The Philosophy of the Western

The Philosophy of the Western

Jennifer L. McMahon
B. Steve Csaki
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    The Philosophy of the Western
    Book Description:

    The western is arguably the most iconic and influential genre in American cinema. The solitude of the lone rider, the loyalty of his horse, and the unspoken code of the West render the genre popular yet lead it to offer a view of America's history that is sometimes inaccurate. For many, the western embodies America and its values. In recent years, scholars had declared the western genre dead, but a steady resurgence of western themes in literature, film, and television has reestablished the genre as one of the most important.

    In The Philosophy of the Western, editors Jennifer L. McMahon and B. Steve Csaki examine philosophical themes in the western genre. Investigating subjects of nature, ethics, identity, gender, environmentalism, and animal rights, the essays draw from a wide range of westerns including the recent popular and critical successes Unforgiven (1992), All the Pretty Horses (2000), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), and No Country for Old Men (2007), as well as literature and television serials such as Deadwood. The Philosophy of the Western reveals the influence of the western on the American psyche, filling a void in the current scholarship of the genre.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7385-6
    Subjects: Philosophy, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction: Philosophy and the Western
    (pp. 1-10)
    Jennifer L. McMahon and B. Steve Csaki

    What is it that compels people’s fascination with the American West? What motivated (and still motivates) individuals to pull up stakes and head west? Why do the travails of the cowboy remain so captivating when cowboy culture is virtually extinct? Arguably, the perennial appeal of the American West is anchored in myth, a myth whose power persists in large part because it finds expression, among other places, in the literary and cinematic genre known as the western.

    The myth that westerns convey is both anchored in the history of the West and itself helped shape the historical settlement of the...

  4. Part 1. The Cowboy Way:: The Essence of the Western Hero
    • “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh, My Darling”: Loneliness and Solitude in Westerns
      (pp. 13-30)
      Shai Biderman

      One of the common attributes of western films is the “lone hero.” Whether it’s in the final scene, where he takes that inevitable “lone ride” off into the sunset or in his heroic acts throughout the film, where he saves the town folk from danger, the lone hero keeps to himself. He is the quintessential “strong silent type” traditionally prized in the American psyche. He is strong in the sense that he is powerful in his physical, intellectual, and moral capacities. He is silent in the sense that, despite the social benefits earned by his outward actions, he remains secluded...

    • Civilization and Its Discontents: The Self-Sufficient Western Hero
      (pp. 31-54)
      Douglas J. Den Uyl

      Perhaps no image is more symptomatic of the American western than the lone hero, abandoned by all, skillfully performing some act of courage in the cause of justice.¹ In this respect, a movie likeHigh Noon(1952) comes immediately to mind: Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is forsaken even by his fiancée as he faces a deadly opponent. However allegorical the film may be, it is perhaps paradigmatic of the majority of western films—namely, it showcases a hero possessed of extraordinary self-sufficiency facing problems that ordinary men would be either unable or too fearful to handle.² The western hero...

    • Mommas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Pragmatists
      (pp. 55-68)
      B. Steve Csaki

      There is no reasonable argument against the (true) assertion that the ultimate American cinematic cowboy was, and remains, John Wayne. The questions of exactly why and how he and his films so captured the American psyche remain somewhat open. In fact, there are myriad aspects to this question, but I believe that there is one overarching explanation as to why John Wayne was so clearly special: he was an excellent pragmatist. I shall argue that any cowboy hero must act pragmatically and that John Wayne so embodied the true sense of the classical American pragmatist that this was one of...

    • Two Ways to Yuma: Locke, Liberalism, and Western Masculinity in 3:10 to Yuma
      (pp. 69-88)
      Stephen J. Mexal

      At one of the climactic moments of the 1957 film3:10 to Yuma, rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) realizes, in the timeless tradition of countless devil-may-care western heroes, that his task has become all but hopeless. Dan has agreed to bring outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) to justice for the price of $200, money he desperately needs to pay his land debts. His job is to put Wade on the 3:10 p.m. train to Yuma, Arizona, where Wade will be imprisoned.

      It is near the end of the film—when he is holed up in a hotel room with Wade...

