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The Western as Philosophy

Revisiting the Western convinces Thomas Wartenberg that historical progress is not just a simple question of good heroically triumphing over evil.

When I was growing up, my favorite genre of film or television show was the Western. I remember Saturday mornings spent in front of the TV waiting for my favorite show – The Lone Ranger – to come on. And every year, the big event was the annual rebroadcast of the hour-long episode that explained how the Lone Ranger had come to be alone or, more accurately, why he was not part of a unit of Texas Rangers but had only a single American Indian, Tonto, for support.

As far as I was concerned at the time, the appeal of Westerns was their depiction of the triumph of good over evil. The Lone Ranger encountered all sorts of unscrupulous evil-doers, and despite the odds against him, managed to overcome them with feats of skill and courage – always aided by his sidekick Tonto, who would appear as if from nowhere to save the masked man from certain death. And there was also something appealing to a lonely ten-year old about a hero whose commitment to bettering the world entailed that he could never form ongoing attachments to anyone other than his Indian companion.

So I was somewhat surprised to discover what Westerns were ‘really’ about recently when I looked at a number of them. What re-inspired my interest in Westerns was a book by the philosopher Peter French called Cowboy Metaphysics: Ethics and Death in the Western. In a Nietzschean vein, French argues that the cowboy represents an alternative to the moral values that are dominant in our culture. According to French, by risking his life and confronting death on a frequent basis, the cowboy exhibits a set of virtues that differ from those celebrated in our technological, ‘civilized’ society.

Although I didn’t agree with all of French’s claims, his book did send me back to the Westerns. I watched lots of old Westerns – from the early silent The Great Train Robbery of 1905 through John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), ending, more or less, with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). One of the pleasures of being a philosopher who takes the movies seriously is that I get to indulge these youthful pleasures, even if I do so in a very different way and for a very different purpose than I did nearly half a century ago.

Unsurprisingly, I came out of my re-immersion in the Western with a very different understanding of them than I had had as a kid. Sure, there was the notion of the lone hero forced to confront evil on terms that appear to ensure his demise, but who triumphs against the odds because of his superior brawn, intelligence and virtue. Yet I also realized that the Western was not a timeless genre, but one that had a very specific locale both spatially and temporally. Maybe it’s obvious, but I hadn’t realized that although the Western obviously takes place in the American West – Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, etc – it does so at a very precise moment in time: shortly after the American Civil War. As a result, it depicts an equally specific social issue: the conflict between the cattle ranchers and the post-war settlers who aimed to civilize the West.

The American West had earlier been dominated by cattlemen, who owned vast stretches of land and used the prairie as a place to graze their cattle as if it were their own. Some Westerns dealt with the problems that the cattlemen faced in making the prairies safe places for their cattle. This, of course, involved the dispossession of the American Indians from their traditional lands, and, unfortunately all too often, their extermination. (Broken Arrow is one outstanding example of a film which dealt with the Indians’ dispossession.) But most of the Westerns that I watched had a different focus. As ex-Civil War soldiers and others headed west to stake their claims, they required a very different world to support them. Because they aspired to many of the same conditions that dominated their lives ‘back east’ – a secure enough environment to live in and raise children in – they required the civilization of the West. That is to say, they wanted to be able to shop and buy the manufactured goods that were available in eastern markets; they wanted schools for their children; they demanded law and order so that they could conduct their lives in a decent and civilized manner.

But these seemingly ordinary demands posed a real threat to the cattlemen and to their hired hands, the gunslingers and cowboys who dominate the Western as a film genre. One of the concrete manifestations of this threat was the different attitudes towards land – the prairie – that the two groups had. The cattlemen had always taken it for granted that they had a practically infinite amount of land at their disposal for grazing their herds. But the settlers saw the land differently. What the settlers wanted was for the prairie to be divided into small homesteads on which they could build houses and tend some crops. That the two groups had conflicting interests in the land is clear: thus the conflict between them seems fated. And no image of the conflict is more indelible than that of the railroad slowly making its way across the prairies and bringing with it, not just the fencing of the prairie, but also all the accoutrements of civilization, ie churches, schools, stores, the law.

