Is Ripping Off Westerns Essential to 'Star Wars'?
It’s been nearly three years since the so-called “Skywalker Saga” wrapped up/careened head-first into a metaphorical manure truck, Biff Tannen-style, and the future of the Star Wars franchise is very much in flux. Reportedly, The Rise of Skywalker will be the last Star Wars movie until December 2025, at which point Lucasfilm will release the hotly-anticipated Untitled Star Wars Film: A Star Wars Story.
This is due to the fact that the formerly-upcoming Star Wars: Rogue Squadron is no longer upcoming and has seemingly been scrapped altogether – even despite the fact that Disney produced and released a teaser for the film in which director Patty Jenkins rollerblades through an airport runway, changes into a flight suit, and then seemingly attempts to pilot a prop X-Wing.
This recent kerfuffle has caused us to question: what exactly is Star Wars these days? While there are no Star Wars movies in the near future, there are still loads of TV shows, theme park hotels, and books about how our favorite characters had sex in said theme park hotels. This isn’t the first time we’ve posed this question; previously, we suggested that liberally borrowing from Japanese cinema was perhaps what united the jumbled franchise. But now it kind of seems like the world of Star Wars is all about ripping off old Western movies.
This week sees the release of the highly-anticipated Rogue One prequel, Andor, which is the first of the live-action Star Wars series, after The Mandalorian and The Book Of Boba Fett, which doesn’t seem to explicitly boast old-timey Western vibes – Hell, The Book Of Boba Fett had a character that was straight-up patterned after Lee Van Cleef’s character in The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. He was named Cad Bane but may as well have been called Shooty McGunslinger.
Cad was originally created back when George Lucas was still in the picture, which makes sense since his original films are positively crammed full of homages to classic Westerns. Most overtly, there’s The Searchers, the John Ford classic about a racist dickhole who endeavors to rescue his niece from a Comanche tribe. Lucas has talked about how he watched Westerns on TV as a child, specifically enjoying “John Wayne films directed by John Ford, before I knew who John Ford was,” adding: ”I think those were very influential in my enjoyment of movies.”
The Searchers is all over A New Hope; from characters wistfully gazing at a sunset to one of the farmers being named “Lars” (Luke’s uncle’s surname) to the scene where John Wayne’s character, Ethan, discovers that his brother’s family has been killed, and their home burned down – which is strikingly similar to the moment when Luke finds the smoldering skeletons of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.
Slightly broader plot points are echoed in A New Hope, too; the narrative engine that is the rescue of Leia mirrors the search for Natalie Wood’s character Debbie, and even Ethan, to some extent, can be seen in the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi, as an “old, hardened veteran of a legendary war,” in this case, the American Civil War. While Ethan’s Confederate army “ultimately lost, but, much like the Jedi who eventually lost the Old Republic, Ethan has not given up his oath of allegiance.” If that wasn’t enough, Ethan even passes a “saber” down to a young boy.
Lucas recycled The Searchers again for Attack of the Clones; the sequence where Anakin attempts to rescue his mother from the Tusken Raiders –
Unabashedly replicates the scene where Ethan and the gang sneak into the Comanche camp.
Lucas was also clearly a big fan of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns – and also, obviously, the Akira Kurosawa samurai pictures that they cribbed from. Kurosawa’s films were also, themselves, heavily inspired by Westerns; he was once asked where his inspiration came from, and responded: “I study John Ford.” Lucas’ love for Leone can be seen in the character of Boba Fett, who was pointedly patterned off of Clint Eastwood’s protagonist from the so-called “Man With No Name Trilogy” – so much so, that they added the sounds of jingling spurs as he walked, and nearly gave him a full poncho to wear (which, at the very least, would have made his first action figure less of a choking hazard).
Lucas also reportedly screened Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West for the crew in order to “to illustrate the look he wanted.” Vader’s entrance, in particular, seems to be a callback to the first appearance of Henry Fonda’s villainous Frank, as both are seen “emerging through smoke into the wreckage of a massacre they’ve just ordered.”
But crucially, Lucas’ key influences were mostly early revisionist Westerns, which subverted traditional Hollywood archetypes in favor of more nuanced stories. The recent batch of Star Wars TV shows has seemingly picked up on that trend and taken cues from other revisionist Westerns that succeeded the original trilogy.
Obviously, The Mandalorian is oozing with Spaghetti Western vibes, but it also began radically recontextualizing the role of the Tuskens, who, in Lucas’ The Searchers homage, were obviously stand-ins for Native Americans. While the focal point of The Searchers is its criticism of John Wayne’s character’s seething racism (itself a subversive twist in the world of Hollywood Westerns), it’s still wildly regressive in its representation of the Comanche characters.
And Lucas’ analog followed this track, making the “Sand People” into antagonists who are both incomprehensible and literally faceless. But The Mandalorian began to unravel Lucas’ depiction; while the humans refer to the Tuskens as “filth,” Mando points out that they’re the original inhabitants of Tatooine and everyone else there are just “trespassers.” He even communicates with them via TSL (Tatooinian Sign Language).
And The Book of Boba Fett goes even further; in arguably its most compelling storyline, we see how Boba lived with a tribe of Tusken Raiders after escaping from the Sarlacc Pit, learning their customs and forging a spiritual connection.
Which a lot of people noticed was not unlike Dances With Wolves, the Kevin Costner movie about a Civil War soldier who bonds with a Lakota Sioux tribe. While today it might seem like yet another cringey white savior story in which the Indigenous characters are more “sympathetic” but still the “backdrop” for the story of a white dude, at the time, it was critically acclaimed and awarded a pillowcase full of Oscars.
The Book of Boba Fett also finds its titular badass uncharacteristically opting for mercy instead of killing in his golden years (weirdly framed as a Skywalker-esque struggle) which calls to mind Clint Eastwood’s haggard gunslinger in Unforgiven – and makes sense since Boba is essentially following the meta-trajectory of the icon that inspired him.
As for the upcoming Andor, the show appears to be taking Star Wars in an entirely new direction, seemingly acting as more of a spy thriller than a space opera or a sci-fi Western. But that doesn’t mean that there still won’t be some Old West DNA baked into the story; Andor’s predecessor, Rogue One, was similarly a genre shift for the franchise, and more of a wartime adventure story – but it still had its share of Western inspirations. For instance, the violent climax, in which our ragtag group of antiheroes die storming a military base is not unlike the ending of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.
And the film’s opening, where Galen Erso is visited by Director Krennic and a squad of spooky Death Troopers –
So, even if by cultural osmosis, Star Wars will find a way to keep rustling up Western tropes, we reckon.
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