"Manning the walls, covered with dust, and sunburnt": Stoicism in Western Movies

Butler, Beth
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Movie critics and cultural commentators often describe Western movies and their heroes as stoic. In contemporary language, “stoic” is usually invoked as an adjective for describing people who do not reveal emotion. The stereotypical Western cowboy faces the danger, hardship, and constant uncertainty of his world without trepidation; the description seems apt. However, in ancient Greece and Rome, Stoicism represented a philosophical school of thought that taught its adherents to consider virtue as the only good, vice as the only bad, and everything else as indifferent conditions. In this thesis, I argue that the casual use of “stoic” to describe Westerns may say more than it knows. I identify two Stoic types within the Western genre: the Pop Stoic and the Dutiful Stoic. The Pop Stoics embody the contemporary use of “stoic” and include unflappable, emotionless cowboys. The Dutiful Stoics, however, resemble the tenets of Stoic philosophy in important ways. These characters are resolved to fulfill their duties toward intrinsically good things: friendship, community, and justice. This commitment to duty no matter the cost enables the Dutiful Stoics to maintain equanimity in all situations. I consider four Western characters to support my argument: Blondie from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, John T. Chance from Rio Bravo, and Wyatt Earp from My Darling Clementine.