In A Nutshell
Until Unforgiven came along in 1992, The Outlaw Josey Wales was widely regarded as Clint Eastwood’s best film as a director, and one of the best Westerns in general. Based on the popular novel by famed Native American author Forrest Carter, it freely mixed violence and amorality to create a darkly ambiguous world where good and evil are almost impossible to distinguish. And with good reason: Over a decade after the film’s release it was revealed that “Forrest” was really Asa Earl Carter—former-Klan member, terrorist, and anti-Semite with a record for attempted murder.
The Whole Bushel
In 1975, Clint Eastwood was hunting for a new script to direct when a book landed on his desk. Entitled The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales, it made compulsive reading—a slick blend of anti-government rhetoric and the sort of ambiguous morality that had made Eastwood famous in his earlier Westerns. Although the author, Forrest Carter, was not a big name at the time, he was months away from having a smash hit with his memoir Little Tree (about his Cherokee grandparents), and Eastwood knew hot property when he saw it. He bought the rights to The Rebel Outlaw and quickly turned it into one of the most famed Westerns in Hollywood history: The Outlaw Josey Wales. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Or rather, it would have been if not for a series of articles in The New York Times. A couple of reporters who seemed to recognize Carter had done some digging. They’d reached a startling conclusion. This writer of popular Westerns and documents of the Cherokee experience was none other than Asa Earl Carter: right-wing terrorist, white supremacist, and violent bigot who helped found a notorious paramilitary wing of the KKK.
Among Carter’s darker deeds had been advocating segregation in Alabama schools and organizing the violent beating of blacks when his protests failed. His KKK cronies were known to murder and castrate black people at random, and Carter spurned them on with racist pamphlets, radio broadcasts, and reams of violent literature. In fact, he felt the mainstream KKK had grown “soft,” and hoped the paramilitaries would keep the South white. He even went so far as to write George Wallace’s infamous “segregation now, segregation forever” speech.
In short, he was a radical, a terrorist—and somehow he turned himself into a supposed voice for Native Americans everywhere. Even his Cherokee name “Forrest” was chosen as homage to a founding member of the KKK. Clint Eastwood may not have known it, but his film was turning into a secret mouthpiece for a murderous bigot.
Carter died in 1979. By 1991 it was impossible to deny Forrest and Asa Earl were one and the same. Yet well into the 2000s, publishers of his books were ignoring the connection in favor of the myth of Forrest. Even now some editions make no mention of his violent past or the lie at the heart of each tale; the bizarre act of duplicity that had suckered in one of the greatest actors in the whole darn world.