West of the Stars
Updated: Nov 20, 2019
The Mandalorian, the Star Wars Universe flagship of the new Disney+ streaming service, launched this week. Critics and fans alike immediately noted the ways in which it feels like a western set "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." The Mandalorian does, in both style and concept, owe much to America's most enduring art form. Here, we'll detail the ways the show references the iconography and tropes of the Western.
From the moment the apertured doors open in the space cantina, the audience knows a showdown is coming. The titular bounty hunter stands framed in the door, his cape blowing in the wind, reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's likewise nameless character in Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns.
In the inevitable fight, the Mandalorian uses one of the mainstays of the Western genre, the lasso. Updated with a grappling hook and fired from a gauntlet, the lasso is immediately recognizable nonetheless.
The lasso is one of the most iconic symbols of the cowboy. It was first introduced to audiences by Texas Jack Omohundro in 1872, as a part of the stage show The Scouts of the Prairie. A veteran Chisholm Trail cowboy himself, Texas Jack demonstrated trick roping, and used his lasso in the show to capture renegade Indians and a villain named "Wolf Slayer." After Jack's death, his friend Buffalo Bill Cody wrote a dime novel about Omohundro called "Texas Jack, the Lasso King."
The other imagery we can trace back to Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill is "the trusty steed." The horses of those famous men had names like Buckskin Joe, Yellow Chief, Black Belle, Tall Bull, and Firefly. Buffalo Bill's 1879 autobiography described a meeting with General Custer, with Custer dismayed at the sight of Bill's old mule:
I was ordered by the commanding officer to guide General Custer to his desired destination, and I soon received word from the General that he would start out in the morning with the intention of making the trip in one day. Early in the morning, after a good night's rest, I was on hand, mounted on my large mouse-colored mule—an animal of great endurance—and ready for the journey; when the General saw me, he said:
"Cody, I want to travel fast and go through as quickly as possible, and I don't think that mule of yours is fast enough to suit me."
"General, never mind the mule," said I, "he'll get there as soon as your horses. That mule is a good one," as I knew that the animal was better than most horses.
"Very well; go ahead, then," said he, though he looked as if he thought I would delay the party on the road.
For the first fifteen miles, until we came to the Smoky Hill River, which we were to cross, I could hardly keep the mule in advance of the General, who rode a frisky, impatient and ambitious thoroughbred steed; in fact, the whole party was finely mounted. The General repeatedly told me that the mule was "no good," and that I ought to have had a good horse. But after crossing the river and striking the sand-hills, I began letting my mule out a little, and putting the "persuaders" to him. He was soon out-traveling the horses, and by the time we had made about half the distance to Fort Larned, I occasionally had to wait for the General or some of his party, as their horses were beginning to show signs of fatigue.
"General, how about this mule, anyhow?" I asked, at last.
"Cody, you have a better vehicle than I thought you had," was his reply.
From that time on to Fort Larned I had no trouble in keeping ahead of the party. We rode into the fort at four o'clock in the afternoon with about half the escort only, the rest having lagged far behind.
General Custer thanked me for having brought him.
This particular trope is no stranger to Star Wars fans, as it was demonstrated in the very first movie when Obi-Wan very much doubted the capabilities of Han Solo's ship, the Millennium Falcon. The Mandalorian's bounty likewise shows dismay at the sight of his captor's ship, The Razor Crest.
Because of the audience's inherent understanding of this particular trope (which TV Tropes calls What a Piece of Junk after Luke's reaction to seeing the Millennium Falcon), we know this ship has more under the hood than appearances dictate.
Soon enough, the Mandalorian visits a mysterious client (played by Werner Herzog), who wears an insignia signifying his allegiance to the recently fallen Empire. This sets our conflict as happening just after a war, and amongst a populace with divided sympathies. Classic westerns were set just after the Civil War, with former Union and Confederate soldiers sharing the new frontier. It is easy to see the parallels in the recently overthrown Empire.
Our hero is here wielding both a rifle and a pistol, the weapons du jour of all Western heroes. Heroes of old named their swords Excalibur, Joyeuse, or Tizona—Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill named their rifles The Widow and Lucretia Borgia, respectively.
Consider Buffalo Bill's favorite rifle, a Springfield .50-caliber trapdoor needle gun, and Texas Jack's Smith & Wesson Model 3 American wheelgun.
The bounty hunter is soon tasked with riding a native creature, reminiscent of innumerable "bronco busting" scenes in Western literature, television, and film.
The Earl of Dunraven's account of a trip into the Yellowstone Park in 1874 included this depiction of Texas Jack:
We bought a pony at Stirling...the occasion of some little anxiety to us at starting. He was a native pony, of mixed Spanish and American blood. Like all half-bred mustangs, he was not destitute of the diabolical accomplishment of 'buck-jumping,' and he exhibited a slight disposition to indulge in the pasttime...[Texas] Jack found no difficulty in subduing his early efforts; after which his behaviour was most exemplary...I drove in the buggy, and Jack on the newly-aquired Broncho, galloped gaily alongside in great form, full of spirits...
The bounty hunter is likewise capable of taming the savage mount, which carries him safely across the arid desert in pursuit of his quarry. The bounty hunter crawls along the canyon rim, peering down at an outpost in the distance, very much resembling a Spanish Mission on the Mexican border.
Soon enough, and after succeeding against overwhelming odds, the Mandalorian is pinned down by a laser version of a Gatling Gun, necessitating another use of his lasso, this time in concert with his sidearm, an iconic Western combination.
Without giving away the episode's conclusion, our bounty hunter proves to be equal parts cold AND gold hearted, setting the stage for what will surely prove "must-watch" television in the coming weeks.
Sure it has spaceships, strange creatures, aliens, and laser blasters—but The Mandalorian might just join shows like Deadwood, Longmire, and Justified in the pantheon of great western television.