Diving deeper into The Mandalorian’s Western influences
A dusty wind blows through the quiet streets of the small desert town. A woman sweeps the steps leading up to her shop as the midday sun beats down on her and she waits for customers that may or may not come.
A few regular patrons loiter their day away at the saloon, sipping their whiskey and speaking of nothing of consequence. Everyone here fears but does not speak the haunting truth that’s been hanging over the town for some time: this town’s best days are probably behind it.
Still, no one will leave because they’ve always been here, carving out a life for themselves in the unforgiving desert. They’ll stay until the desert forces them out, or there’s none of them left…
While this may sound like a stereotypical scene from a classic Western, it also describes the opening moments of the first episode of “The Manadorian” season 2.
Since the beginning of the show, “The Mandalorian” has leaned into its Western influences, but “Ch. 9: The Marshal” looks like it could have been lifted directly from a Clint Eastwood Western. And it’s probably my favorite episode from the entire series so far.
Although “The Mandalorian” may be the most overt Star Wars Western, the Star Wars saga has long drawn inspiration from classic Westerns, perhaps most obviously in “Episode 4: A New Hope.” When you take away all the science-fiction elements from the film, like the spaceships and the Death Star, at the heart of the story you’ve got a farm boy who dreams of adventure; a mysterious, wizened old man hiding out in the wilderness; and a roguish gunslinger who becomes a reluctant hero. Again, even though this is describing Star Wars, it could also describe a Western.
While I’m a big fan of Westerns now, I actually used to hate them (or at least, I thought I hated them). I’ve never really enjoyed the classic John Wayne-type Westerns, with the noble cowboy hero who rides into town to save the day from a dastardly villain. A lot of Westerns from this era present a more fantasized version of the Wild West, glossing over the darker side of American expansion and issues like racism and misogyny.
However, my feelings about Westerns did a 180 when I watched the famous Clint Eastwood film, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” This movie introduced me to the concept of revisionist Westerns: this subgenre paints the world of Westerns in more complex shades of gray, rather than just black and white. The towns in revisionist Westerns are populated by antiheroes and sympathetic villains, and these films explore deeper themes than some of their predecessors.
“The Mandalorian” fits comfortably into that revisionist Western subgenre. The Mandalorian himself, Din Djarin, is an antihero with a checkered past, although his adoption of the Child is showing his softer, more compassionate side. Like many Westerns, the Disney+ Star Wars series is filled with outlaws and criminals living in dark corners of the galaxy where the law of the New Republic can’t quite reach.
“The Mandalorian” has already used a number of common Western tropes, which add to the show’s overall aesthetic. Sometimes “tropes” — which are defined as commonly recurring literary devices — are seen as cheesy or cliché, but they work within “The Mandalorian” because the show takes tropes from one genre — Westerns — and uses them in unexpected ways in a completely different genre — science fiction.
Perhaps the most common Western tropes are the “lone cowboy” and “the trusty steed.” Although he wears Mandalorian armor instead of a cowboy hat, Din Djarin very much fills that lone cowboy type of role: he’s a man of action and of few words. And while he may not ride a horse, his spaceship, the Razor Crest, takes the place of the mythical cowboy’s trusty steed.
“The Mandalorian” also has plenty of shootouts and bar fights, which are common events in rowdy Western towns, and even a real “Wild West sheriff” — a.k.a. Cobb Vanth (played perfectly in the show by Timothy Olyphant, who is no stranger to Westerns).
Both the cinematography and the soundtrack of this series also feature callbacks to classic Westerns. The music always makes me think of dusty towns and gunslingers, and even though it’s very different from John Williams’ famous Star Wars scores, it fits with the type of show “The Mandalorian” is.
In addition to great music, “Ch. 9: The Marsal” also had some of the most breathtaking scenery of the entire series and is arguably the most cinematic episode we’ve seen so far. I loved all those wide shots of the scenic desert. Again, you could easily replace those sci-fi vehicles and banthas with cowboys on horses, and the setting would still work.
While my favorite part of the Star Wars franchise will likely always be the films, it’s still great that Star Wars is expanding into so many different storytelling mediums, including books, comics, animation, and now also live-action TV.
I’m excited that Jon Favreau decided to make “The Mandalorian” a Star Wars story that’s overtly a Western, and I hope his show inspires other creators to start combining other genres with Star Wars. Side note: How cool would it be to see a Star Wars film that was also a horror story (think “A Quiet Place” set in the galaxy far, far away)?
I once assumed that Westerns were a dated genre that was no longer relevant, but some recent Westerns — like the 2010 version of “True Grit” and the modern Western “Hell or High Water” — have convinced me that certainly isn’t the case. “The Western” is just one shade in a film maker’s palette of genre choices, and I love how Star Wars is able to draw from this classic genre and make it feel fresh and new and unexpected.
And of course, as in many Westerns, I hope “The Mandalorian” will end with Din Djarin and the Child riding (or flying!) off into the sunset together, with the implication that many more adventures are still to come in a galaxy far, far away.
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