When I first started watching Westerns a few years ago, it was in an ironic spirt and with a critical eye, but I quickly became a genuine fan. The main draw was the rugged landscape of the Western and the evocation of freedom and self-sufficiency, but Westerns are also fascinating for conveying a set of values and virtues. They challenge some of our customary assumptions about how to live and what is right. Take the value of talking, something presumed to be good, especially in the philosophy world. In traditional Westerns, talking is for sissies. Characters played by the likes of Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, and John Wayne are strong silent types, always knowing what to do without a lot of discussion. “Cowboys and Indians” are usually on opposite sides in Westerns, but it’s interesting that quietness is also a Native American virtue, as Joseph Marshall III writes in his book The Lakota Way. Could it be a virtue to use fewer words?
The world of the Western tends to be militantly masculine, but that’s not essential to the genre. Recently women have been making movies with elements of the Western, and challenging some of the usual norms and tropes. The Rider (2017), directed by Chloé Zhao, has the horses and landscape that are central to almost every Western, but there’s an important twist: the hero is an injured rodeo cowboy who must figure out how to go on with his life. So much for invincibility! Zhao’s most recent movie, Nomadland — awarded the Oscar for best picture this year — also has some of the elements of the Western. Instead of the cattle drives of movies like Red River (1948), there’s a cross-country drive in a van through the same big-sky Western landscapes. Frances McDormandplays a quiet, self-sufficient nomad named Fern, as still and weathered as any cowboy hero, but without the gun and propensity for violence. Fern is propelled by grief and joins a community of gig workers who travel around the US doing seasonal work. Different story-line, same rootlessness, ruggedness, self-sufficiency, and solitude.
Silence is particularly golden in the movies of Kelly Reichardt. Her most recent movie, First Cow (2020), is an extremely quiet frontier yarn that pits two enterprising frontiersmen against citified officials from back east. The frontiersmen win, for a while, succeeding in turning stolen cow’s milk into high-demand baked goods. One of the two is something of a talker, but it’s notable that he’s an immigrant from China, not a homegrown American. King-Lu is the one with more initiative and entrepreneurial energy, so nobody’s slurred here, but the quiet guy, Cookie, is the movie’s cow-whisperer and master baker. Reichardt’s earlier frontier movie, Meek’s Cut-off (2010), is just as non-verbal. Making their way along the Oregon Trail in covered wagons, three families must make critical decisions, but their conflicts are mostly conveyed by their faces.
All these movies make the case that way out west beyond city-folk and conventions and jibber-jabber, there isn’t a nasty state of nature, there’s virtue. The virtue of quietness, but also more familiar virtues. First Cow tenderly tells the story of a friendship and so does The Rider. Because of the recent death of beloved Texas author Larry McMurtry, I finally watched the mini-series Lonesome Dove (1989), which I avoided back when I hated westerns. This is the ultimate story of cowboy friendship, but with some revisionary elements — one of the two is an outgoing talker and the other a silent, brooding loner. It’s the quiet guy who’s more flawed, but nevertheless undyingly loyal. High Noon (1952) is the western that is most manifestly a meditation on virtue, pitting different notions of honour against each other. The honour of fearless confrontation comes out on top, but in a way that invites reflection (in the viewer, not the characters).
Recently it occurred to me that there ought to be a “Westerns and Philosophy” volume in one of the philosophy and popular culture book series and then I made a happy/sad discovery. There already is one. The Philosophy of the Western, published by Open Court in 2010 (edited by Jennifer McMahon and Steve Cseki) addresses topics like “Kantian ethics in High Noon” (Day-Nay Evans) and “Order without Law in The Magnificent Seven” (Aeon Skoble) as well as issues about gender and the representation of Native Americans in westerns. Also in the “westerns and philosophy” section of a well-stocked bookstore there ought to be Cowboy Metaphysics: Ethics and Death in Westerns, by Peter French. He makes much of the fact that western heroes take a straightforward approach to life and death. Western heroes have no time for talking and big city foolishness, but also no time for preachers and life after death. They seem to live in an entirely material world. The best book on Westerns I know of is West of Everything: The Inner World of Westerns. The author, literary critic Jane Tomkins, gives a brilliant account of the spare use of language in Westerns. In an updated edition, there would have to be room for the movies of Chloé Zhao and Kelly Richardt.