Original Essay | Star Wars is a Western Space Opera and it Shows

Context: Here is another academic essay. Star Wars is pretty beat to death, but it’s still fairly fun to write about. One correction of sorts would be the fact that Star Wars is heavily influenced by the space opera genre. While this is true, I still believe that the Western holds some serious weight as well.

George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) walks the traditional line of a Hollywood science fiction film, while containing many syntactic and semantic patterns held within the traditional Western genre. Rick Altman, an established film theorist, believes that traditional genres form from the relationship between Hollywood and the audience – the audience expecting certain things from films, and Hollywood putting money in places where money has been historically earned. In this way, many genres form through a dance of audience interaction (ticket purchasing) and Hollywood financing (producing films that audiences will see) and the end product is a time tested genre that American culture knows and loves. Genres such as gangster, science fiction, Western, and noir are the result of audiences’ willingness to see a predictable film and Hollywood’s eagerness to produce it. A developing modern example would be the hundreds of millions Marvel has put into developing a cinematic universe of superhero films (another genre) that relies on almost comically consistent formulas that audiences crave to see. Star Wars, however, pulls from an even deeper source than formula and predictability.

Star Wars drawing heavily from the acclaimed monomyth, largely explored, defined, and popularized through James Campbell’s book Hero With a Thousand Faces (Higgs), tugs at the hearts of Americans by appealing not to their expectation of genre, but their subconscious understanding of timeless, archaic myth. The franchise is populated with the many archetypes outlined in Campbell’s book. Star Wars possesses, as film theorist John Cawelti expounded, a nostalgic quality necessary for the transformation of a genre. This nostalgia is perhaps routed in the interwoven presence of the monomyth throughout Star Wars, and the reintroduction of myth to American society. With prophets, princesses and mentors, it is no coincidence that perhaps the most mythical of all Hollywood genres, the Western, is the genre with the greatest influence in Star Wars. Altman says that “the successful genre owes its success not alone to its reflection of an audience ideal, nor solely to its status as apology for the Hollywood enterprise, but to its ability to carry out both functions simultaneously” (Altman 223), a truth that is reflected in the astounding commercial success, mass popularity, and the yet seemingly contradictory cult status of the Star Wars franchise.

Star Wars opens with an ultra-wide shot of space, echoing the semantics established in the frontier landscapes seen Hollywood westerns such as John Ford’s Stagecoach. Both films frequently reflect upon the open vistas, with the beautifully haunting, and iconic Monument Valley seen in so many John Ford films representing underlying danger. Star Wars’s protagonist, Luke Skywalker,  is born on a desert planet, riddled with Native-esque Sand People. The Sand People are shown from afar, using the long shot to create a feeling of looming danger, until they appear seemingly out of the blue, similarly to the way Natives are treated in Stagecoach – far in the distance one instant, and racing their horses alongside you the next. Furthermore, the underlying danger of the journey that follows the stagecoach progress across the desert runs parallel with the dangerous and secretly chartered space journey with the cowboy resembling Han Solo. When we first meet Han Solo, he’s in a Mos Eisley cantina, a barely disguised Western saloon – music and all. It even carries the iconic sound effect of the dropped music, used to accentuate the awkwardness and tension after a fight. But of course, seconds later it is back to normal – business as usual on the frontier.  These twisted semantic elements provided audiences with the same desired predictability while simultaneously presenting something different and new, giving an edge of spontaneity.

Star Wars also shares many syntactic elements with Westerns as it does with science fiction. For example, the development of a heroic character (Western), is counterbalanced with the the down to earth quality of the protagonist (sci-fi). Star Wars is also riddled with many syntactic political elements – the small Rebel Alliance faces off against the cold, numerous masked troops of the Galactic Empire, shouting the song of anti-authoritarianism sung by so many other science fiction films. Additionally, George Lucas did not structure the political elements of his films haphazardly, for Star Wars, for all its political ambiguity (when it comes to specific Game of Thrones, or House of Cards style politics), sends a clear response to the United State’s engagement with Vietnam, and the ability of a small rebel army to stand against an incredibly large technological superpower (Hill). Star Wars lacks the articulated politics of science-fiction and the American landscape of  a Western, yet these deviations from Hollywood genre leave the audience to their imaginations, making the politics of the galaxy enthralling, and the various planets spin as a syntactic vestige of the expansive American  frontier.

Star Wars’ identity as a Hollywood blockbuster success and genre-relocating cult classic is the reflexive result of George Lucas’ heart for experimental filmmaking and classic Hollywood adventure films. Lucas once confessed that he believed he’d end up making cinema-verite style documentaries at a local television studio. But the unexpected success of Star Wars forever changed the young, American filmmaker’s future, a future which was dominated by enfranchisement, and seeming disloyalty to the virtues he professed in film school at USC (Brooker 13). While ideals and actions of Lucas are embodied in Star Wars, a film which for all its independent, cult qualities serves as the foundation for one of the most marketed and profitable film franchises of all time, the film stands as a testament to the ability of a film to transform genres, and land the coin on its side – perfectly aligning audiences with Hollywood in a cultural phenomenon that the world can’t seem to shake, even in 2016.

Works Cited

Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. London: British Film Institute, 1999.

Brooker, Will. Star Wars. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.

Cawelti, John G.. “Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films.” In Film

Genre Reader, edited by Barry Keith Grant, 183–201. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1986.

Higgs, John. “The Hero’s Journey: The Idea You Never Knew Had Shaped “Star Wars”.” SalonSalon Media Group, 07 Nov. 2015. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

Hill, Jim. “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe Reveals the Political References That George

Lucas Worked Into Episodes I – VI.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 04 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

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