Among the contributions the Western as a film genre has made to popular culture is the idea of white hats versus black hats. Of course, the idea of good versus evil is as old as time, but the Western signified it with hat color.
It takes little imagination to see the usefulness of the symbolism in early silent films—The Great Train Robbery (1903) may have been the first to apply the convention—and the tradition stuck.
When considering what piece of cowboy gear best embodies the value of integrity, the white hat is the easy winner. But whose white hat? Tom Mix, Gene Autry, or Roy Rogers would all be solid picks. The characters of John Wayne provide an interesting study in hat color choices (Wil Andersen of The Cowboys (1972) wore a white hat, Ethan Edwards of The Searchers (1956), black).
The most iconic hat in cowboy culture—white or black—though, is that of Augustus McCrae in Lonesome Dove (1989).
Not only did the hat itself inspire a renewed interest in a particular crease (the “Gus” has sustained itself for 20 years now), the man who wore it is a solid example of integrity in this world.
Of course, Gus had his failings, call them stains on the silverbelly—and he admits them. But he never failed to do the right thing in tough situations.
When Lorena Wood was taken captive by Blue Duck, Gus knew the horror she would endure. He knew she had little chance of survival. He knew the odds of not only finding her, but surviving a rescue attempt were slim to none. But leaving her to Blue Duck’s torture was wrong, and Gus’s character required him to do the right thing.
Even more poignant was the hanging of Jake Spoon. After the Suggs brothers were hung, Gus, Call, Deets, and Pea Eye could have easily cut their old friend Jake down and forgotten the whole mess. But for Gus, right and wrong were as clear as black and white.
In the novel, he tells Jake, “Ride with an outlaw, die with him. I admit it’s a harsh code. But you rode on the other side long enough to know how it works. I’m sorry you crossed the line, though.”
Gus continues to demonstrate his integrity by telling Newt that Call is his father. He clearly wants the situation resolved truthfully. Even on his deathbed, he implores Call to do right by his son.
After Gus’s death, as Call transports his body back from Montana to Texas, the hat remains with him until Nebraska, where the love of his life, Clara, takes the hat and the symbol of Gus’s integrity remains.