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Reviewed by:
  • The Philosophy of the Western ed. by Jennifer L. McMahon and B. Steve Csaki
  • William Graebner
The Philosophy of the Western. Edited by Jennifer L. McMahon and B. Steve Csaki. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky. 2010.

So you thought The Wild Bunch was important for its display of gratuitous violence? Nope. According to Richard Gaughran’s revealing essay in this welcome and entertaining collection, those nasty gunfighters are “Camus’ rebels” (215), caught up in existential crisis, searching for meaning and moral clarity in a godless and lawless Nietzschean West. Convinced that the bloodless, coin-flipping Chigurh (Javier Bardem) of No Country for Old Men is an incomprehensible psychopath? Wrong again. As William J. Devlin explains, Chigurh is applying a version of philosopher Thomas Nagel’s concept of moral luck. By insisting that his victims participate in the decision to live or die by calling heads or tails—and thus introducing an element of chance—Chigurh is convinced that he no longer bears responsibility for their fates. Still a psychopath, but a philosophical one.

That’s Nagel’s only appearance in this volume, but existentialism is a popular vehicle of analysis here, surfacing in Shai Biderman’s essay—along with Stoicism and Aristotelian ethics—as a way of exploring the ruminative alone-ness of the classic hero of Shane, High Noon, and The Unforgiven. And in a credible if somewhat preachy essay on the horse in western films, co-editor Jennifer L. McMahon suggests that the urge to dominate (break, rope, whip) the critters owes much to the existential doubts and insecurities that haunt humans.

John Locke’s ideas of liberal individualism, property rights, and the state of nature are central to several thoughtful essays, including Stephen L. Mexal’s treatment of the 1957 and 2007 versions of 3:10 to Yuma, Paul A. Cantor’s compelling reading of the David Milch TV series, Deadwood, and Aeon J. Skoble’s take on The Magnificent Seven (Locke with a pinch of Friedrich Hayek’s “spontaneous order” [143]). Kant is another favorite, though here the contributors disagree. Working with High Noon, Daw-Nay Evans describes and celebrates Marshal Will Kane, who is acting on principles rather than consequences, as “Kant’s ideal moral agent”(171), while Ken Hada, deploying Martha Nussbaum’s neo-Aristotelian ethics, favors a hero who pays attention to context as well as consequences. Co-editor B. Steve Csaki makes the case that Rooster Cogburn and other John Wayne characters are actually pragmatic problem-solvers.

That leaves 7 other essays, some of which are not so easily categorized. Among those light on philosophy, Lindsey Collins’ essay examines trains (3:10 to Yuma and Tycoon) as disruptive forces, symbolic of an anxious, frustrated masculinity, while Deborah Knight and George McKnight present McCabe and Mrs. Miller as a “self-consciously ironic film” (250) and irony as a “moral position” (243). In contrast, Gary Heba and Robin Murphy create an overly dense philosophic framework based [End Page 233] on Hegel and Bakhtin, yet manage to present accessible, intriguing material on changing women’s dress and speech patterns in westerns, including The Searchers. Michael Valdez Moses’s wide-ranging and nicely crafted contribution examines representations of Native Americans in half a dozen films, including a powerful explication of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, based on Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America.

The Philosophy of the Western is a delightful collection, one that goes a long way toward bridging the fields of philosophy and film studies. At once erudite and readable, many of its essays offer solid summaries of philosophic concepts and movements. Teachers of film will mine it for lectures or assign it to students (especially if it’s issued in a cheaper, paper edition or as an e-book). I’m not a philosopher, so I can’t say how they’ll respond. What I do know is that those familiar with the classic westerns will find the book a painless way to pick up some philosophy.

William Graebner
State University of New York, Fredonia


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pp. 233-234
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