This may be old hat to many readers, who may be wondering where the philosophy in all of this is. Here’s my answer: the main philosophical interest of the Western for me is its critical assessment of this social development from the world of the cattlemen to the world of the settlers. As we watch the conflicts in these films, we know who won this battle: my ancestors, the settlers. Although we can get a thrill traveling back to towns like Tombstone where the famous gunfight at the OK Coral took place, the American world is now firmly that of the settlers, and it is their values which are now the dominant ones.

So are the Westerns paeans to the triumph of law and order over the lawlessness that gave the Wild West its name? Hardly. Although my memory of my childhood fascination with the Western takes that genre to show how virtue triumphs over evil, a more nuanced look at it sees that this victory, while perhaps not quite Pyrrhic, is nonetheless a mixed blessing, for the gun-toting cowboy does stand for values and for a way of life which have elements we cannot help but admire.

The two Westerns I watched which best embody these lost ideals are George Stevens’ 1953 film Shane and John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Shane clearly depicts the struggle between the settlers and the cattlemen. What it helped me understand was that gunslingers were not just outlaws who preyed on those less skilled with the tools of violence than themselves, but were often hired hands of the cattlemen, who employed them precisely to sow fear into the settlers and their wives and children – in order to get them to leave, to go back east where they ‘belonged’. But even as the film shows us the triumph of Shane (himself a reformed gunslinger) over the gunslingers in heroic terms, a pervasive sense of loss dominates the film’s ending. This is registered in part through Shane’s altruistic choice to depart, thus leaving the family of the woman he loves intact. But we also get a sense that the domestic life of the Starrett family is left with a more mundane, less exciting atmosphere than prevailed before.

So, according to this film, the process of civilizing the West is not the purely progressive change which would be indicated if we saw it simply as a process by which the rule of the gun was replaced by law and order. The film rejects the blindly optimistic views of history as progressive that were given philosophical legitimacy by Hegel, among others. The film suggests that Nietzsche’s critique of this view of history is correct: that we have to recognize the diminution that accompanies the process we call ‘civilization’.

This view is even clearer in Liberty Valance because the film employs a flashback structure from the film’s present of around 1915 to the earlier age of the 1870s when law and order had not yet been brought to the West. The senator whom we see in the opening frame (James Stewart) was only a young tenderfoot in the earlier time, arriving in Shinbone, law books in hand, dreaming of bringing law and order to that wild town. And although he does manage to realize his dream, it’s only over the ambitions of a heroic individual, in this case the cowboy played by John Wayne, Tom Doniphon. In this film, the ironic triumph of myth over reality figures as the film’s indictment of the process of so-called civilization. It was Doniphon and not the senator who really killed desperado Liberty Valance, although it is the senator who gets the credit and the awards of fame for it.

Although both these films justify much lengthier discussions to show how subtle and interesting their criticisms of a progressive view of history are, they suffice to demonstrate that the Western is a genre with a great potential for philosophification. Through its look at the history of one part of the United States, it’s able to present a philosophical take on history that is easily understood by viewers. It surely deserves to be appreciated for doing so.

This is why I have a wistful feeling as I watch my son mesmerized by sci-fi shows like Star Trek in the way I was by The Lone Ranger. Although sci-fi is heir in many ways to the Western – it, too, is the site of battles between good and evil, with heroes winning their battles against all odds – it often lacks the social and historical specificity that makes the Western such a unique genre. Although sci-fi films have their own philosophical domain – the subject, perhaps, for another column – I can’t help but be nostalgic for the era of the Western and the reflections it engendered about the discontents bred by our ‘civilization’.

© Thomas Wartenberg 2007

Thomas Wartenberg is the co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

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