We all have an idea in our head that pops up whenever we think of the Western. Certain characteristics come to mind, such as horses, six-guns, ten-gallon hats, dusty streets or savage wilderness, all of which is set in the mid to late 1800s. Of course, this is what usually makes up the genre’s Golden Age but since then the tropes and ideologies have been altered and often inverted. Films by legendary Western directors like John Ford and Anthony Mann were transformed by filmmakers like Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel. Classic films like Stagecoach (Ford, 1939) and The Man from Laramie (Mann, 1955) led to revisionist films such as Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992) and The Shootist (Siegel, 1976). The Western has the largest classic period (arguably from late 1930s through the late 1960s) and has been subject to revisionist and nostalgic interpretations ever since. The Western is a perfect avenue to study genre evolution because of the numerous ways it explores race, gender and identity.
The latest exploration of the genre is The Philosophy of the Western, an anthology of essays edited by Jennifer L. McMahon and B. Steve Csaki that discuss/address? the Western in terms of the myths created in both history and cinema. This compilation deals primarily with the philosophy surrounding identity, ethics and gender that dominate the American Western. In addition, the authors incorporate the intersection of philosophy and Western myth, each at different lengths and depths. The text is meant to explore the genre as a new way to strengthen our? understanding of philosophy. Co-editors McMahon and Csaki say that “while rooted in history, the myth of the American West quickly took on a life of its own” (p. 2). The blurred line between fact and fiction of the Wild West has continually been carried by the American film industry since the early 1900s. This book shows that the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, 1962) – “when legend becomes fact, print the legend” – still rings true. Hollywood continues to print (or revise) the legend to this day.
The academic field of the Western is almost as large as the genre itself. Many of the original studies are still useful, from Robert Warshow’s influential essay “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner” (1954) to Jim Kitses Horizons West (1969) and John G. Cawelti’s The Six-Gun Mystique (1970), both of which have updated versions (1). The Western may get more notice due to the Coen brothers’ 2010 Oscar-nominated film True Grit. The Coens’ film is a true exploration of nostalgia (which they have done for numerous genres such as noir and the gangster film), but to understand their sentimental approach to the Western, one must have a grasp of the films that founded the genre. Thought of the Western will generally draw quick images of Ford’s Monument Valley or Mann’s rigid mountain tops or gunfighters like Shane (Alan Ladd) in Shane (George Stevens 1953) and John T. Chance (John Wayne) in Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959). It is this legend/myth created by these films that keeps audiences and scholars interested.
The most recognisable character in the Western, other than the dusty landscape itself, is the male gunfighter. This character is usually the heroic figure that traditionally saves the day and rides off into the sunset. In “Civilization and its Discontents: The Self-Sufficient Western Hero”, Douglas J. Den Uyl breaks apart the inner workings of the famous protagonist. The most common trait of the Western hero is his ability to rely on himself (sometimes herself). Den Uyl connects the idea of self-sufficiency with Aristotle’s works such as Nicomachean Ethics, which argues that happiness is created by a virtuous act. The Western hero is certainly self-sufficient, rarely needing the help of anyone else. The predominantly male gunfighter’s selfless acts are generally seen by his defense of the civilisation that is threatened by the savage wilderness. Discussing this character, Den Uyl says that “virtue of courage is almost always present, and some form of the virtue of justice is typically part of the hero’s character as well” (p. 38). Such tropes have transcended the history of the genre and can be seen through The Ringo Kid (Wayne) in Stagecoach to Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Of course, sometimes the virtue is justified through the character’s desire for revenge, as it was for Ethan Edwards (Wayne) in The Searchers (Ford, 1956). This kind of individualism is personified through both self-reliance and self-motivation, much of which comes from their past experiences (the author mentions the general lack of rookies in Westerns). Den Uyl importantly notes that “Western heroes are likely to be men guided by reason and would not be heroes if they were not” (p. 39). The reason that drives these heroes is one that is deeply personal. The Western hero is dedicated to his own ideas of truth and virtue (which are often deconstructed in later Westerns) that create his moral compass. This is why he must always ride off alone as he represents the ultimate in rugged individualism. When self-reliance has gone, it becomes “a license for mob rule” (p. 47), which is addressed in the great Henry Fonda film, The Ox-Bow Incident (William A. Wellman, 1943), that shows the destructive nature of groupthink. Den Uyl declares the Western genre the best representation of American virtue.
