Almost all the great American Western movies are intensely political films within a distinctly American framework. In effect they all adopt in one way or another the mythological fiction that so fascinated political philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries: the problem of the transition from a state of lawlessness, ruthless self-interest, and terrifying uncertainty, the “state of nature,” to a political order, the rule of law and the surrender of one’s right to decide everything in one’s own case. They represent to us our own beliefs and passions about our founding; that is, about what was founded, and why the transition from the supremacy of virtues like honor, courage, and self-reliance to the now more important virtues of civility, trustworthiness, and prudence, were, all in all, “worth it.” Some films are also haunted by the fact that the first founding essentially failed. The great experiment didn’t work; the nation exploded into one of the most deadly civil wars in recorded history, and the constant re-appearance of these ferocious animosities in the conflicts in Westerns can suggest that there is a real and continuing question about whether the “second founding” in the West (the conquest of native American lands) made possible more a lengthy truce than the achievement of, finally, a true union.
more from Robert Pippin at The Washington Post here.