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Ten Ways Star Wars is a Western

Tatooine scene
Should look familiar: Droids, Obi-Wan and Luke Skywalker in the desert. (Pic credit: Lucasfilm)

The wild success of The Mandalorian took nearly everyone by surprise, including Star Wars fans. In late 2019, the fanbase was drained by years of social media battles about the meaning and reaction to the sequel trilogy, and “a project about Boba Fett” had languished in development hell for years.

Expectations were somewhat low, especially since co-showrunner Jon Favreau was a newcomer to the Star Wars universe, and his highly political Twitter presence left many fans doubtful that a project in his care could be delivered without a lecture.

However, the unforeseen—and incredibly wise—decision to forego a jump on action figure development, which would have risked leaked images of overnight star Baby Yoda, helped to contribute to a sense of enthusiastic surprise. Within a few episodes, even the most reticent fans were hooked on the story of a hardened bounty hunter (who wasn’t Boba Fett at all) and his adorable quarry.

The phenomenon swept through pop culture so quickly that commentators didn’t have much time to examine the roots of what made this series such a banger. And a main influence is found in the film that started it all, 1977’s A New Hope.

One of the major aspects that make the original Star Wars so watchable—and rewatchable—is that it can be read on many different levels, filtered through any number of lenses. We here at Monsters & Critics, for example, just spent time discussing the many ways in which A New Hope was heavily influenced by World War II.

But A New Hope is also a spiritual exploration, a fairy tale, an action film, a mythical hero’s journey, an epic or “space opera,” and an homage to samurai culture. It is also a celebration of that uniquely American film genre, the Western.

Because Dave Filoni and his team anchored themselves in The Man With No Name and samurai films rather than Star Wars itself, they successfully reconnected with much of what made Star Wars a cultural touchstone for millions.

Let’s examine some of the many ways A New Hope didn’t so much take place in a galaxy far, far away as it did on the desert right down the highway:

White hats and black hats (and nothing in between)

Luke, Leia, and Han in Star Wars
Luke, Han, and Leia go (mostly) monochrome in A New Hope. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

Star Wars creator George Lucas was a quintessential Baby Boomer, and therefore shaped by the Westerns of the 50s as much as he was by the cultural impact of World War II.

As anyone who’s seen the Back to the Future trilogy knows, the children of this era were awash in movies, serials, and comics set in the Old West. While today we recognize these portrayals as largely inaccurate and prejudicial against American Indians, at the time, they were deeply embedded in a certain mythos. The likes of Tom Mix and Roy Rogers made entire careers of portraying cowboys to cheer for.

One of these themes relied on a definitive portrayal of good and evil. The tradition of the hero wearing a white hat, while the villain skulked through town wearing a black one, stretches back as far as 1903’s The Great Train Robbery.

The convention continues into today with the likes of Westworld and has even leaked into the tech world by deeming hackers as “black hats” and security defenders as “white hats.” The term “grey hats” has also come into play as a reference to government employees, military operations, and classified programs with mixed ethics or motivations.

In this light, consider the dress of the main Star Wars characters; Luke Skywalker wore a white tunic, and Princess Leia’s dress was of the same color.

Obi-Wan Kenobi wore dirtied-up but light shades beneath his trademark brown Jedi robe. Now that we know much more of Obi-Wan’s back story, we can understand this in a number of contexts. This is a nobleman whose code and actions were by necessity “dirtied” by the pure evil of the Dark Side. Although it’s pretty clear that Lucas was originally driving towards a future reveal of Obi-Wan as the murderer of Anakin Skywalker, the retcon—that Kenobi missed the signs that his Padawan was becoming a Sith—works as well.

Meanwhile, imagine Darth Vader dressed all in white. Not so intimidating, is he?

What about Han Solo? While the audience cautiously accepts Solo as a hero because he joins up with Luke and Obi-Wan, it’s obvious that he is also a mercenary, and his loyalties could turn in a moment. That’s why we see him in a light shirt with a dark vest; he’s of two natures.

However, the climax of the film shows Han swooping in to clear Luke’s path so that he can take down the Death Star. Beneath the veneer of the bad guy smuggler is a Rebel in a white shirt.

Luke Skywalker’s poncho

Luke Skywalker wearing his poncho
Fashionable and functional: Luke Skywalker and his poncho. PIc credit: Lucasfilm

Much internet snickering has taken place over Luke Skywalker’s snappy poncho, which he wears mostly in deleted scenes. However, the poncho puts in an appearance in the first act of A New Hope, as he makes his way around Tatooine and whines about selling his landspeeder (of course, he’s whining; it’s early Luke, and whining is his love language.)

Something of a fashion staple of the era just before A New Hope was filmed, the poncho is also a signifier of Western life and has been for centuries. The use of the poncho spread north from the people of Andes, and it was often associated with Mexican culture. In real life, the poncho provided a warm, flexible, waterproof covering; certain patterns also denoted prestige.

The Mos Eisley Cantina

Luke and Obi-Wan outside the Mos Eisley Cantina
When on Tatooine, maybe don’t visit the Mos Eisley Cantina. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

The very term “cantina” began as the Italian term “canteen” (related to the word to describe a “cellar” or “winery.”) “Cantina” started popping up in the Renaissance era, and in rural Mexico, a “cantina” was a male hangout. By the time the term made its way further north in the American Southwest, “cantina” began to mean “bar.”

Use of the term in A New Hope, then, was a deliberate decision to call to mind the traditional setting of Westerns.

