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'Star Wars' a Western?

'Re-Searching’ the Western through John Ford’s auteur perspective, and also further influence on the iconic film 'Star Wars'

Western, a term that has circulated for quite a long time in the American space, but not only that, taken by its connotation as an artistic genre, refers to the 19th century America, and more accurately, to the American Indian Wars. The American Indian Wars, while not only one event, represents a corpus of disputes and events between the European government and colonists, later known as the United States, and the different tribes of Native Americans. This dispute can be traced back to the earliest colonial settlement, and it was due to the cultural discrepancies between the two societies, various disagreements in reserve to the ownership of the land, numerous criminal cations carried by both sides continuously, and many other debated subjects that bring with themselves a lot of ambiguity. With the aid of this history, the western genre has kept some of the historical elements and transferred them, with some modifications made by reinventing some of the elements, into the artistic field, some of the historical elements that can still be seen in the western genre are the wild frontier, the constructions of railroads, large ranches, revenge stories caused by criminal activities that were taking place in the Wild West, the American Natives cavalry fighting with the European colonists, the stories about bounty hunters and outlaw gangs.

“The culture and literature that we call American was borne of the confrontation between cultures that embodied two distinctly different phases of mythological evolution, two conflicting modes of perception, two antagonistic visions of the nature and destiny of man and the natural wilderness.”

Many of the aforementioned motifs or themes are reimagined to better suit the cinematographic field, and introduced, they still have some historical accuracy, but due to the changes brought to their definition and denotation when introduced and reinterpreted in the cinematic space, it cannot be related with certainty in what respect the term still holds its ancestral designation. The western genre was introduced as early as the beginning of the 20th century in the cinematographic domain with the help of numerous TV shows, which were very popular at that time. Shortly after the brief period of popularity known by the western genre, for the most part of the second half of the 20th century, it was forgotten by audiences and reintroduced in the 1990s and 2000s with the help of the western movies.

As we all know, John Ford was a pioneer of filmmaking, and because of his intricate stories and inspirational screenplays, many other filmmakers were inspired by his work. And because he was like that, many filmmakers looked to him for inspiration from the very beginning. Thus, the iconic film Star Wars (1977) by George Lucas, needless to say, was inspired by one of the most famous Westerns created by John Ford, which is The Searchers (1956). John Ford is a respected icon for Western films, he also ‘bends’ the rules sometimes just to get the preferred meaning of his work. By doing so, he tackles some very controversial and socio-political themes and ideologies such as racism and genocide. The depiction of Indians in his film (especially The Searchers) puts them in a very disadvantageous light—Indians being represented antagonistically. Even though in John Ford’s Western movies, the Indians are used for his advantage, and he portrays them in a very one-dimensional way as “Indians in The Searchers are for the most part murderers and rapists,” yet, film critics argue that John Ford’s “ability to weave myth and truth into a seamless fabric.” As an answer to that, David Grimsted has an interesting opinion justifying everything said above. He is explaining how Ford’s society in Westerns, focusing on The Searchers, is not mainly emphasizing on the racial aspect of the film. Thus, Ford managing to turn the hatred, the anger towards another direction, saying that, 

 “[e]ven at those points where some Indian-hating would seem humanly logical, Ford turns anger elsewhere… Ford’s society in the film, rather than racism, is notably free from racism, even where circumstances would lead one to expect it.”
“The film’s opening initially seems to present Whites as agents of civilization in the wilderness and Indians as murderous, raping savages. But then things get strange. We learn that the presumably savage chief committed the massacre in retaliation for the killing of his own family by Whites. Unlike many classical westerns, this is not a film that glorifies the westward expansion of White culture or the traditional western hero. Instead, it critiques it all in disturbing ways.”

Focusing on the Western that is portrayed in John Ford’s film, we can observe that the main themes repeat throughout his films. Emphasizing on The Searchers, the film opens up with a scene set in 1868 where the main character Ethan Edwards comes back home and from there on, we can observe his entire journey of seven years trying to save one of his nieces from a Comanche chief that kidnaped her as a hostage.

Despite their sense that the film is concerned with questions of history, the critics do not in practice pay much attention to this. What is of ultimate concern is that artistry with which the film organizes the audience’s responses to the characters… the actual way in which the critics deal with questions of character in the film… lead[s] us all the time towards articulating what it is the characters are like, what motivates them, how they understand each other, and how they are to be understood by us… All these critics, then, to some extent, treat the film as though it were a psychological novel

What Edward Buscombe is trying to focus on in “Critics on The Searcher” is the actual main character of the film, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne). Throughout most of John Ford’s career as a Western filmmaker, he worked closely with John Wayne. John Ford is considered to be an auteur due to the fact that we as the viewers can easily see that he is debating and exploring the same ideas over and over again with different social, political, or psychological angles. When the film got released in May 1956, everyone expected to be “just another John Ford western.” Taking everyone by surprise, the film nowadays received many supportive reviews, covering many aspects of the film: the visual representation of the western, the psychological analysis of characters, and also John Ford’s approach on racism. As Arthur M. Eckstein described in his essay about The Searchers depiction of racism: 

“Moreover, it is viewed as psychologically profound. Commentators allege that it locates the psychological roots of racism in the projection of one’s own unacceptable impulse and desires onto the Other, followed by the ferocious punishment of the Other. Most specifically (to take a famous formulation), the Comanche war chief named Scar (Henry Brandon) is seen as the dark alter ego of the central figure, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne). So, What Arthur M. Eckstein is trying to imply is the fact that Scar is nothing more than just a psychological extension of Ethan Edwards, which will act on the basis where Ethan’s hatred and unacceptable behavior lie. Ethan's hatred for Indians is also well described and displayed even from the beginning of the film where, and we as the viewers can understand that, for Ethan, Indians represent a suppressed mentality and an unacceptable emotion."

