2019 Film Essays

Who Was That Masked Man: ‘The Mandalorian’ and Westerns

The Mandalorian and Western Elements - TV Essay

“I was very interested in creating a modern myth to replace what I’d seen had been occupied by The Western.” – George Lucas, 1997

Star Wars has always incorporated Westerns into its cinematic language. From Han Solo’s vest and holster to the recreation of a shot from The Searchers when Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle lie burning in their homestead. The Mandalorian, a new serial from Disney+, continues that tradition. Everything from the environment to plot feels like it could be a John Wayne film. Star Wars was based on the early 1930s serials like Flash Gordon but George Lucas has cited Westerns such as The Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as influences on the original films. In a 1995 interview with Leonard Maltin, Lucas said “The original impetus for the whole thing was, I used to watch a serial called ‘Adventure Theater’ and they had ‘Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe’ on it and I loved that. So, I went off and wrote my own space opera.” It’s in The Mandalorian that the series finally (and proudly) returns to its roots.

The aesthetics of The Mandalorian are influenced by Westerns as a genre: the close-ups on hips, the wide shots of mesas and the silhouettes in door frames. Characters, when shot, fall off buildings and over rails, while gunslingers duck behind pillars. The locations of The Mandalorian evoke those of Westerns as well — through the use of cantinas and secco buildings, it’s easy to imagine horses riding through the towns on Arvala-7. In fact, The Mandalorian’s first episode, “Chapter 1,” provides a classic breaking of the beast scene when the titular character must learn to ride a Blurrg, a reptilian substitute to the stallions of the great plains.

The soundscapes of The Mandalorian harken back to Westerns, too — weapons discharging, the drumbeat in the opening title sequence and, most evocatively, the use of silence. A lot can be said about the aesthetics of The Mandalorian as they relate to Westerns, but even more so can be said of the thematic elements that comprise the new series.

The Mandalorian Season One

In “Chapter 1,” the new Disney+ series introduces The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal). He is a strong and silent man, with his face covered behind a masked helmet of an ancient culture. It’s revealed that he’s a bounty hunter tasked with recovering something for the last remaining remnant of the government in this part of the galaxy. A gun for hire, The Mandalorian effectively picks up the mantle of The Man with No Name, a character made popular by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western films. The Mandalorian speaks only when necessary, with the second episode (“Chapter 2: The Child”) containing no dialogue for the first 12 minutes. He’s a man isolated by circumstance and profession, searching for connection and meaning. This is the case for many gun-for-hire Western characters, such as Rooster Cogburn from both the original True Grit and the 2010 remake who reeks of loneliness and regret while desiring (and ultimately obtaining) connection by the end of the film.

The Mandalorian dutifully fulfills the role of a stranger who blows into town and drives the bad men out of it. The Western protagonist is one of action — restless and determined, they wander from place to place, running from their past. After four episodes, it’s still unclear if The Mandalorian will confront his past or simply ride off into the sunset.

For a brief moment in “Chapter 1,” The Mandalorian morphs into a sub-genre of the Western, a buddy comedy. With the introduction of IG-11, effectively played by Taika Waititi, The Mandalorian must work with a fellow bounty hunter to obtain his quarry. Outgunned and outmanned, both The Mandalorian and IG-11 are pinned down and must make a mad rush to avoid destruction. This sequence is reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where the two leads are at odds but can still work together. This is indicative of the times — not only in the history of America, but also in the Star Wars Galaxy.

The Mandalorian Season One

What stands out in The Mandalorian is that Pascal’s character has a clear past and clear motivations, evidenced through the use of flashbacks to his traumatic childhood in “Chapter 1” and “Chapter 3: The Sin.” This has been a common trend in newer Westerns such as The Magnificent Seven (a remake of the 1960 classic), where Ethan Hawke’s Goodnight Robicheaux suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, due to his experiences in the American Civil War, and The Sisters Brothers where Joaquin Phoenix plays an old-timey serial killer with a truly manic and incomprehensible energy, the result of having to defend his mother by killing his father as a child. The exploration of trauma in the Old West is common in modern narratives, whereas in the past, these things were implied but not stated. In this way, The Mandalorian is an effective blend of the old and new.