Lots of different people…

Aliens in Star Wars
The gang’s all at the Mos Eisley Cantina. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

Just when you think you’ve heard it all about the Mos Eisley Cantina scene, there’s always a little bit more to learn. This motley collection of aliens was a sensation in 1977 because it suggested a much larger galaxy than this twin-sunned dirtball. It was also considered a triumph of special effects and creature creation.

The cantina scene was also a reflection of the collective understanding of life in the American West. Miners, farmers, cowhands, a wide variety of Hispanic people, soldiers, Asian workers, members of American Indian tribes, and more were all facing a wide variety of struggles.

The one place they could come together was the local watering hole in this land where it was thought rude to inquire too much into another person’s background.

While the Westerns of yesteryear could have obviously done a much better job of accurately or at least responsibly portraying the many different kinds of populations during this era, the tensions and resentments these various groups likely experienced is usually present. It was often depicted, albeit ham-fistedly, in many Westerns.

In Mos Eisley, of course, you could lose an arm if you’re not careful.

…but the ladies don’t appear much

Han and Chewbacca in Star Wars
Cantina Night is for the boys: Han Solo and the mighty Chewbacca. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

I prefer to think that a healthy percentage of the beings we see in the Mos Eisley cantina were female (why wouldn’t they be?), but at least a few were presented as male.

That also fits with a common perception of the West, and certainly in Westerns.  The fact is that many indigenous women lived in these areas for centuries before settlement from Easterners of European descent.

In some parts of this vast land, however, men outnumbered women by a ratio of three to one, and in 1850, California was very, very male. And so women in Westerns, when they appear, are usually presented as either marriage material or “soiled doves.”

Which do you think Princess Leia was supposed to be? Her up-to-the-neck costume should probably give you an idea.

The music stops

Alien band in Star Wars
It’s all music and games until arms start coming off: The Mos Eisley Cantina band. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

Let’s stay in that wretched hive of scum and villainy for a moment and consider the scene in which Obi-Wan Kenobi casually slices some dude’s arm off with his lightsaber and then goes about his business.

What happens in this moment?

The sudden cut out of the music not only highlights the distinctive hum of Kenobi’s lightsaber, but it also echoes the Western trope of piano-banging dying away when standoffs began. And, just as in these films, the band picks up again once the show is over.

These folks see eighteen arm losses a day. This is just the first of the dinner rush.

The shootout

Darth Vader with lightsaber
He’s been waiting for you, pardner. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

The shootout concept, which has an anchor in the historical events of Tombstone and similar sensational moments, is a holdover from knightly single combat. It underlines the individualism supposedly present in Western America.

This idea was so quickly embedded in stereotype that it became a parody in Three Amigos!, a pastiche in Back to the Future III, and showed up again in A New Hope.

They use lightsabers instead of six-shooters, but the battle of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader follows this pattern. Vader has been “waiting” for his adversary (“I’m callin’ you out!”), they trade verbal barbs, and the action takes place over a long, drawn-out period with the death of one participant.

Contrast the high emotion of this duel to the rapid, choreographed fight between Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Darth Maul in Episode 1. Although the struggle ends in tragedy, there’s not a lot of emotion resting on these moments. We know Obi-Wan survives, the audience doesn’t know Qui-Gon nearly as well as Kenobi, and we pretty much just met Maul.

You’ll need moisturizer

Tatooine scene
Should look familiar: Droids, Obi-Wan and Luke Skywalker in the desert. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

It’s not a Western if it’s not hot and there isn’t a healthy supply of cacti. Tatooine is more barren—these sequences were shot in Tunisia—but a barren desert background is the hallmark of many a Western movie.

Solo’s gunslinger styling

Han Solo
Han Solo in Star Wars. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

Han Solo’s low-slung blaster was purposely styled by costume designer John Mollo to echo the era of the Western. In addition to his trusty weapon— a specific but “uncivilized” contrast to Obi-Wan and Anakin’s lightsabers—Solo wore simple boots and a large but unadorned belt buckle.

As mentioned earlier, his black-on-white color coding paralleled the looks of Luke and Leia. But this simple dress, without a lot of spangles or fuss, speaks a great deal about the cynical, standalone nature of his character.

Lawlessness

Han Solo and Greedo in Star Wars
Shooting first in the Outer Rim. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

When the Internet was first becoming A Thing, part of its allure was that it was considered “the Wild West” of economy and communication. Anything went as long as the dial-up modem could handle the load.

With Western territory populations of new settlements rising quickly and falling just as rapidly depending on such matters as the yield of local mines or the location of cattle quarantine “tick lines,” law enforcement was sometimes out of reach.

That aspect of Western living was often exploited in movies set in this place and time, although outside of a few sensationalized gunfights, most people kept to their own business. Homicides in these areas were lower than in other parts of America, as a matter of fact.

Images of rampant lawlessness remained, however, thanks to these films. The stereotype was repeated in A New Hope, as Tatooine is positioned as in “the Outer Rim” of the galaxy, where the Empire was certainly present but not cracking down as much as in core worlds.

This unsettled feeling of “everyone out for themselves” contributed to a feeling of danger and a lack of protection in Star Wars.

Go with the crazy old hermit, Luke. What do you have to lose?

Proud aunt Mary Beth Ellis, MFA, is a freelance writer, college instructor, reader, and reality consumer in Cincinnati, OH. She is the author of "Drink to the Lasses," a memoir, and a contributor to many anthologies, as well as online and traditional publications. Her current adventure is completing a manuscript about embedding with Ohio State’s marching band for a season. Find her at marybethellis.com and @Mary_Beth_Ellis, typing about Star Wars and complaining in general.

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