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The Philosophy of the Western

Jennifer McMahon

Publication Year: 2010

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.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: The Philosophy of Popular Culture

Front Cover

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Title Page

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pp. iii


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pp. iv


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pp. v-vi

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INTRODUCTION: Philosophy and the Western

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pp. 1-10

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 ...

Part 1: THE COWBOY WAY: The Essence of the Western Hero

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pp. 11

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“DO NOT FORSAKE ME, OH, MY DARLING”: Loneliness and Solitude in Westerns

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pp. 13-29

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” ...

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pp. 31-53

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 like High Noon (1952) comes immediately to mind ...

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pp. 55-69

There is no reasonable argument against the (true) assertion that the ultimate American cinematic cowboy was, and remains, John Wayne. Th e questions of exactly why and how he and his fi lms 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 ...

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TWO WAYS TO YUMA: Locke, Liberalism, and Western Masculinity in 3:10 to Yuma

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pp. 69-87

At one of the climactic moments of the 1957 film 3:10 to Yuma, rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) realizes, in the timeless tradition of countless devil-maycare 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 ...

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LANDSCAPES OF GENDERED VIOLENCE: Male Love and Anxiety on the Railroad

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pp. 89-110

At President Obama’s inaugural luncheon, hanging behind the president’s table was Thomas Hill’s View of Yosemite Valley (1885). Hill, a painter in the Hudson River tradition, is perhaps best known for his painting The Last Spike (1881), which commemorated the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad ...

Part 2: THE CODE OF THE WEST: The Cowboy and Society

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pp. 111

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“ORDER OUT OF THE MUD”: Deadwood and the State of Nature

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pp. 113-138

“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 his Second 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 ...

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ORDER WITHOUT LAW: The Magnificent Seven, East and West

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pp. 139-147

In John Sturges’s 1960 western The 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 epic Seven Samurai, in which a small farming community suff ering from the constant predation of a bandit gang hires seven ronin to defend it.1 ...

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FROM DOLLARS TO IRON: The Currency of Clint Eastwood's Westerns

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pp. 149-169

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 fi lm about vengeance, reconciliation, and community, Josey Wales extends Eastwood’s western character ...

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THE DUTY OF REASON: Kantian Ethics in High Noon

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pp. 171-183

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 autobiography My Life, former president Bill Clinton writes ...

Part 3: OUTL AWS: Challenging Conventions of the Western

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pp. 185

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THE COST OF THE CODE: Ethical Consequences in High Noon and The Ox-Bow Incident

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pp. 187-201

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. ...

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“BACK OFF TO WHAT?”: Th e Search for Meaning in The Wild Bunch

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pp. 203-220

Much has been written and said about Sam Peckinpah’s The 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 fi lm, to be sure, are outlaws who do their share of killing and more ...

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NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: The Decline of Ethics and the West(urn)

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pp. 221-239

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 ...

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THE NORTHWESTERN: McCabe and Mrs. Miller

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pp. 241-257

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’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) is not a classic western in the way that, say, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) and George Stevens’s Shane (1953) are classic. The setting is a first clear indication that McCabe and Mrs. Miller differs from classic westerns. ...

Part 4: ON THE FRINGE: The Encounter with the Other

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pp. 259

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SAVAGE NATIONS: Native Americans and the Western

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pp. 261-290

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. ...

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REGENERATION THROUGH STORIES AND SONG: The View from the Other Side of the West in Smoke Signals

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pp. 291-307

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. ...

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GO WEST, YOUNG WOMAN!: Hegel’s Dialectic and Women’s Identities in Western Films

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pp. 309-327

Th e 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. ...

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BEATING A LIVE HORSE: The Elevation and Degradation of Horses in Westerns

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pp. 329-350

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. ...


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pp. 351-354


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pp. 355-358


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pp. 359-368

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813173856
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813125916

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: The Philosophy of Popular Culture