This week I am appropriately traveling to Hollywood, a town that owes its fortune to the Western more than to any other genre, for the Western Political Science Association meeting, where I will be presenting a paper titled “Cowboys and Corpses: The Moral Perils of the State of Nature in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit .”

Let me begin here by listing my favorite Westerns. Beyond having studied True Grit and having learned a thing or two from David and Mary Nichols, I am a neophyte to Western studies, and so am quite open to gentle correction, or, if you must, outraged correction of my list:

1) Stagecoach
2) My Darling Clementine
3) High Noon
4) The Magnificent Seven
5) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
6) The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
7) Pale Rider
8) True Grit (Coen Brother’s version)
9) The Big Country
10) Treasure of Sierra Madre

Not sure if that last one should be in the Western Category, but the Rotten Tomatoes list includes it, so what the heck. I don’t include The Searchers or The Unforgiven , because both of them, the latter especially, just feel too grim. The real Western’s got to have some lighten-ning glimmer of heroism, humor, or freedom in it. And good scenery, so as to stir the moviegoer’s “Don’t Fence Me In” desire for ridin’ over land, lots of land .

So what is the key to the Western as a form? I know books I haven’t read have been written on this, so what do I need to know before I shoot my trap off about the subject? Well of course, I’ve already shot it off a bit—here’s a couple snippets from my paper:

“What an audience expects of a contemporary Western is that it will either largely conform to the classic pattern of extolling the heroism of the cowboy, often a lawman cowboy, who has to defend the right in a wild setting, or, that the film will seek to undermine this pattern by means comedic or serious. The impression given by the Coens’ film is that it takes the first path. Yes, along the lines of Pale Rider , it gives us a picture of the west that is more hard-bitten and less simplistically open to heroic adventure than typically provided in the golden era of the Western, but the classic plot of the cowboy serving the cause of justice is nonetheless there.”

True Grit poster

“This is a common American perception of the frontier. It can be thought of as the purest example of the state of nature, but it can also be imagined as the place of freedom, the “territory” that the likes of Huck Finn take off to, or the place of heroism, where the sorts of men extolled by Teddy Roosevelt can thrive. Indeed, the western, particularly in its classic Hollywood form, has been all about celebrating the freedom and heroism the state of nature supposedly makes possible. It has romanticized Hobbes. The Coens’ True Grit makes some necessary room for the heroism the west really did call forth, but is otherwise all about revealing the “nasty and brutish” features of the truly wild west.”

Romanticized Hobbes . . . does that seem right?

Articles by Carl Scott

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