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Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Little-Known History of the Wild West Is the Ultimate “Mandalorian” Easter Egg

Whether it's intentional or not, there is some evidence of historical reality in "The Mandalorian."

Image credit: Disney-Lucasfilm

I love Star Wars and I enjoy a good Western, so it’s no surprise to any of my friends and co-workers that I’ve been engrossed with The Mandalorian on Disney+. I’ll go ahead and warn you now, there will be some spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t caught up at least through Episode 6 of The Mandalorian, you may want to come back to this after you have.

If you’re all caught up or just don’t mind, let’s continue.

Western Tropes in The Mandalorian

The Mandalorian is basically a Western that happens to be set in a galaxy far, far away, but you don’t have to take my or show-creator Jon Favreau’s word for it. The show openly embraces the tropes and themes of classic spaghetti Westerns.

Broadly speaking, there’s the score and the setting. The theme song and the background music, written by Ludwig Göransson, puts heavy emphasis on the kinds of percussion-and-flute riffs that have a distinctly classic-Western feel. The setting is a little less obvious at times. While interstellar travel offers a range of physical settings⁠—from deserts to forests to spaceships⁠—what’s important is the timing of these settings. The plot takes place just after the conclusion of Return of the Jedi wherein the Empire has suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Rebellion (now calling itself the New Republic). A large number of classic Westerns tend to take place shortly after the conclusion of the American Civil War.

We can see other Western thematic elements. Heck, the first episode opens with what amounts to the Star Wars version of the gunslinger pushing his way into the saloon, all the disreputable ruffians looking up from their cards and drinks, with the Black Hat deciding that this bar ain’t big enough for the both of us.

Our main character, the titular Mandalorian (Mando, as other characters refer to him), is given no name. This is straight from “The Dollar Trilogy” (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) starring Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name. The two characters share more attributes than a simple lack of name, too. Both are men of few words, quick to violence, but also deeply human and caring in their own ways.

In the first episode, Mando has to “earn his spurs” by taming and riding a wild blurrg. This scene is strikingly similar to one from The Big Country starring Gregory Peck, right down to the older teacher calling advice from the fenceline.

It’s all pretty good fun. The thing is, the Wild West portrayed in classic Westerns and the old dime-novels they’re based on is largely fiction. The constant violent, criminal free-for-all that provides the backdrop for so many films simply didn’t exist.

A Brief History of the Not-So-Wild West

Generally speaking, the Western frontier was not nearly as violent or chaotic as legend would have you believe. Don’t get me wrong, the Old West was far from idyllic and racial tensions ran pretty high, but it wasn’t exactly The Quick and the Dead, either.

Before the Civil War, the Western territories were unincorporated land. No formal government (that Americans would recognize) reached that far west yet, so the settlers had no “official” way to keep the peace. But, wherever people begin to gather, conflict of some sort or another is fairly inevitable, so various forms of conflict resolution formed.

Private organizations like land use clubs, cattlemen’s associations, wagon trains, and mining camps protected private property and mediated disputes. Civil contracts, localized constitutions, and social pressure including ostracism (a very real threat so far away from the rest of America) largely kept the peace instead of threats of violence. As Bruce Benson writes of the time,

The contractual system of law effectively generated cooperation rather than conflict, and on those occasions when conflict arose it was, by and large, effectively quelled through nonviolent means.

The homicide rates, even in what qualified as the big cities in the Old West, were astonishingly low. Major railroad stops like Wichita and Dodge City (yes, that Dodge City) had lower murder rates than major eastern cities like New York and Boston at the time.

Interactions with the local Indian tribes were mostly peaceful and trade-based. White settlers may not have always liked the native tribes they shared space with on the frontier, but it was easier and less expensive to deal with them in a generally peaceful way than it was to wage war on them. As Jennifer Roback writes in Property Rights and Indian Economies,

Europeans generally acknowledged that the Indians retained possessory rights to their lands. More important, the English recognized the advantage of being on friendly terms with the Indians. Trade with the Indians, especially the fur trade, was profitable. War was costly.

This all changed in the mid-1860s. Now that it wasn’t so busy with that pesky Civil War, the federal government of the United States could turn its attention westward. Terry Anderson and Fred L. McChesney, who have both written extensively on this subject, put forth in the Journal of Law and Economics that once the costs of using violence against the native tribes of the Plains became distributed across the rest of the country through the use of taxation, “raid” replaced “trade” in relations with the Indian tribes.

Two of the US generals, General William T. Sherman and General Grenville M. Dodge, who headed up many of the major campaigns in the Western territories go into great detail about the atrocities committed against the Plains Indians following the American Civil War, and, more importantly, why. Deals had been struck prior to the War for the federal government to subsidize the building of the transcontinental railroad, and now that the War was over, it was time for the government to make good. Violence against the American Plains Indians was at the behest of the government on behalf of crony railroad barons. The campaign to “pacify” the Western territories resulted in the devastation of the native populations and fatally injured the tenuous relations between white settlers and native tribes.

But What about Mando?

Let’s back up for a moment. The Mandalorian is helping to set the stage in the Star Wars universe for the reality our heroes find themselves in during The Force Awakens which picks up 30 years after Return of the Jedi. There’s a lot of space to fill between the decisive defeat of the Empire at the end of Episode VI and the “Oh wait, just kidding” of Episode VII.

I mention this because, whether it’s intentional or not, I do see some evidence of historical reality in The Mandalorian. Just as it was the creeping tendrils of centralized government that led to the worst of the violence in the American West, so too do the starkest escalations of violence in The Mandalorian come from the involvement of centralized powers. Sometimes this is direct intervention, as we see when agents of the Galactic Empire hire Mando (and, like, every other bounty hunter in the galaxy) to capture Baby Yoda, as fans have dubbed him.

We also see this even when governmental involvement is indirect, as it was in Episode 6. Mando goes on a mission to rescue a prisoner from a New Republic prison ship. At the end of the episode, New Republic pilots elect to respond to a distress call by firing missiles at the station that’s launching a gunship. Sure, that gunship was supposed to be shooting down our intrepid heroes, but the New Republic pilots had no way of knowing that ahead of time, nor did they bother to even try to find out.

I find this little sliver of vague historical accuracy absolutely fascinating from a storytelling standpoint, and I’m curious to see how this plays out. But it seems that no matter what galaxy one happens to be in, governmental meddling always complicates the situation, generally increasing hostilities instead of decreasing them.