    • Landscapes of Gendered Violence: Male Love and Anxiety on the Railroad
      (pp. 89-110)
      Lindsey Collins

      At President Obama’s inaugural luncheon, hanging behind the president’s table was Thomas Hill’sView of Yosemite Valley(1885). Hill, a painter in the Hudson River tradition, is perhaps best known for his paintingThe Last Spike(1881), which commemorated the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad in Promontory Summit, Utah. Like the railroad’s completion, Yosemite’s preservation, decreed by Abraham Lincoln after the Civil War, was a symbol of national unity. Commenting on the significance of the painting chosen for Obama’s inauguration, Senator Dianne Feinstein noted, “As a country struggled with Civil War, many Americans looked West to the dawn of...

  5. Part 2. The Code of the West:: The Cowboy and Society
    • “Order Out of the Mud”: Deadwood and the State of Nature
      (pp. 113-138)
      Paul A. Cantor

      “John Locke” sounds like a good name for a frontier marshal in a Hollywood movie, but we do not usually associate the English philosopher with the Wild West. Yet in hisSecond Treatise of Government, Locke speaks of “the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America.”¹ In fact, he makes over a dozen references in this book to America, many of them specifically to Indians (if not cowboys). Locke (1632–1704) is carrying on a debate about the important philosophical concept of the state of nature, a debate inaugurated by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) in hisLeviathan, where he also...

    • Order without Law: The Magnificent Seven, East and West
      (pp. 139-148)
      Aeon J. Skoble

      In John Sturges’s 1960 westernThe Magnificent Seven, a small farming community suffering from the constant predation of a bandit gang hires seven gunslingers to defend it. This film is, of course, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 samurai epicSeven Samurai, in which a small farming community suffering from the constant predation of a bandit gang hires sevenroninto defend it.¹ Sturges and other post-Kurosawa directors of westerns (most notably Sergio Leone) were influenced by the samurai film, but it turns out that Kurosawa was himself influenced by earlier generations of westerns. So each genre can remake or...

    • From Dollars to Iron: The Currency of Clint Eastwood’s Westerns
      (pp. 149-170)
      David L. McNaron

      Expansive in scope, geographically, historically, and thematically,The Outlaw Josey Wales(1976) is a unique western. It has some of the best gunplay, most poignant dialogue, most colorfully vile minor villains, and most fully developed Indian characters in the genre. A film about vengeance, reconciliation, and community,Josey Walesextends Eastwood’s western character and resolves problems in the adult western concerning the individual and the community even as it raises others. It is Eastwood’sculminatingwestern: to appreciate it, we must become acquainted with his others and tease out their themes.

      Josey Wales, an antigovernment film, advances a sort of...

    • The Duty of Reason: Kantian Ethics in High Noon
      (pp. 171-184)
      Daw-Nay Evans

      Besides receiving numerous Academy Awards and making the American Film Institute’s list of the top ten westerns of all time,High Noon(1952) is the most requested film by American presidents.¹ In his autobiographyMy Life, former president Bill Clinton writes:

      I saw a lot of movies, and especially liked the westerns. My favorite wasHigh Noon—I probably saw it half a dozen times during its run in Hope, [Arkansas], and have seen it more than a dozen times since. It’s still my favorite movie, because it’s not your typical macho western. I loved the movie because from start...

  6. Part 3. Outlaws:: Challenging Conventions of the Western
    • The Cost of the Code: Ethical Consequences in High Noon and The Ox-Bow Incident
      (pp. 187-202)
      Ken Hada

      A common perception associated with the classic western suggests characters welded to their notions of right judgment, characters who will not deviate from their code of honor, regardless of consequences. The honor implied in such deliberate devotion to duty is characteristically celebrated, at least on the surface, in the acts and speeches of typical heroes. It follows that the unyielding posture of the hero suggests a certain understanding of ethics. A strong hero is committed to his course of action because he sees the necessity to choose in a particular way, as the right thing to do, regardless of public...

