Philosophy in Western Movies

The summer break should be an opportunity to get away from academic books and maybe indulge in the discovery of inspiring novels. But what about films? Twentieth-century philosophers have, on the whole, neglected what the French call ‘le septième art’ as very few thinkers critically studied the moving image, with the exceptions of Gilles Deleuze (‘Cinéma’) or Jean Baudrillard who deconstructed the hypnotic power of images in ‘Simulacra and Simulation’. But what of the young Sartre, who declared himself an admirer of modern American writers like John Dos Passos’ ‘USA’ trilogy but also of gangster movies featuring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart? In Cambridge, the austere Wittgenstein was another regular cinema-goer with a marked preference for westerns. Such a choice was not fortuitous knowing the Viennese thinker’s scrupulous approach of ethical as well as phenomenological issues.

What constitutes the appeal of westerns? Of all the genres explored by the film industry since the 1920’s, the “Western” genre has gone from being among (if not) ‘the’ most popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s to gradually dwindle and be regarded as a minor art form. Yet, regular tributes are paid to it by contemporary directors such as Clint Eastwood’s ‘Unforgiven’, the Cohen brothers’ remake of ‘True Grit’ or Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’.

There are several reasons for this seemingly irreversible demise. Firstly, westerns portray a violent, male dominated world where women are too often reduced to the role of easy preys (saloon girls) or passive victims (Indian squaws, ranchers’ female companions). It is also important to note that western films are not deliberately sexist or misogynist but simply portray the way of thinking and behaving, typical of life in the Wild West in the post Civil War years. That doesn’t mean that women cannot behave in their own heroic way as splendidly illustrated in ‘Johnny Guitar’ with Joan Crawford as a gutsy saloon keeper or ‘The Quick and the Dead’ featuring a revengeful gun-slinging Sharon Stone.

The range of situations can be relatively limited but every good story addresses a crucial dilemma, confronting a hero forced to dig deep into his inner self if he is to be vindicated and triumph, alive or dead, in the final scene. All the essential ingredients, such as self-reliance, courage and duty, are united to make the spectator a full participant in the unfolding moral drama. John Wayne in ‘The Searchers’ or Gregory Peck in ‘High Noon’ embody more than American values and when a new generation of 60’s directors, like Arthur Penn’s ‘Little Big Man’, told the story of the West from an Indian viewpoint, as a gesture of solidarity for the Vietnamese people, they tackled the same universal values as their elders. In other words, great westerns convey a genuine tragic dimension, further enhanced by the haunting quality of the film score and the majestic beauty of the American West. By losing interest in the fate of these larger than life, mythical characters, aren’t we showing how narrow our moral compass has become, in the age of bland cartoon superheroes like Batman and Superman?

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