‘The Mandalorian’ Is Definitely a Western. And Not Just One Specific Kind.
There was a minor social-media dust-up last week when a movie journalist emphatically tweeted that The Mandalorian was “NOT a Western” with that phrase repeated three times, followed by an argument that the new Star Wars series instead “comes from Samurai films that INFLUENCED Westerns.”
Most responses to the tweet correctly recognized that those two genres have become so intertwined as to render any debate about which was more important to the show meaningless. Of course The Mandalorian is inspired by samurai films and Westerns. (In a tweet responding to the original comments about The Mandalorian’s strongest influences, series consultant Christopher Yost noted that the show’s creators “talked about both pretty equally” during its development.)
The irony here is that if everyone had waited one more week, The Mandalorian would have settled this argument itself. The show’s fifth episode is called “The Gunslinger” and it involves the title character wandering the frontier planet of Tatooine — the home of Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first Star Wars film from 1977 — and getting mixed up with a young bounty hunter (Jake Cannavale) and his quest to track down a valuable target (Ming-Na Wen).
Almost every episode of The Mandalorian has leaned heavily on the show’s influences, but “The Gunslinger,” was especially full of callbacks to the Western genre. Those include an arid and inhospitable landscape, a frontier bar in the form of the famous Star Wars Cantina — the same one from Star Wars where Greedo famously exclaimed “Maclunkey!” before he tried and failed to kill Han Solo — speeder bikes in place of cowboys’ horses, and even indigenous people (the Tusken Raiders) who our heroes must negotiate with in order to arrange for safe passage through their territory.
“The Western” is not a singular concept, though, and one of the cool things about The Mandalorian is how many different kinds of Westerns it touches upon. “The Gunslinger”s story of an experienced vigilante taking a young man under his wing recalls John Wayne’s final film, The Shootist. Previous episodes included visual or narrative references to The Searchers, The Magnificent Seven, Shane, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly just to name a few of the most obvious inspirations.
I was a skeptic after a few episodes of The Mandalorian, but the last two chapters really won me over. When it began, The Mandalorian felt like a movie that had been pulled like taffy across an entire season of television. Now it’s settled into a clearer TV show format — just not a modern TV show. As I wrote last week, its anthology structure is a lot closer in style to the shows of the 1970s than contemporary prestige dramas. One thing I did not note in that article is that anthologies like The Incredible Hulk were among the most popular shows on television when the original Star Wars was released to theaters. That makes The Mandalorian an even more fitting companion to that film. If technology had allowed, this would have worked well as the first Star Wars television show, rather than the infamous Holiday Special.
There were Western anthology shows on television too. In fact, The Mandalorian’s general concept about a kind-hearted bounty hunter roaming the untamed wilderness recalls Western series like Wanted Dead or Alive, which was recently spoofed as Bounty Law in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — whose title is inspired by a Spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Leone, a man whose international breakthrough was a Western called A Fistful of Dollars, which was based on a samurai film by Akira Kurosawa called Yojimbo. And around and around we go. The Mandalorian is taking all of these influences and synthesizing them into something new.
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