    • “Back Off to What?” The Search for Meaning in The Wild Bunch
      (pp. 203-220)
      Richard Gaughran

      Much has been written and said about Sam Peckinpah’sThe Wild Bunch(1969) and the way it departs from the western genre in its violence and in its disruption of expectations concerning the moral stature of its heroes. The most sympathetic characters in the film, to be sure, are outlaws who do their share of killing and more, to paraphrase a line from the film. In fact, they doa lotmore than their share. However, the disturbing aspects ofThe Wild Bunchshould not cause viewers to dismiss the film as dishing up gore for its own sake, labeling...

    • No Country for Old Men: The Decline of Ethics and the West(ern)
      (pp. 221-240)
      William J. Devlin

      The “Wild West,” as depicted in the cinematic genre of the western, is “wild” not only in the sense that it is portrayed as an untamed land of lawlessness, but also in the sense that the films present us with a variety of “wild” but colorful characters, some of whom are considered notorious, while others are treated as role models. From charismatic individuals and brave groups of pioneers who sharply depict moral dispositions in their pursuit of law and order to villains, bandits, and gangs of outlaws who seek to challenge such order, the western ethos is built on stories...

    • The Northwestern: McCabe and Mrs. Miller
      (pp. 241-258)
      Deborah Knight and George McKnight

      Set near the Pacific Ocean in a heavily forested, frequently overcast corner of Washington State that is alternatively rain-soaked and muddy or snow-covered and cold, Robert Altman’sMcCabe and Mrs. Miller(1971) is not a classic western in the way that, say, John Ford’sMy Darling Clementine(1946) and George Stevens’sShane(1953) are classic. The setting is a first clear indication thatMcCabe and Mrs. Millerdiffers from classic westerns. Gone are the familiar landmarks we conventionally expect to see, the open wilderness and frequent wide-angle shots of a sun-drenched landscape. Nothing is to be seen here remotely like...

  7. Part 4. On the Fringe:: The Encounter with the Other
    • Savage Nations: Native Americans and the Western
      (pp. 261-290)
      Michael Valdez Moses

      It is a commonplace of contemporary film criticism that Native Americans have historically been ill served by the American western, a genre in which they have been misrepresented and demeaned.¹ For those who regard an honest and impartial portrayal of historically oppressed minorities as a moral if not an aesthetic imperative, the American western will offer little in the way of spiritual uplift. But if the American western fails to offer an objective ethnological depiction of indigenous peoples (assuming that such a thing were both possible and desirable), it nonetheless invites a philosophic consideration of the problematics of alterity, an...

    • Regeneration through Stories and Song: The View from the Other Side of the West in Smoke Signals
      (pp. 291-308)
      Richard Gilmore

      What is it that makes a western a western? Is a western a western because of where it is situated? Is the West of a western a place or a plot or an attitude, or is it some still more vague concept that includes all of these but is reducible to none? By location,Smoke Signals(Chris Eyre, 1998) is certainly a western, but location seems an especially insufficient criterion for identifying what makes a western a western. Richard Slotkin, in his bookRegeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860, argues that the myth of the...

    • Go West, Young Woman! Hegel’s Dialectic and Women’s Identities in Western Films
      (pp. 309-328)
      Gary Heba and Robin Murphy

      The myth of the Old West is rooted in a kind of nostalgia for the lure of the frontier and the freedom and challenges it presented, resulting in a quest focused on bringing order—western order—to an untamed world. More so than any other epoch in U.S. history, the American Old West has been mythologized in the collective unconscious of the country through the many iconic representations of this historical period in film. The popularity of the western genre in U.S film and television from the 1930s to the 1960s has left an indelible set of images on the...

    • Beating a Live Horse: The Elevation and Degradation of Horses in Westerns
      (pp. 329-350)
      Jennifer L. McMahon

      When one thinks of western films, certain stock characters come to mind. Cowboys, Indians, gunslingers, and homesteaders are some of the obvious examples. However, there is a character that is as—perhaps even more—elemental to the western: the horse. Horses are everywhere in westerns. Our heroes ride in—and out—on them. And yet, who thinks about them? In recent decades, increased scholarly attention has been paid to marginalized figures in literature and mainstream media. Studies on otherness have served to bring recognition to individuals and groups whose voices and value have been suppressed or distorted because of their...

  8. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 351-354)
  9. List of Contributors
    (pp. 355-358)
  10. Index
    (pp. 359-370)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 371-371)