But it’s not only the titular character that feels akin to those in Western films, the tertiary characters that fill the world of The Mandalorian do as well.

Kuiil, an Ugnaught homesteader that appears in the first two episodes of the series (voiced by the incomparable Nick Nolte) is a classic archetype from both Westerns and Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey template. He is a kind and simple man wanting only peace for his valley. Kuiil teaches The Mandalorian how to be a part of nature, rather than forcing his beliefs upon the man. Kuiil is reminiscent of various mountain men that inhabit the worlds of Westerns.

The Client, played to perfection by Werner Herzog, is a mix of not only the grizzled and strange men that hire bounty hunters but also the failed military commanders that litter the Old West. Much like the American South, The Galaxy in The Mandalorian is facing the fallout of a civil war — on the fringes of society, all that is left is the discarded wreckage of civilization. This chaos and desire for survival are at the center of most Westerns, as the characters must face, on a daily basis, choices that have now long since been forgotten by modern society: how to find food, who to kill and why, and who to trust with their lives. This desperation permeates all who live in The Mandalorian’s world, from the titular character to The Client, a man of former stature. They are all scraping by.

Werner Herzog in The Mandalorian Season One

In “Chapter 2: The Child,” the focal gunslinger faces off against the native population of Arvala-7, the Jawas. Seen as a lesser nuisance, The Mandalorian has no issue dispatching them without a second thought. This is, unfortunately, reminiscent of the treatment of the Native Americans in countless Westerns, such as Stagecoach.

Like so many protagonists of the Western genre, The Mandalorian faces a moral struggle over the first few episodes of the series. He must choose between honor and simply making it through to another day. To stand up for justice and risk one’s own life for the good of others is a conflict that arises often in Westerns and Star Wars alike. Films such as True Grit and Shane exemplify the push-pull morality of the Old West.

In “Chapter 4: Sanctuary,” there’s a wonderful homage to films like The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon a Time in the West, the last of which is often cited as influencing the original Star Wars film. A stranger rides into town and helps a village fend off some local trouble, aided by both an ex-soldier from the civil war and the locals. With a widow that shows romantic interest in the protagonist, The Mandalorian’s fourth episode hits many familiar Western story beats. But, of course, in the end, the main hero cannot give up the life he leads, even for the possibility of love and security. The Mandalorian and the child in his care (known to many in pop culture as “Baby Yoda”) are being hunted and cannot stay even though they desperately want to. The melancholic atmosphere mirrors films such as Shane and The Magnificent Seven, where despite the victory, personal loss is accrued.

The Baby Yoda in The Mandalorian Season One

Westerns often have a through-line of melancholy; they are inherently stories of isolation, of man against the world. Through character connections, the loneliness gunslingers face can truly be emphasized. In the past, Westerns have been idealized, as their protagonists are thought of as cool and sexy. The modern Western, including The Mandalorian, is more willing to examine the true nature of humanity. This is a testament to how films have evolved, and in some ways, audiences have become more sophisticated. In the latest episode, “Chapter 4: Sanctuary,” viewers can begin to see the humanity of the titular character, as he almost shows his face. In the language of cinema, the near-reveal implies that The Mandalorian is more than just a masked gunslinger, he is human.

The Mandalorian is an effective blend of the old and new. Star Wars has been, and hopefully always will be, just that — a postmodern collage of everything that has come before. From mythological concepts to slapstick comedy, Star Wars has encompassed many things, to which Lucas attributes its success. In 1975, the franchise creator said “Star Wars is built on top of many things that came before. This film is a compilation of all those dreams, using them as a history to create a new dream.”

Tristan Miller (@TristanJMiller1) is an actor, writer, podcaster, stand-up comedian and mental health activist. He has been featured on The Good Men project, Stigma Fighters, The Psych Show and has begun work on a one-man show called Manic Impressive. Tristan hosts, edits and produces three podcasts: Positive and Negative, TheAmateur Detective Club and Anime-Zing Podcast.