I was recently reading up on the classic screenwriting (and general storytelling) template “The Hero’s Journey” and was reminded of something I noticed a long time ago about a couple of Clint Eastwood western classics. What struck me was the assertion that the hero’s journey and the anti-hero’s journey are identical –up to a point. The article I was reading implied that, whereas the classic hero is an archetype of self-sacrifice and self-control, or “goodness,” the antihero is linked more closely to his base, animalistic side. As a result, the hero’s journey will, at the turning point, see the hero resist temptation and be redeemed, ascending to a moral summit, whereas an antihero will at the same point succumb to temptation and descend into damnation. (Think Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader.)
I’m not so sure this is always the case, but I can’t deny that it often is. And thinking about that made me remember a thought I’ve had for years: that The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven are the same story, told in reverse and with opposite endings.
Let’s take a brief look at the plots of those two films.
The Outlaw Josey Wales:
Josey Wales starts out as a good, honest, family man (in Missouri, on the eve of the Civil War.) His family is murdered by Union guerrillas, and in response he joins a band of Confederate guerrillas. At the end of this very nasty war, he refuses to surrender- and becomes an outlaw, hunted by the federal army.
Wales is clearly a loner –but is not allowed to remain so for long. In his travels he manages to pick up several hangers-on, all of whom are dependent on him in one way or another. There is the old Confederate Cherokee, a young Navajo woman, and a group of settlers that includes a Yankee woman and her granddaughter. By the end of the movie, Wales has brokered peace between the settlers and the Comanches, and his primary nemesis has strongly hinted that he has no intention of “finding” him. Wales has become the nucleus of a community, and an agent of peace rather than chaos. No longer a loner bent on revenge, he has been redeemed and returned in many ways to the condition he had lived in before his family’s murder.
William Munny also starts out as a farmer and a family man, albeit a widower, raising his children on a pig farm. But this was not how his life had always been. Munny was a reformed gunman; in his youth he had been a cold, vicious killer. He had changed because of his beloved wife. An opportunity is presented to him, however, to improve his family’s lot by hunting down some cowboys for a bounty (one of them had cut up a young prostitute, whose friends advertised a reward in order to get justice.)
Subsequent events –including the death of his partner –force Munny to confront the ghosts of his past, ghosts he had been trying to avoid for years. In a tearful drinking binge, he relives the horrific acts of his youth. When he finally arrives to take revenge for his friend’s murder, he has reverted to the cold killer he had been before. He has not been forgiven –not by the ghosts of his victims, and ultimately not by himself.
Josey Wales’ story is one of a hero’s redemption. He goes from being a loner to being the foundation of a community –he is loved, and forgiven. He pulls away from the precipice of damnation that the war has drawn him to.
Will Munny’s attempts to be a simple man and a good citizen are doomed. He is pulled back to that precipice, which he had managed to withdraw from once before, and this time he tumbles into it. He descends into the darkness, and clearly feels much more natural and at home there than he ever did while trying to deny that side of himself. Note how confident and controlled he is at the end of the film, once he has finally given his demons free rein.
Eastwood’s famous Man With No Name from the Leone trilogy is an antihero in the sense that he seems amoral at times, and does not display the classic, noble attributes of the western hero. Will Munny is an antihero in a more literary sense. Even though he survives, the audience knows that he has lost the really important battle, the battle with his own dark side. Josey Wales has won that battle, and found contentment.
The two films are like bookends. I recommend you watch them again from this perspective, and that fact will become even clearer.
I also realized that I have done something similar in two Civil War –era novels I have written. The first, Bound for the Promise-Land, is about an ex-slave turned Union soldier and his quest for the meaning of freedom. Filled with self-doubt, he eventually discovers the truth within himself and finds peace and redemption. The second, Good Rebel Soil, is about the infamous Confederate guerrilla Champ Ferguson –who, along with Bloody Bill Anderson, served as a template for Asa Carter’s fictional Josey Wales. Ferguson is pulled, by his uncontrolled passions, into a self-destructive path that he knows will end in Hell. The first novel has been re-released, and the other will be soon; I think they are two of my best, and taken together give an overview of the Civil War from both sides, as well as food for thought regarding what makes a hero (or an anti-hero.)