Enjoying the Bourgeois Western

Gray, dear friend, is all theory, And green life's golden tree. ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, part 1, scene 4.

Almost as much fun as going to see a good Western is reading commentary on this film genre. The sociological plausibilities and the sweeping conclusions pile one upon another, all as gratifying as the quick rush from eating a handful of jellybeans. I keep reading happily despite the realization that, hey, this identical film could just as well be grist for the miller of Freudianism, Marxist-Leninism, Feminism, or any other dodge from logic and fact. And, so long as neither art nor commentary presumes to make science or social policy, that's as it should be.

I've noticed about ten different ways of enjoying the Western film, each way corresponding to a different facet of the genre. To distinguish these elements is not to deny that most movies combine them; the list is not a catalog of subtypes.

As “escapism”

The most common observation about the Western, and indeed many other films, is that it's “just escapism.” This really doesn't signify much. Does that mean, “escape to a mindless titillation” or the very opposite “escape to an ideal world”? But in either case the Western is watched because the viewer enjoys it, so we are left where we started, asking: Why do we enjoy it?

As vicarious indulgence

What many people seem to enjoy in the “escapist” Western is the vicarious indulgence it affords. A moviegoer can enjoy a world of violence and male dominion without ever being accused of actually having (gasp!) such nasty characteristics. The moviegoer can indulge an unbridled lust for revenge (John Wayne in The Searchers) or unbridled power lust (Gene Hackman in The Unforgiven), to be reassured at the end that the restraints on these emotions are good. In fact, the likely reason that so many Western heroes are agents the state is that the badge provides good cover: the lawman can unleash a hail of lead on the bad guys with a complete “license to kill,” with ostensible justification for his savagery. And, say, when did that guy ever reload?

As costume drama

The very opposite of the foregoing enjoys the Western not as fantasy or caprice but as photographic realism. The viewer delights in the accurate reconstruction of events, language, and setting. This costume drama approach to the Western seems almost prudishly ashamed of having an emotional investment in this spectacle of rawhide and cordite: really your honor I wasn't looking at the varmint eviscerated with a shotgun blast – it was all an intellectual pursuit, I swear. But why not enjoy it? If you must have an excuse, remember that Murray Rothbard was possibly the biggest moviegoer of all time. But our whole quest here is to find out just why we do enjoy Westerns, Miss Manners be danged.

As nostalgia

A pair of Westerns that frankly address the issue of longing for a lost era are Larry McMurtry's Hud (or his Lonesome Dove) and Scott Hale's The Shootist. In these films the old West is unabashedly admired, and the question becomes how to incorporate its virtues into the modern sensibility. Hud really doesn't give us an answer except the caution that clinging to it can lead to violence and alcoholism. In The Shootist John Wayne powerfully sums up an aspect of survival in the West: “you've got to be willing” to raise your gun without a second thought and kill another human being if your life is in danger. And though Ron Howard learns this lesson in the end, killing his mentor's assailants in the barroom shootout, he casts away the instrument of destruction with disgust, as the dying shootist nods in approval. Fine as they are, in both these films their enjoyment can't rise above a profound nostalgia.

As neurotic daydreaming

Ludwig von Mises indirectly offers another appeal of the Western. In section three of his The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, he cites Professor W. O. Aydelotte's study of the detective novel. Many of the traits that make it so popular apply to the plots of many Westerns: a nameless outsider, smarter than the corporate bosses whose misdeeds have put them in power, avenges the townsfolk and restores justice. While it may not be accurate, as we will later show, to draw any broad conclusions – for example, that such plots appeal to people with “frustrated ambition,” it seems fair to say that the “little guy” who wants comeuppance would enjoy Westerns like Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider.

As the heroic

On the other hand, it is exactly this quality of many Western heroes as lone outsiders that should appeal to those with a self-motivated “sense of life,” as the American philosopher Ayn Rand puts it in her treatise The Romantic Manifesto. For her, detectives such as James Bond and Mike Hammer are heroic models, the very men who exactly fit Aydelotte's dysfunctional model. They are violent armed men, standing outside convention, but their violence and iconoclasm are restrained by reason. But setting aside the exploration of gunslinger as hero for the moment, it seems to me that anyone who is in the least serious about art should be fascinated by her notion of sense of life. It completely dispenses with any prudish bowdlerizing didacticism and moralizing. (See von Mises Institute scholar Stephen Cox if you want to pursue this tangent.) For her, a perfect criminal can be worth literary and cinematic treatment if he embodies a self-motivated mind. And this is the model not just for lone gunslingers in “B” Westerns, but for some of the greatest creations in literature, such as Goethe's Faust and Mozart's Don Giovanni.

As monomyth

The heroic in the service of Jungian archetypes is how I would characterize Joseph Campbell's notion of monomyth. It is an order above Rand's purely psychological notion of the heroic. Whatever you might think of Campbell, it seems to me that this otherwise suspect form of reasoning, the argument from plausibilities, is entirely proper in his study of myth because it makes no pretense to equivalence with argument from logic, fact, or authority. Several Westerns might be cited as fitting the structures of monomyth, but most satisfying to me is Billy Bob Thornton's All the Pretty Horses.

