Eastwood's character is a farmer living out a quiet life in Missouri near the end of the Civil War who is forced to see his whole family and homestead wiped out by marauding "Redlegs" from Kansas. He joins up with a guerrilla band of Southerners to "set things aright." But when the Union betrays those same guerrillas into surrendering and then promptly slaughters all of them, Eastwood takes violent revenge. He soon finds himself of the run at the reluctant hands of his former commander (John Vernon), and a determined Union man named Terrill (Bill McKinney, who played one of the sadistic mountain men in DELIVERANCE). As he heads towards Texas, he encounters a motley group of outcasts (Chief Dan George; Sondra Locke; Paula Trueman), and becomes less obsessed by violent revenge and more interested in helping, going for his guns only when McKinney's Union troop closes in, and bounty hunters come looking for him.
In contrast to the "Man With No Name" persona he codified with Sergio Leone in the 1960s, or the tough cop he personified in DIRTY HARRY, Eastwood's Josey Wales is a man of great courage and sympathy who becomes tired of all the violence he has had to see and to take part in. The vengeance motif is largely played out by the time the film is into its second half, and it only comes back towards the tail end for a brief moment. Those who have tagged Eastwood as a political reactionary, a John Wayne of our time, have certainly misjudged him, as even one viewing of THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES will testify to. He is not interested in being tough for the sake of being tough; he just wants to survive, and he wants those he protects to be able to live in peace. That's why, although the film is unavoidably violent at times, it has a considerable humanity too, and why it remains one of Eastwood's finest films even to this day.