WARNING: This analysis contains Spoilers for ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ & ‘Shane’ (1955)
Solo: A Star Wars Story sets itself up as a refreshing jaunt down the Western lane, with a cocky hero getting his space legs as one of the good guys. As an archetypical American tale, the roles (and outcomes) are preordained.
In 1949, an American professor of literature, Joseph Campbell, published The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which laid out the narrative cycle for the development of a hero. The book was released at almost the exact median of the American Western’s genre development. Of the 8,128 films that the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) identifies as westerns, the year 1949 alone yielded numbers #3,933 thru #4,053—a total of 120 films, over 2 films per week.
Such films as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Wayne), The Big Sombrero (Gene Autry), The Walking Hills (Randolph Scott) and Rio Grande (Sunset Carson)—another film of the same title would be released by the famous John Ford unit the following year in 1950 starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.
The “hero cycle” that Campbell describes summed up not only the American post-war grapple for greatness but also many conventions of the genre that resonated with American box offices: the Western. Both the professor and screenwriters understood the driving psychic need for individual actualisation. The country had experienced its first attack on home soil; had employed the first weapon capable of instantly annihilating whole cities (and eventually the entire planet); had first opened the mainstream workforce to females; and had emerged with new financial muscles to flex after the deepest economic depression of its young history.
The ritual transitions from child to adult, from object to agent, and along lines of class, race, gender, industry, and policy. The Western genre—already beloved of the ticket holders since the 1910’s—had matured into a new complex mythology. Drawing from a romanticised frontier past, it projected both optimism and inner turmoil into the future. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces succinctly distilled important plot and character anchor points on which the Westerns hung their Stetsons.
Driven by a catalyst, the hero leaves the world he knows to confront what he does not know. Along the way, he may encounter either a mentor or a love interest. He reaches a moment of crisis, which usually involves some sort of death—either physical limitation, emotional loss, choice of self-sacrifice, etc. He is transformed by the crisis and receives a survivor’s reward. This is the part where he ‘wins’ the girl.
But in the Western, the hero is often expelled from the society that he fought to protect. He represents a force that challenged the established order (perhaps by killing a villain in spite of laws against murder), and can no longer stay in the same space after winning. A life for a life: he is exiled from the party, riding off into the sunset to the next moment the scales of justice need a little tipping back in the right direction. In the Star Wars universe, the force must be balanced.
Solo: A Star Wars Story fleshes out Han’s (Alden Ehrenreich) role as the lone ranger we recognise from other instalments of the Star Wars saga. In an interesting inversion, this time he starts off with the girl but becomes driven by a desire to fix the past, not to build a future. He wants to prevent his loss of Qi’ra (Emelia Clark), the loss that catalyses his journey into the unknown. He wants, in effect, to start over from the beginning, when they break free of the sewers (a nice narrative touch that heightens the contrast with his later rulership of the skies as a pilot). No cattle ranch or picket fence of settled domesticity but its opposite: unbridled motion.
To fund this rescue mission for Qi’ra, Han joins a crew attempting an ambitious train heist—the picture-perfect generic conventions complete with a mother load (“lode”) of coaxial. With the deft application of the Western tropes, the juxtaposition of intergalactic technology in a brutal, broken environment full of mountains and valleys (like the Sierra Nevada and Grand Canyon), mirrors America’s tussle with atomic weaponry and sprawling geographic reach from volcanic Hawaii to the tropical Keys.
Through the hero cycle, Han finds a mentor, who rather ironically fails to be a mentor and feeds him to a beast that turns out to be a hell of a wise companion. (In a particularly problematised correlation, Chewbacca can be read as Han’s Tonto: the sage of colour whose people are threatened with extermination but whose intrinsic knowledge of nature guides the hero to succeed where his own skills doom him to failure.)
Han fails to launch beyond a romanticised version of saving Qi’ra, he fails to notice the present. He misses her cues that she really doesn’t need saving anymore: she is on her own heroine’s journey. She is rosy and riveting as upper management in a new workforce. In a poignant irony, instead of Han Solo echoing the way that Shane (1953) disappears into the horizon, Qi’ra sails her ship past the stranded hero, off to the realm of the bad guys’ laws. She knows the roles that each character have to play—even better than our protagonist.
Sadly for Han, the hero cycle no longer includes a victory lap.