John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) and Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) are young Texans who set out for Mexico from San Angelo in 1949 on a quest to reenter the lost world of Old West as cowboys. Cole feels forced into this quest by the anguished discovery that his mother has sold the family ranch. At the Threshold of the Mexican border they encounter the Supernatural Aid-Giver (and Trickster) in the form of Blevins (Lucas Black), who possesses a hereditary mystical curse of attracting lightning. Their Road of Trials begins with earning jobs on a big estate owned by Don Hector (Ruben Blades) by breaking 16 wild horses in a single day. Cole falls in love with the Goddess and Temptress Alejandra (Penelope Cruz), Don Hector's daughter, knowing that discovery of their affair could destroy him and his friend. Their world is indeed shattered, but unexpectedly, through their association with Blevins, who has implicated them in his theft of money from a Mexican he has killed. The pair enter the Belly of the Whale (a Mexican prison), where more trials await them, including Cole's ferocious fight to the death with knives with another inmate. These trials passed, Cole experiences an Apotheosis in a nightmarish dream sequence in which he asks Blevins what it's like to be dead, receiving the reply “It's like nothing at all.” Cole is then Reborn through his release from prison and his discovery that his friend Rawlins, who he had thought had died in the prison, truly lives. They cross the Threshold again into Texas, meting out justice to the Mexican sheriff responsible for the torture and death of Blevins. Arrested for suspected theft of the horse he's riding, Cole receives Atonement with the Father, through his acquittal by the judge (Bruce Dern).

As a portrayal of the noble savage

Taking another route of access to the mythological archetypes are those Westerns portraying the American aboriginal as the noble savage. These films appeal to Mircea Eliade's “myth of a golden age in eo tempore.” The noble savage is the ultimate hippie, the embodiment of a world without an Establishment, at one with nature. He appeals to that perennial illusion, of which Rousseau is but one spokesman, that if only we would cast aside convention the Revolution would at last come and heaven would descend to earth.

In this vein are writers who owe much of their success to their portrayals of the noble savage. The greatest selling German author of all time is the writer of Westerns, Karl May, with over 100 million copies of his novels sold. One of the greatest selling authors in English, with 225 million copies sold, is the writer of Westerns Louis L'Amour. Tom Selleck has starred in L'Amour's Crossfire Trail and The Shadow Hunters; John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Yul Brynner, Tab Hunter, Sophia Loren, Anthony Quinn, Keith Carradine, and even Sean Connery and Bridget Bardot have starred in his other films.

Possibly most typical is Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves. Given the number of fatuities in Dances with Wolves, I can only suggest that it is by appeal to this archetype that so many people enjoy this Western.

As the spirit of the frontier

We see that the Western can engage storytelling and myth at the profoundest level. But it is something about the idea of the frontier that makes Westerns so distinctively enjoyable. What is it? The best definition of the frontier comes from a Texas historian admired by Jacques Barzun (Essays on Walter Prescott Webb and the Teaching of History) but in many ways limited (see Larry McMurtry's In a Narrow Grave for a few of the reasons). Walter Prescott Webb points out in The Great Frontier that the frontiersman (including the cowboy) is the personal embodiment of the traditions of the West. It's not so much the fact that the frontiersman carried the Bible, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England; it's the fact that his very life meant the success or failure of the Western ideals, a contingency sharpened by constant threat from Indians and unforgiving terrain.

There is a second element that makes the frontier hero a hero different from all others. These tales arouse a memory of nomadic hunter-warriors predating agrarian domesticity. It is for this reason that they concern masculine, often violent men in an arid landscape. It is a memory of the struggle between Esau the hunter and Jacob the agrarian, whether that takes shape explicitly as in the film Shane, nostalgically as when the last of a herd of longhorns is destroyed in Hud, or in some other way when the nomadic cattle driver is the sublimated agent for settled civilization.

It is these two elements that make the struggles of the Western frontiersman titanic and primeval. His throes join life against death, Jacob against Esau, civilization against savagery. It is for his embodiment of the spirit of the frontier that children are playing Cowboys and Indians in the Jardin du Luxembourg, and in every country in the world, and will do so for as long as the West has a memory.


B.F. Skinner in Beyond Freedom and Dignity derided “the literature of freedom,” by which he meant the entire heritage of works portraying man as a free moral agent. But to freeze-dry art with some tendentious agenda supported by plausibilities, whether it be the agenda of Jacques Derrida or anybody else, denigrates this literature in a more subtle way. It misuses categories of proof. Science defines its principles by arguments from logic, fact, or authority; literature must make its case mainly by argument from plausibilities. This error is one reason that so much anti-intellectualism resides today not in the economic or science departments but in the English departments of all the universities. Reference to plausibilities makes reading Freud so racy, but unfortunately it proves nothing about the preconscious experiences of a child. Reference to the Western Stagecoach proves no scientific truth; but literature (including film), following its own method, remains green and seminal and free.

There isn't a forthrightly bourgeois aesthetic, although there should be. Well over a century ago more than one great mind realized that capitalism had changed everything, and self-consciously set out to change art accordingly. Possibly most abstractly of all it was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing who made this effort, with artists at least through Franz Grillparzer joining the battle. Where would this battle begin today? Possibly with a little story like Calumet K – or even with a retelling of the humble Western.

November 4, 2005