The Invisible Armada

How white is the western ? 



It is a topos that is so ubiquitous in so many  westerns of all brands, eras and styles, and which gives rise to infinite variations: white people, as a pioneer and conquering species (in the West and the South of the United States in formation) appear, at the beginning of history, in the greatest of states of division. This can take shape under all kinds of appearances: it can pit a representative of law and order (a marshal , or even a bounty hunter) against an outlaw ; Federates against Confederates in the context of the Civil War and its aftermath; transhumant breeders to landowners hooked on barbed wire; hunters, trappers, miners to farmers or other competitors; settlers established on land that they have seized to newcomers;  people from the West to people from the East;  newly rich and parvenus to  poor people, the plebs of the conquest of the West;  Puritans to women of bad habits; civilians to soldiers, of course...

In this new world in perpetual and rapid change, the foundations of order are anything less than assured, the sources of disputes and conflicts innumerable and the use of force and expeditious and violent means a permanent temptation. The specter of division among the pioneers and settlers themselves looms over the conquest of new territories. The reign of law remains to be established in this world governed by the sheer balance of power. From this picture emerges the stature of the marshal (rather than sheriff, as we commonly say in « Anglo-French”), a figure that is both central and ambiguous. The marshal is in fact the character who has the task of shifting this society in fusion from one state to another: the former where forces confront each other, without mediation, where pure violence dictates its law, to the latter in which a state of law is emerging. Now, this “leap” the marshal is called upon to impose from nothing or almost nothing: he is never, in the beginning, anything other than a guy who is brave enough and at whose jacket a star hangs (not always even). He is above all the character who gains the upper hand because he is an expert in the handling of weapons – the six-shooters first of all. What distinguishes him from other gunslingers is that he is driven by a certain feeling of justice and/or subjected to the pressure of a community frightened and exasperated by the reign of violent and rogue  armed men. The state, as source and guarantor of law, foundation of legitimate order, is too far away to have the means to assert its authority or mandate the man of good will, (equipped with his courage, his gun and his star ), in due form.

This is the whole difference between the police, as it functions as an institution, in an organized state, and the marshal whose authority, in the beginning of his action, relies upon  himself, alone or almost against all abusers and bandits of all kinds – and who, nevertheless, establishes himself as the founder of the rule of law on the scale of a village or a township of pioneers in the great West or on the borders of this other world more or less anomic - the great Latin South, not to mention the uncertain areas (mountains, deserts, forests...) where Indians abound...

Originally, he is only a man-of-the-trigger who switches to the side of the law, of a state which, in these spaces, is still only a virtuality, of a legality whose own is, precisely, that it is up to him to lay the foundations. The marshal is, if he emerges victorious from clashes with the violent and lawless, a gunslinger on whom fortune will smile, to the extent that he knew how to stand at the crucial moment on the side of a state which, in the places where it operates, does not yet exist. It is his capacity to anticipate a future order which is rewarded, as long as it involves him in a founding, instituting and constitutive action. This is, of course, an infinitely fragile, revocable position. The marshal is the first interposing force that presents itself between the many protagonists of the Wild West for whom might makes right. His intervention suspends the permanent state of violence, whoever the agent - a highwayman robbing stagecoaches, a rustic and vindictive clan, a rich breeder behaving like a tyrant and with complete impunity, a professional cheat, a bank robber, an unscrupulous adventurer – male or female...

But what is immediately striking is that this legitimate order which is taking shape and which the marshal somehow brings out of nothing, has a distinct color – it is white . Others do not have access to it or, if they are included, it is in an eccentric, unequal, subordinate position. This is, for example, the symbolic meaning of the exclusion of Indians from this communal and convivial space par excellence that is the saloon – this under the pretext that, being bad drinkers, they regularly become uncontrollable there. Others can be tolerated in the space now marked out by the law that the marshal embodies , but on the condition that they remain in their place – that of the servant or the subordinate – the mestizzo, the Mexican, the Chinese, sometimes,  or even the African-American, barely out of his slave condition and generally confined to the domestic space.

The color divide is not, in this emerging order, a simple element of fact resulting from the diversity of those who populate it. It takes on a clearly instituting and constitutive character, as the following moment shows: as soon as an imminent and vital danger arises for Whites, considered as a species and racial community - a danger generally embodied by the violent irruption of the superlatively enemy race, the Indians - white unity reforms itself  beyond all existing divisions, infallibly and as if by automatism. No matter then the reasons, good or bad, for which the Indian tribes return to the warpath (and the western often suggests that these reasons might not always be bad), the fact is that the sacred union of the whites is inevitably reformed. This erasure of intra-white divisions sometimes goes through all kinds of detours and twists and turns; it can happen both in the moment and, in other configurations, later, in extremis, but in all cases, in the face of the racial Other, the most poisonous conflicts and disputes disappear, a united front is reformed, facing the risk of death, in the sharing of weapons and the ordeal of combat. Let's call it the Stagecoach paradigm [1]. 

Racial solidarity then appears as a categorical imperative, the spirit of racial unity takes precedence over all other considerations, prevailing over any reservation or ulterior motive. This movement is a pure reflex, it obeys an irresistible impulse, against the backdrop of a fight to the death where enemy species are brought to conflict, species whose incompatibility then comes to light. It is in the hour of danger that the community in its most archaic dimension is reformed, that all quarrels die out, that all disagreements are suspended. In this very sense, the confrontation to the death with the Indian is, in its condition of paroxysm of violence, a powerfully refounding moment [2].


It can be argued that, in this crucial moment, it is the racial unconscious that speaks. This image of the white gathering facing the Indian peril (the ultimate non-white and, as such, the exterminable as a mortal peril) is an integral part of the primitive fund (foundation)  of the American nation in the same way as that of the marshal who, in making the powder speak, lays the foundations for the reign of law. As such, and in its very condition of archaic topos , we have here an image which is equivalent to the most sacred of the founding texts of "democracy in America", texts tirelessly invoked and summoned by the proponents of providentialism and the exceptionalism related to the  destiny of the United States. This image says everything about the racial foundation of this power, of the order that relies on it. The besieged white community gathered to fire against the colorful, feathered Indians, prancing and uttering wild cries, is the dreamed or fantasized ancestor of the nation, of the people understood as a common body. Subsequent developments, additions and corrections change nothing: the primitive image of the American community remains intrinsically white.

[1] Stagecoach, film by John Ford, 1939.

[2] I only remember, among the countless westerns that I have seen, one exception to this iron rule: in Across the Wide Missouri (William A. Wellman, 1951), a Scottish trapper, having joined a Indian tribe and adopted its way of life, kills a white trapper who, to avenge his brother killed by the Indians, has just mortally wounded a tribal chief, during a peaceful meeting between a group of Blackfoot and white trappers.