While the male figure is often central to the Western, one must not overlook the role of women in the genre. For years it was popular for feminists to discount the Western for diminishing the roles of women in its films, even though essays such as one in The Western Reader by Blake Lucas usefully argue otherwise (2). Following the popular feminist criticism of the Western, Gary Heba and Robin Murphy look at the roles of women in the genre in “Go West, Young Woman! Hegel’s Dialectic and Women’s Identities in Western Films”. The authors feel that the woman figure is not nearly as recognisable in Westerns as she should be. While this essay deals with the standard feminist view of Westerns, it breathes new life into it by using Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s notion of dialectic. The Hegelian thought process is one of understanding, destruction and elevation or transformation. Heba and Murphy argue that the men in Westerns override the woman’s words through action: “the female character’s opinion […] and thereby her influence on the narrative is moot” (p. 317). The authors continue the argument that the woman in the Western is background and rarely influential, supporting it with new ideas.
Hegel’s work is used to break down three types of women in Westerns: the settler woman, the town woman, and the transformational woman. This leads to the observation that the settler woman and the town woman’s dialectic identity is seen through her dress. The authors note that “where settler women dress practically, for work, the town women often dress to attract men or attention in general” (p. 317). The authors refer to The Searchers where Laurie (Vera Miles) changes her wardrobe back and forth from pants to dress depending on her role in the scene. Even some Golden Age Westerns play with the roles of women in the genre, though such roles have grown over the years. Heba and Murphy acknowledge that Westerns since the 1970s such as Two Mules for Sister Sarah (Siegel, 1970) and The Quick and the Dead (Sam Raimi, 1995) represent a trend of expanding roles for women in the genre, which are “mirrors of the larger social changes occurring in the United States” (p. 326). This is also represented by Hegel’s view that dialectic shapes individuals as well as entire societies; the changing roles of women in Westerns show the evolving roles of women in America.
The Philosophy of the Western does a good job exploring new and old territory in the genre while also incorporating important philosophical ideas. Other essays deal primarily with contemporary films such as the remake of 3:10 to Yuma (James Mangold, 2007) and the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2007). Discussing the latter, William J. Devlin says “we can no longer apply the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to the ‘guys’ opposing one another – and this shatters the order we recognize and assume in every western film” (p. 236). Devlin asserts that such a transformation of the classical good/bad paradigm leads to nihilism in the genre, a trait that is common in films by Joel and Ethan Coen. This essay is timely in its discussion of the Coens and the Western because the Coens’ latest film, True Grit – a more traditional Western – is opposite No Country for Old Men in terms of nihilism: True Grit helps preserve social order while No Country for Old Men deconstructs it.
Additional essays in The Philosophy of the Western deal with the legendary career of Clint Eastwood as both an actor and director of Westerns. There is also a piece about Deadwood, the HBO series that had previously yet to be the subject of serious criticism. After recently completing my Masters thesis on the generic transformation of post-classic Westerns, I’m glad there is a new text available that explores the genre from a unique angle. As Kitses explains in Horizons West, all conflicts in the Western come down to a dust up between civilisation (order) and wilderness (chaos). Of course, it is not always clean cut as the Western is constantly evolving, which is why study of the genre is still warranted. The Philosophy of the Western continues to plumb the many meanings beneath the surface in this monumental genre. There may be less Westerns made today than 70 years ago, but these films are no less influential. Anyone looking to research the Western will not want to miss this anthology, which is full of useful essays about the oldest genre in Hollywood.
The Philosophy of the Western, edited by Jennifer L. McMahon and B. Steve Csaki, the University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2010.
- Robert Warshow, “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner”  in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, sixth edition, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2004, pp. 703-716; Jim Kitses, Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood, British Film Institute, London, 2004; John G. Cawelti, The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, Bowling Green, 1999.
- Blake Lucas, “Saloon Girls and Ranchers’ Daughters: The Woman in the Western” in The Western Reader, edited by Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman, Limelight Editions, New York, 1998, pp. 301-320.