- Emile Durkheim Rides Again: The Death of the Western Hero and the Rise of the Moral Individualist
(updated 10.05.20) Page 79: The last paragraph of text has been updated to read:
"At the beginning of the film, Munny is living a law-abiding life as a farmer while raising two children, but it is only an illusion of social integration. At the end of the film, after his rampage, Munny has demonstrated the magnitude of the threat he poses to society. When the epilogue then notes that Munny “prospered in dry goods," signaling his return to an illusion of integration (magnified, in fact, by prosperity), the film holds the myth of a nation’s moral identity in a final contempt."
This article examines the function, transition, and ultimate removal of the hero from the Western film genre in the late 1960s. Most examinations of the genre, especially of its mid-twentieth-century heyday, have assumed that the Western requires a “hero.” Even “antihero” Westerns of the late 1960s depend on this assumption, for although the hero is often absent from antihero narratives, the hero and antihero exist on the same spectrum. The result has been a remarkably binary approach to the genre, with heroic figures played by the likes of Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, Alan Ladd, and John Wayne used as lenses for understanding large-scale cultural movements.1 This article argues instead that revisionist Westerns, which arose as early as The Ox-Bow Incident (Wellman 1943) but flourished in the 1970s onwards, present neither hero nor antihero but, rather, the “moral individualist”—a complex and problematic figure best understood through the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim.
Origins of the Western
The Western film genre has its roots in “Manifest Destiny,” the nineteenth-century form of exceptionalism in America that conflated westward expansion with Christian hegemony. The concept sprang, in part, from European settlers, who themselves could trace exceptionalism not just to nation-state expansions and retreats over the previous thousand years but to religious crusades and to key theological constructs that required both [End Page 67] domination and sacrifice. But the United States adapted and consolidated that exceptionalism into a new sense of personal and political destiny. Spreading the American republic over the vast North American continent required a relatively modern vision of conquest, in which the land would be dominated not by hierarchy or caste but by the egalitarianism and individualism—even if these values required deception, dispossession, and extermination to effectuate. It was the creed of the exceptional individual, the hero, taken from classical myth but deployed not in service to any single collective but in service to the assorted masses of individuals. The killer was simultaneously the personal liberator.
There were clear and deliberate attempts to establish the legitimacy of this national myth towards the end of the nineteenth century. Stephen McVeigh names the four-volume collection The Winning of the West (1889–1896) by Theodore Roosevelt, along with Roosevelt’s presidency itself (1901–1909), as vital to the promotion of the mythology of the West. For McVeigh, at the core of Roosevelt’s work are two directives: the “negation of the Native-American” and “the formation of the American character,” the latter defined by self-reliance, and “the priority of the individual” (21). Roosevelt’s position early on as both a former frontiersman in South Dakota and a former member of the lower house of the New York State Legislature bridged the gap between the east and the west, between the cultivated and the wild. Roosevelt embodied both forms of life in America, winning him broad acceptance among the populace. His presidency, along with his expeditions to Africa and South America, only fortified his position as an authoritative voice on how and why America had flourished. He offered in his own life an example of the exceptional American individual.
Roosevelt, however, was supported by other like-minded people, most familiar of whom was Frederick Jackson Turner, whose essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” presented in 1893 at a meeting of the American Historical Association, formulated for academics a new direction and perspective on the foundations of...