The original Star Wars is not exactly a Western. But it likes to dress up as one.
George Lucas’ film (also known as Episode IV: A New Hope), released in 1977, is a bricolage of iconographic and generic references. As many critics have noted, Lucas was a visual pack rat, taking bits and pieces from numerous other films. Everything from the distinctive wipe screen transitions to widescreen composition to the female lead who gets to fight was lifted from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. The serial adventure structure came from early space adventures like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. The Mos Eiseley cantina on Tatooine, a “hive of scum and villainy” nestled under the nose of an authoritarian regime, is borrowed from Casablanca. So is one of the movie’s most important character arcs; like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in the 1942 film, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo is introduced as an amoral ruffian who, by the end of the film, is committed to battling the authoritarian regime.
Most of these lifts, allusions, and references aren’t exactly meant to be noticed as such. They are incorporated into Star Wars because Lucas loves the source material and thinks they are useful and exciting storytelling devices in their own right. Film buffs may smile and/or wince when they recognize Kurosawa or Casablanca, but enjoyment of the movie doesn’t rest on recognizing how Lucas has been true to or altered the material he’s borrowed. In some cases, in fact, knowing where Lucas got his ideas makes the movie noticeably less enjoyable, as in the infamous final scene of the film, in which the good guy Rebellion’s military awards ceremony is framed with bafflingly straight-faced visual references to Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will.
There are a couple of exceptions to this rule. The stormtrooper fascist references to the Empire are clearly supposed to give depth to the bad guy’s evilness. Another example is Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia during the escape from the Death Star: She memorably refuses to be passively rescued, grabbing a blaster from her surprised would-be white knights and insisting on commanding the escape from the Death Star herself. The fun of the sequence depends in part on familiarity with fairy tale and Hollywood tropes, which Leia doesn’t deign to follow (to Luke’s delight and Han’s exasperation.)
Even more than it relies on your knowledge of what princesses aren’t supposed to do, Star Wars relies on viewers’ conscious familiarity with the Western. Lucas takes some ideas and imagery from specific Westerns—the scene where Luke discovers his Uncle’s gutted farm is famously lifted from John Ford’s The Searchers. But he also references and uses the genre as a whole. The dusty landscape of Tattooine, with small hard-working farmers menaced by marauders (the Sand People used as a fairly offensive stand-in for indigenous peoples) exists in the same imaginative space as many a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood picture. Ford’s Solo wears a variation on a Western vest and has a distinctly Western swagger; his under-the-table shot at Greedo could have come out of a Sergio Leone movie. Even the Star Wars blasters with the heft of six-guns seem more akin to Western movie weaponry than to later rapid-fire weapons of military films, or the compact pistols of the spy genre.
Critics, when the film was released, certainly picked up on the references. Charles Champlin in his contemporary review called the film a “space Western” and enthused about its new variation on an old formula.
The sidekicks are salty squatty robots instead of leathery old cowpokes who scratch their whiskers and “Aw, shucks” a lot, and the gunfighters square off with laser swords instead of Colt revolvers. But it is all and gloriously one, the mythic and simple world of the good guys vs. the bad guys (identifiable without a scorecard or footnotes), the rustlers and the land grabbers, the old generation saving the young with a last heroic gesture which drives home the messages of courage and conviction.
Champlin is wowed by the way Star Wars connects the past and the future, making space adventure retro. And he correctly notes that the time slip is accomplished in large part through Lucas’ leveraging of the Western genre. This is (again as Champlin notes) partially done via elements of plot and character.
But perhaps even more importantly, it’s accomplished through atmosphere. Science fiction on screen before Star Wars was defined by Star Trek and 2001—the future was professional, clean, and up-to-date. Star Wars, by contrast, was sprinkled with frontier grit. Those robot sidekicks may not have been leathery, but they were covered in grime and dust and scorch marks. The shaggy Bantha are a kind of amalgam of horse and cattle—thick, hairy, and mountable. The Millennium Falcon is a bashed-together jumble of angles and plates, as ramshackle as Uncle Owen’s sand-blasted desert farm. Even the Empire’s high-tech Death Star somehow has a worn and weathered look—and one of the film’s most memorable scenes is set in its garbage system. Only Lucas takes you across the universe to a distant galaxy in order to show you space sewage.
Star Wars isn’t exactly interested in careful worldbuilding. You never learn much about the command structure of the Empire in the first film, much less its ideological commitments, and the Clone Wars are little more than a cool name to gesture at vaguely. But while the universe of the first Star Wars movie doesn’t feel carefully constructed in some ways, it does feel lived in. And the place it’s been living is the Western. It’s the Western that gives Lucas’ film its scruffy texture and its enjoyably edgy vibe. And it’s the Western which makes the Star Wars universe feel unstable and thrilling and lawless, despite that authoritarian empire—like the whole galaxy exists on some wild, only sporadically policed frontier.
Star Wars dons cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat as a kind of stylistic, cinematic dress-up. And as with any dress-up, the point is for the costume to be recognized. Lucas wanted critics and fans to recognize and react to the Western references because he wanted his film to have that Western swagger, so you could hear the clank of spurs as the stormtroopers stomp through Tatooine, and the smell of gun smoke drifting up from the blasters. You can argue about whether Star Wars is technically a Western, or whether it’s a homage. But it’s undeniable that part of the pleasure of the film comes from the fact that while you watch his galactic space adventure, Lucas has you thinking about the quick draws, outlaws, and tumbleweeds of The Wild West.
Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics (Rutgers University Press).