounty hunter life, telling him that he can walk out and live or stay and die. When the bounty hunter leaves and then returns, Josey is expecting him.
"I had to come back."
The cycle of violence, vengeance and the cheapness of human life seems to have no end. The bounty hunter is killed, but his associate leaves. Josey knows they will be coming for him now. He has nowhere left to run and nowhere left to hide. This will be his last stand, for life or for death.
The excellence of the "Word of Life and Word of Death" exchange* between Josey Wales and Ten Bears cannot be understated. Within the speech is the answer to all conflicts, and so they choose Life. Josey Wales honors his promises and his vows, and the two men come to respect each other rather than butcher each other.
Josey returns to the Crooked River Ranch, which has become a true heaven, and brings Josey reminders of the life he once had. The life of a simple man tending to his simple farm, surrounded by the people he loves. He has a new family now, comprised of people who are by nature enemies. The grandmother and granddaughter from Kansas, the rebel outlaw from Missouri, the Cherokee Stand Waite and the Navajo Little Moonlight. The townspeople come to sing and dance with them here in the new paradise. What Josey Wales lost, what caused him so much anger and sorrow, has been given to him again. A romance is developing between Josey and Laura Lee. While she may seem a limp and lifeless character in many senses, it is her quiet, "odd" and peaceful way that offers Josey balance for the fight that still rages within himself.
Still, Josey Wales continues to be a hunted man with a high price on his head. He fears that if he stays he will put the people he loves, his new family, in danger. He still must face his demons before he can find peace.
The fight comes to the Crooked River Ranch, and this time it will be Josey's new family that rescues him. Preparing to depart, Josey is confronted with Captain Terrill and the Redlegs outside his front door. Once again, they will attack his home and what he loves. The battle will be won, ending with Josey's pursuit and face to face showdown with Terrill. The conflict ends not with bullets, but by Josey "helping" Terrill fall on his own sword.
All that remains now is Fletcher, the man sworn to hunt Josey down, the man Josey blames for betraying the men he rode with in the war. They will meet, and finally the confrontation will end with peace rather than bloodshed. Instead it ends with understanding and forgiveness and the acceptance that the war is over. Fletcher is about to undergo his own journey, and he understands that Josey has made his. Josey Wales is officially declared dead. He is, in essence, reborn into this new life, the second chance he earned on the journey that is The Outlaw Josey Wales.
* Since this is quoted in the writeup above, I will not add it here