Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Hollywood Westerns and American Myth

Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosophy

Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Hollywood Westerns and American Myth
    Book Description:

    In this pathbreaking book one of America's most distinguished philosophers brilliantly explores the status and authority of law and the nature of political allegiance through close readings of three classic Hollywood Westerns: Howard Hawks'Red Riverand John Ford'sThe Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceandThe Searchers.

    Robert Pippin treats these films as sophisticated mythic accounts of a key moment in American history: its "second founding," or the western expansion. His central question concerns how these films explore classical problems in political psychology, especially how the virtues of a commercial republic gained some hold on individuals at a time when the heroic and martial virtues were so important. Westerns, Pippin shows, raise central questions about the difference between private violence and revenge and the state's claim to a legitimate monopoly on violence, and they show how these claims come to be experienced and accepted or rejected.

    Pippin's account of the best Hollywood Westerns brings this genre into the center of the tradition of political thought, and his readings raise questions about political psychology and the political passions that have been neglected in contemporary political thought in favor of a limited concern with the question of legitimacy.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14578-6
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. 1-25)

    John Ford’s first great Western, his 1939Stagecoach,has a simple enough plot. A group of seven strangers has to crowd into a stagecoach in the town of Tonto and, for seven different reasons, journey across dangerous Indian territory to the town of Lordsburg. We are not far into the narrative before the reasonably attentive viewer begins to notice several signs of a far greater ambition than that of a standard adventure story. For one thing, the characters seem deliberately representative, and deliberately matched and contrasted in a way that goes beyond the colorfully psychological. There is a haughty, respectable,...

    (pp. 26-60)

    Red River(Howard Hawks, 1948) has some tenuous connections with actual events—the founding of the vast King ranch in Texas and the creation of the Chisolm Trail. The film tells the story of how Tom Dunson (John Wayne), together with a long-time friend, a sort of comic, Sancho Panza character, Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), and a foundling child, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift, playing the foundling role that is an old mythic theme),¹ whom they took in after an Indian attack killed his parents, founded an immense cattle ranch in southwest Texas, near the Red River. Fourteen years later the...

  6. 3 WHO CARES WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE? The Heroic and the Prosaic in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    (pp. 61-101)

    Human beings make myths, tell stories about ancient times and great events, and call such times and events to mind over many generations, for all sorts of reasons. But many of these reasons are political. They help confirm a people’s identity and help legitimate entitlements to territory and authority; they might orient a people with a sense of their unique mission.¹ They attempt to master the brute contingency of history by making some sense out of events, pointing to patterns and unities and resolutions; they attempt to domesticate, make familiar, the strangeness of the world and the place of human...

    (pp. 102-140)

    I have been arguing that great Hollywood Westerns explore in a large mythic framework (where mythic self-consciousness is an attempt at a form of collective self-knowledge) representations and enactments of the political psychology characteristic of a distinctly American imaginary, and that this imaginary both concerns and is itself central to the nature of the political in the American experience. This has meant that the films, in their own filmic and self-conscious way, direct our attention to characteristic psychological attitudes, aspirations, and anxieties constitutive of a historical political actuality; they focus attention on the self-representations of political agents themselves. There is...

    (pp. 141-156)

    I have suggested that the great Hollywood Westerns present in a recognizably mythic form dimensions of an American self-understanding of great relevance to the question of the nature of the political in the American imaginary. They especially illuminate aspects of a distinct political psychology essential to the question of the use and acceptance of political power in modernity, aspects often neglected in narrower reflections on legitimacy in the liberal democratic philosophical tradition and more easily accessible in imaginative works of art. Many of these issues have to do with the kind of psychological stake that citizens are shown to have...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 157-178)
    (pp. 179-188)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 189-198)