If one views the top grossing films of all time, it becomes easy to see that most of the films rely heavily on computer generated images, whether to enhance live action or the animation of popular animated features. Many cinematic experts cite the fact that blockbusters in the last thirty years have relied increasingly on special effects to the point that they overshadow the plot, which in essence becomes superfluous. However, this is hardly the case, and most blockbuster films feature plotlines and ideologies that date back to the earliest days of cinema when special effects were scarce.
One of the most popular film franchises in history, Star Wars contains not only special effects that helped change movie making, but it also features a plot with many of the same elements as classic western films, including the ideological battle of good versus evil, the wild frontier, and archetypal characters. In the first few years of its existence, cinema was nothing more than a novelty that possessed little artistic value.
The idea of moving images was more than enough to attract audiences, though like all novelties, the public would soon grow weary of the invention without the efforts of men like Edwin S. Porter. Undoubtedly, Porter can be said to be the creator of the first blockbuster in movie history, with 1903’s The Great Train Robbery. The film advanced filmmaking in many regards, as not only the first western, but also by incorporating action, violence, frontier humor, color, special effects, and a full-screen closeup of a bandit firing his pistol at the audience.
While a short film featuring only one reel of action, it soon led to the proliferation of the nickelodeon as the most popular and commercially successful film of the pre-nickelodeon era, establishing the idea that film could be a commercially-viable medium. This realization that films could make money would eventually become the driving force behind the Hollywood film industry, and the conventions of the western would serve as the perfect template for plots to the present day.
When the Hollywood studio system emerged in the 1910s and 1920s, films were produced much in the way of automobiles, with an assembly line mentality and factory-based production operations that allowed the studios to dominate the movie industry in the U. S. and abroad. The impact of the western formula on the success of film was apparent and by the mid-1920s, nearly half of Universal Studio’s annual output of feature films was westerns.
After remaining the most profitable genre of film for decades, by the 1960s the western had peaked both as a viable Hollywood commodity and as a national myth to ease America’s rural-urban transformation, in part brought low by a combination of market saturation and generic exhaustion. However, many of its familiar conventions would find their way into the plots of some of the biggest blockbusters in history. Over seventy years after Porter’s blockbuster, George Lucas would also change the face of cinema, relying on the basic plot techniques developed through the evolution of the western.
Stars Wars is credited as ushering in not only the era of dominating special effects, but also remains one of the highest grossing blockbusters of all time, with a worldwide box office take of $797,000,000, not to mention another few billion from its subsequent sequels and prequels. While Star Wars contains amazing artistry in the scale and scope of its special effects, its plot still relies on the simple conventions of the western film, which are designed to be accessible to all audiences.
Often considered the first blockbuster to star one of cinema’s greatest icons, John Wayne, the film Stagecoach is an adult drama that had deep roots and moral lessons that helped make it a timeless classic, whose plot is about a group of strangers thrown together on a journey and put under stress so that the strengths and weaknesses of the character within them is revealed; this same basic formula has been seen in blockbuster films like Apollo 13 and the biggest blockbuster in history, Titanic.
While both of these later films are heavy with special effects, they feature these proven plot techniques, much like Star Wars. The first time viewers see the heroic Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, it almost looks like a scene from a western. The classic desert landscape, the flat, expansive land and the big sky are all classic icons of the western genre. It is this vastness that is a key characteristic in Star Wars and westerns. Specific settings for westerns include lonely isolated forts, the isolated homestead, the jail, or small frontier towns that are forming at the edges of civilization.
Luke, much like the young heroes of westerns, yearns only to get off the farm and lead a life of greater excitement. It is only when the Empire storms through and kills his family is he forced to become a man and take on the evil forces conspired against him. Usually, the central plot of the western film is the classic, simple goal of maintaining law and order on the frontier in a fast-paced action story: “It is normally rooted in archetypal conflict – good vs. bad, virtue vs. evil, white hat vs. black hat…
Often the hero of a western meets his opposite “double,” a mirror of his own evil side that he has to destroy” (Dirks). For Luke, the good, his opposition is Darth Vader, the evil. This point is even illustrated by the color of the clothing they wear, as Luke dresses in white and Vader is decked out in ominous black. This element of good versus evil, or white hat versus black hat is a key to western films and make it easy for viewers to delineate between good characters and bad characters is traditionally easy in conventional western movies.
There is little question as to who the good guys and bad guys are. And, this is even seen in Luke’s sister, Leia, who begins the movie wearing an all-white dress. The white clothing of Luke and Leia link them through their apparent goodness, even though it is not revealed until later that they are brother and sister. The only character that is seen in both white and black is Han Solo, who wears a white shirt with a black vest. Unlike Luke and Leia, Han has elements of mischief and is also an outlaw.
The white shirt signifies his goodness, while the black vest hints of his less than admirable qualities–his greed, selfishness, and willingness to deal with shady characters. When Han is introduced into the movie, he kills an alien within the first few minutes. According to author Stephen D. Greydanus, this scene is typical of western films: “The saloon shootouts, of course, come from that other great American mythology, the Western. (So does Han Solo’s general cowboy look and demeanor.
) By the 1970s, though, the Western no longer enjoyed the hold on the popular imagination it once had, though its influence has continued to be felt in films [like] Star Wars”. With all the element of classic westerns, including cowboy-type characters, evil villains, and a plot filled with action, it would only seem appropriate that Star Wars also possessed a classic theme, as many popular westerns do. However, Han’s goodness is finally known and he becomes one of the rebels’ greatest assets and is one of the movie’s best examples of a western style cowboy.
While Star Wars could be considered a western set in space, it certainly possesses more elements and intricacies of plot than are given credit. While none of the conventions are new, they helped infuse the modern blockbuster with the spirit of old Hollywood, to very profitable results. A few true westerns have become blockbusters in the past thirty years, most notably Dances with Wolves, which grossed $424,200,000 worldwide, and featured many of the same elements as Star Wars, including good versus evil, the encroaching omnipresent technological power, and the perseverant hero.
Ironically, Dances With Wolves even won the Academy Award for best film, beating out the film Goodfellas, which actually ended with an homage to Edwin S. Porter’s original western; it featured one of the most sinister mobsters in the movie shooting his gun directly at the audience at the end of the film, almost exactly duplicating the ending of Porter’s film. This just goes to show that regardless of what genre today’s Hollywood blockbusters fall under, the plot elements of the American western permeate most, from the simple battle of good versus evil to the ultimate victory enjoyed by the pure-hearted hero.
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