From the outset, Jon Favreau’s The Mandalorian (2019) pays homage to a duality of histories: the American Western genre and the rich tapestry of the Star Wars franchise. Set in the years following the fall of the Empire and before the emergence of the First Order, the show follows the travails of The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal), a lone gunslinger operating in the outer reaches of the galaxy. The show refers explicitly to a number of classic Western films released between the 1930s and 1960s, when the genre’s popularity was at its peak in Hollywood, and uses the nostalgia, memory, and identity of these iconic Westerns as a vehicle for delivering the show’s themes. Each episode runs like a condensed, classic Western, whereby the storytelling is set in chapters and features ‘Mando’ embarking upon a quest, encountering an array of characters along the way, facing feats of galactic danger, all whilst gradually moving closer to the show’s overall coherent narrative goal.
The fictional realms of George Lucas’ galaxy ‘far far away’ have captured the creative and cultural imaginations of American audiences since the release of Lucas’ first Space Western, Star Wars – A New Hope, in 1977. Lucas’ mythical galaxy is undoubtedly built on a bricolage of references and iconographies that are rooted in Western cinema history and Asia’s equivalent, notably Japanese Samurai cinema, to create Western tales of expansion, individualism and revenge in a setting like no other. 2021 celebrates the 50th anniversary of Lucasfilm, the studio which, from the onset of its creation in 1971, has transformed and influenced cinema. As the culturally, historically and aesthetically significant Skywalker saga came to a close in 2019 with J.J. Abrams’ space opera The Rise of Skywalker, a new era of live-action televised Star Wars stories begins on Disney+. The long awaited live-action Star Wars television universe is a prospect Lucas and his fans alike have pined over for years, delayed due to both financial and technological limitations, with the idea that the television format would allow for a further appreciation of the intricacies to the Star Wars universe characters and landscapes. The Mandalorian, then, functions not only as a new format for Star Wars but also as an ode to fans, and a nod to the continuous evolution of the Western genre alike.
In tracing the roots of the Western, Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) stands at the forefront of America’s cinematic history for two reasons; Porter’s film is not only the first American narrative film but also the pioneering film of the Western genre. Whilst Porter’s film marks the first Western, the genre can be seen to truly take shape in the 1920s with John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) and later technologically evolve with Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930) which was shot on 70mm film and so allowed for grander cinematography which captured the sweeping nature of the West.
Given the Westerns popularity on the silver screen it comes as no surprise that the genre was adapted for television. The Lone Ranger (1949), Tales of Wells Fargo (1957) and The Virginian (1962) are three shows which spanned multiple series and captivated audiences across America between the late 1940s and early 1970s. The Westerns presence on both visual mediums was undoubtedly of influence to Lucas’ creation of Star Wars, just as it was for Gene Roddenberry’s Space Western Star Trek: The Original Series (1966), which was of course an influence to Lucas and in itself was designed as a homage to the long running iconic Western series, Wagon Train (1957).
The Western genre, then, stands as the establishing genre of the American film industry, and can be seen as a prime vehicle to explore America’s Westward history and deeply rooted mythologies of self and nationhood. The films of this genre act as a eulogy to the formative frontier years in American history, with the narratives, symbols and motifs encapsulating landscapes, societies and elements from bygone eras. Over time and alongside pivotal movements in American cinema history, such as the Golden Age of Hollywood and the New Hollywood movement, the genre has evolved, redefined and spawned sub-genres including psychological Westerns, spaghetti Westerns, revisionist Westerns and neo-Westerns.
Favreau’s show draws from a select array of classic Westerns; the creation of The Mandalorian himself, a noticeable composite of past Western figures and personas, bears an ambiguity and elusive nature that is clearly lifted from Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of the ‘Man with No Name’. Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy (1964-1966) is likewise of notable influence on Favreau’s creation of character, style and the shaping of Mando as an anti-hero. Eastwood and Pascal’s characters share more attributes than their lack of a name; both embody characters who are men of few words and signs of emotion, are hyper capable gunslingers, but also have the capacity to be caring and human. Like the two Mandalorian characters who stand before Mando in the original and prequel trilogies, Jango and Boba Fett, the mismatched style and cape ensemble they don pays homage to the flair of past Western bounty hunters, particularly that of Eastwood’s Man with No Name and his iconic poncho. Mando’s unmistakable physical appearance showcases his allegiance to the sacred Mandalorian guild, renowned across the Star Wars galaxy for its gun slinging, bounty hunting and the innate code to which they honourably abide. These sartorial signals to tradition and creed are rooted, again, in the Western tradition.
Whilst the series kicks off as a gritty space Western, with Mando appearing to be as ruthless, capable and formidable as the iconic Star Wars bounty hunters which feature before him, it is by the end of the first episode that it becomes clear the show has inherited far deeper traits. The series, for example, subverts its establishing grittiness and, in place, focuses on the unexpected parent-child relationship between Mando and his former bounty, the Yoda-like Grogu. The show’s broader narrative arc bears resemblance to the works of John Ford, whose filmography and relationship with the Western genre spans just shy of fifty years. Ford’s influence on Favreau’s Western vision is omnipresent in The Mandalorian’s narratives, cinematic framing and character building. Ford’s 3 Godfathers (1948) and The Searchers (1956) both feature gunslingers, who when presented with children in danger, adjust their hypermasculine personas to become sentimental and compassionate. This vision is noticeable in Mando’s character as he becomes the surrogate parent for Grogu, and akin to the cowboys in Ford’s films, puts his life before the child’s. As in Ford’s works, the visual representations of emotion and belief intertwine with entertaining moments of action and simplistic storytelling, to wistfully create nuanced studies of humanity.
The show’s appreciation of landscape hearkens to the importance of setting in the Western genre. Just like the habitual environment of the Western, the lands explored are often inhospitable, desolate and vast; and as Peter Cowie remarks, the Western’s landscapes play an important role in presenting the ‘mythic vision of the plains and deserts of the American West’ (2004)[i]. This is similarly the case for The Mandalorian, and is one of the many ways the show builds onto the Star Wars mythos, by introducing new planets and the landscapes, natives and ecosystems which form them. The landscapes explored and curated lack of jurisdiction and authority of the New Republic bears a striking resemblance to that of the Wild West, where no formal governments operated. The Empire’s role in the show can be comparable to that of the national government’s in the late 1800s. Just as then governmental forces flattened minorities, took control of trade and wiped out native settlers; the Empire’s expendable Stormtroopers can be seen to do the same, adding further to the already chaotic, violent and hostile nature of the show’s Outer Rim setting.
As the lines between cinema and television blur, The Mandalorian brings Star Wars history to the screen in a new way. Through its cinematic quality, artistic value and appreciation of legacy, Favreau’s space Western steals the show in a new era of American television. Operating on a trinity of grounds, the show explores frontier technologies, continuously evolves the Western genre and expands the evergreen stories of that original canon, established in a galaxy ‘far far away’.
[i] Cowie, Peter. 2004. John Ford And The American West. 1st ed. New York: Abrams Books.