Friday, 13 July 2018

What Star Wars owed to westerns

Star Wars owes a lot to westerns

Here's something that isn't often acknowledged about Star Wars: Parts of it are like a great western.

In today's post, I want to look at some of the ways in which George Lucas drew on the genre that dominated  American cinema for a large part of the 21st century.

The state of the western in the 1970s

Ron Howard and John Wayne in The Shootist

A lot of studies will tell you that the western in the 1970s was in decline, which is true up to a point.

There were many fewer westerns about by the time Star Wars was released. The number of them being made in Hollywood had declined drastically. 

John Wayne had made his last film, The Shootist, in 1976. (It was a brilliant swansong co-starring Ron Howard, who had been in George Lucas's American Graffiti and would go on to direct Solo: A Star Wars Story.)  Even Clint Eastwood was making more thrillers and cop movies than westerns.

And yet, there were still an awful lot of westerns around. After all, they had been in production until pretty recently, so there were many cowboy movies available for showing on television. What's more, there had been plenty of western TV series, until many of them were axed by the networks in an event known as the "rural purge" in 1970-71. That left plenty of episodes still playing in syndication and reruns. 

In the UK, shows such as Casey Jones and Champion the Wonder Horse had been staples of children's TV, while The Virginian had been peak-time viewing. The High Chaparral and the colour episodes of The Lone Ranger were still being shown pretty close to the time Star Wars was released, and the latter show had inspired a magnificent range of toy heroes and their horses.

Anyway, whatever shape westerns were in by the mid-1970s, the genre had dominated Hollywood's output, at least quantity-wise, for generations. So when George Lucas tried to fuse all kinds of genres into his own unique adventure story, it's no surprise that he introduced strong elements of the western.

Eight ways Star Wars borrowed from westerns.

1. People live a hard life in a tough natural environment

Luke Skywalker on the farm

Luke Skywalker has the same kind of existence as a lot of young people in westerns. A life in a hostile environment, where the adults work hard and their offspring do chores.

We don't know what brought Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru to Tatooine's deserts  whether they're natives of the planet or settlers. But we do know that it's a rough natural environment, and that it's difficult to make a living out of farming moisture.

2. The trading post

Uncle Owen trades with the Jawas

Many a western movie shows an uneasy coexistence between settler and the indigenous population (more of that later), with their interactions revolving around trade.

Well, in Star Wars, we see the equivalent of a western trading post, as the Jawas come to the Lars family homestead and sell droids. We get the idea that the farmers rely on these traders coming by from time to time; it's part of their existence.

3. The environment: take a look at that canyon

The Sandpeople above a canyon

It's not until much later in the movie that we learn there's a place near Luke's home called Beggar's Canyon, which is a Wild West sort of a name if ever there was one.

And take a look at the canyon where R2 is zapped by the Jawas, or where Luke first encounters Ben Kenobi. It could have come from the work of the master of the western genre, John Ford.

4. The sense of threat from another tribe

A Tusken raider

Here's where we have to deal with something uncomfortable: the way westerns depicted the native American population. It was something many of us accepted uncritically as kids, but which throws up all kinds of problems for a grown-up viewer today.

That said, it's clear that the Sandpeople in Star Wars are depicted in a way that's strikingly similar to the way native Americans were presented in movies. 

They don't have advanced technology, but the farmers are scared of them and are worried about venturing into "their" territory, especially at night. We know they carry out raids against certain targets, albeit not normally as big as a Jawa sandcrawler. And the idea that they ride "single file to hide their numbers" seems to be the sort of detail straight out of a western film.

All these characteristics remind us of the way indigenous American people were depicted in the less complicated westerns, and it's surely plausible to think that Lucas was reproducing tropes from that genre.

5. The burning homestead

Burning homesteads in The Searchers and Star Wars

One of the most dramatic moments in Star Wars has been likened to at least two other movies.

Luke's return to the burning Lars' homestead shares strong parallels with both John Ford's The Searchers (1956) and Henry Hathaway's Nevada Smith (1966).

6. The rough bar with the band that keeps playing

The Star Wars cantina

The cantina, where Luke and Ben must go to find a pilot, is the kind of rough, tough drinking establishment that we see in many a western.

It's a place where people are used to fights breaking out, but don't get involved. And the sequence contains a joke which reminds us of many a western: When violence erupts and all eyes turn temporarily to the aftermath, it takes only a moment for the band  like the pianist in so many Wild West saloons  to resume playing.

7. The gunslinger

Han Solo, gunslinger

Han Solo, of course, looks like a cowboy, with his vest (UK: waistcoat) and his gun in a quick-draw holster.

He behaves like one too, electing to draw his gun and shoot Greedo before Jabba's hood can do it to him. 

Like many a western gunslinger, he lives outside the law, and we know nothing about where he came from. But like the Lone Ranger, he doesn't actually ride alone. His surprising friendship with Chewbacca suggests there is more to him than meets the eye, and that he has a kinship with another culture. 

8. The gunfights

A shootout on the Death Star

When the Millennium Falcon blasts off from Mos Eisley, we leave behind the locales that might remind us of westerns. 
But the connection with the genre is not jettisoned.

Think of those gun battles - particularly the shootout in the Death Star detention centre, where laser bolts are flying in every direction. There is something of the western about them, and one influence that's been mentioned is Gunfight at the OK Corral.

We may be amid space stations, starrships and tractor beams, but the spirit of the classic western is still at hand.

Did you spot any links with westerns that I missed? Leave a comment, or engage with me via Twitter at @episodenothing


Harrod said...

Of course, three years before Star Wars, Mel Brooks repurposed Western cliches into a fast-paced popular entertainment that was simultaneously forward-and-backward-looking. I guess he really earned the right to make "Spaceballs."

Darren Slade said...

That's a great point, Harrod.