Ford works to complicate the ideological lineaments of those narratives—to blur the lines between white and native, captive and captor, “civilized” and “primitive.” Racial identity here is always–already mixed, sexuality is always–already a miscegenation, and whites are as thoroughly engaged in the process as natives, Mexicans, or African Americans, all of whom are present in the remarkably full racial canvas of the film’s West.

Thus, this essay will mainly focus on how John Ford’s film The Searchers specifically influenced George Lucas’ iconic movie Star Wars from 1977. Setting up the tones of the films, I would like to talk about how both plots of the films are put under a similar dome where the representation of the Western in The Searchers was shot in the suffocating desserts of Monument Valley. A place which is as sultry and oppressive as the representation of the Twin Suns of Tatooine in Star Wars. No wonder why George Lucas drew inspiration from such an isolated place. He tried to revive the iconic Western visuals in order for the genre to prevail from a different perspective, because in one of his interviews he said: “I saw the western die.” And also, with such a landscape, George Lucas' intentions, were probably to bring hope to these abandoned and forgotten places. In Star Wars, the landmarks where Lards’ homestead was located, in a visual way, matches almost identically with the isolated landmarks that were presented in The Searchers. Both films display two different types of population. Needless to say, they come from different backgrounds (Western and Science Fiction). Even though they both come from different background, they still share a common element, which is the fear of indigenous populations. Hence, in Star Wars, the Tusken Raiders were the ‘natives’ of Tatooine. Also, in George Lucas’ vision, the Tusken Raiders were more barbarically described. Thus, undoubtedly, they are a clear anachronistic depiction of the parallel population that is displayed in The Searchers: “Indians in The Searchers are, for the most part, murderers and rapists.”

Furthermore, in 1977 Star Wars, we can definitely see how it was influenced by The Searchers in terms of locations, cinematography, and themes. Now, Star Wars is not entitled to be a Western by any means, but we can analyze it as a possible allegory of a westward expansion fantasy. Even though the main genre of Star Wars is science fiction, we can still see some western references that George Lucas implemented carefully in his masterpiece. One of the biggest similarities between these two films is the classic scene where the main character of Star Wars, Luke, played by Mark Hamill, found out that his uncle and aunt died. That scene is a clear reference and reconstruction of a famous scene in John Ford’s The Searchers, where Martin Pawley played by Jeffrey Hunter, returns back home to find his adoptive family murdered by Indians. The only person he was left with was his companion Ethan Edwards played by the famous Western icon John Wayne. Just like in The Searchers, Star Wars successfully mimics the scene creating a new sub-genre for the film in term of plot, narrative, locations, and costumes as well.

“And straight out of the old West rides Luke’s companion, Han Solo, a gun for fire, quick on the draw, dressed in the compulsory cowboy vest, booth, and tight pants, with a pistol (now a raygun) slung low in a holster on his hip. Although Solo is a loner, as his name suggests, he has overtones of the good guy Lone Ranger, with Chewbacca his Tonto.”

To make the statement even clearer, in an interview with George Lucas by Paul Scanlon "The Force Behind George Lucas," he implicitly explained how Star Wars was influenced by one of the greatest Westerns of all time and how important it was for him to revive the Western genre into his life and work. Thus, in the interview, George Lucas told the interviewer that for him “One of the significant things that occurred to me is I saw the western die.” Thus, he tried to implement some classic elements of Western, so he introduced an oppressed race that represented and displayed (just like in a Western) an ‘accepted’ way of hatred towards a race that justified genocide. George Lucas named them Wookies. Going back to the interview, George Lucas explained what Wookies meant to him in the first place when the script was still in the process of development: The Wookies are more like the Indians,” Says Lucas, “more like noble savages.”

As a conclusion, the concept of the auteur in Hollywood, especially, is very complex. Thus, very thorough research and analysis are required. In our case, analyzing John Ford’s life as filmmaking was fascinating. Not only did he manage to write incredible masterpieces, but he successfully inspired many other great directors achieving their preferred meaning. With his passion for filmmaking, John Ford, needless to say, managed to occupy a place in the industry as a pioneer of filmmaking. His depiction of Westerns in his work has many layers, and by analyzing all of them we can see how John Ford voluntarily or not, added his nuance. From directing actors to costume design, screenwriting, and sound design, his presence in a production seamlessly inspires the rest to portray his thoughts and feelings.

His relationship with John Wayne was a very special one. Not only did they work together for multiple projects, but they were best friends outside of work as well. What John Ford saw in John Wayne was not just an actor; a blank canvas that he could have painted his acting skills, he saw a lifetime partner. He was fascinated by John Wayne’s ‘naturalness’. 

“Naturalness cannot be treated like décor, it cannot be created by a director if it is not ready latent in the actor (although it may be encouraged), and it is the rarest quality.”

This is the relationship that made them both the icons that they are right now.

We realize why he is considered to be one of the greatest directors in Hollywood. He arrives each morning knowing exactly what he intends to film, and with every scene visually worked out in his mind. He is never in a hurry yet doesn’t waste a minute. His rehearsals are so thorough that more often than not he will film the most difficult scene in one ‘take’, rarely more than two… If there were any differences of opinion as to how a scene should be played, the actor invariably ended up agreeing with Mr. Ford. He is infinitely patient in explaining his reasons for what he wants. At the same time, he is in command and can be firm when necessary.  

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