The Lightsaber; the humble weapon of a Jedi knight. For early 40 years this elegant weapon has been the Excalibur of our time. It has captured the imaginations of generations of Star Wars fans. While many will debate the practicality of a cross-guard saber, few will forget the first time they saw those humming blades clash amidst the crackling of energy. From films to TV shows, the Lightsaber duel has been one of the defining features of the franchise and one that often makes or breaks a work. The fine art of crafting the perfect Lightsaber duel is something that has alluded many. The style of choreography, their length and complexity all contribute to what makes a quintessential Lightsaber battle. At the half-way point of this series, we take a break from looking at various Star Wars oddities to pay respect to a more civilised age. After much mediation and soul-searching we have prepared a list of the top 5 Lightsaber duels across both the films and TV series.
5. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader – Round 2
Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
If ever there was a setting made of a close-quarters combat, it is the throne room of the Empire’s second Death Star. The Emperor has made clear his intention to have Luke Skywalker replace his father as second-in-command. The young Jedi prepares to strike the Dark Lord down only for Vader to intervene and their fight begin. Darkness engulfs them as they battle overlooking the forest moon of Endor. Luke goes from the offensive to the defensive, trying to reason with his father. This duel is extremely well-directed, reflecting Luke’s internal struggle. One shot in particular features his face, with equal shades of blue and red light, symbolic of the conflict within him as Vader and the Emperor goad him towards the Dark Side. As Vader probes Luke’s though and reveals the existence of his sister, the young Jedi lashes out in anger. Fury fuels him as he becomes a being of pure rage, lashing out at his father and severing his mechanical hand. This battle shows Luke at his limit and shows us the dark path he could have taken, ending on a hopeful note as Skywalker tosses his Lightsaber away declaring himself to be a Jedi, like his father before him.
4. Anakin Skywalker vs. Obi- Wan Kenobi
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
For all we knew, this was it. This was the final Star Wars movie and this was going to be the final fight of the series. It was a duel that fans had been waiting to see and it did not disappoint. For those of us who were first introduced to Star Wars by the Prequels, this was an emotional scene. We may have known his ultimate fate, but little could prepare us for seeing Anakin, the hero who had grown in tandem with us, consumed by his rage and choking the life out of the women he loved. To see the pain of the man who raised him been forced to confront his pupil as they fought for the faith of the galaxy. It was heartbreaking. People often criticise the choreography of the Prequel nothing that it is too well-planned, too artificial. They contend that it doesn’t have the dynamics of a real fight that the action scenes of the Original Trilogy invoked. We must recognise that this is not an inherently bad thing, lest we forget that “only a Sith deals in absolutes”. There is merit to watching something for the sheer skill of the craftsmanship. The Jedi are warrior monks and the Lightsaber is their martial art. Watching this duel is like watching a kata or ballet. Each move is planned down to the letter, but it is executed so skillfully that you can hardly complain. It is a joy to watch with “Battle of Heroes” acting as the perfect accompaniment. If you want to include Yoda’s battle with the newly christened Emperor Palaptine as part of this entry you can, but the conflict between master and apprentice was what we came to see and the more tragic of the two. With this epic duel over the volcanic plains of Mustafar, the circle was truly complete.
3. Luke Skywalker v. Darth Vader – Round 1
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
“The Force is with you, Young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi yet”. So begins the Lightsaber battle that would set the standard for all others to follow. The duel featured in A New Hope was minimalist, with the weapon given a weight that didn’t lend itself to exciting, fast-paced action. This was due to the fragile materials the original Lightsabers were made from, but redesigns between films allowed for a more dynamic dueling style to be development. The light of the blades illuminate an otherwise dark and foggy chamber. Nothing to be heard but the hum of the blades and the mechancial breathing of Darth Vader. It’s brutal, it’s atmospheric and it’s amazing. Coupled with the twist that would send shock-waves through the fandom and change everything utterly, its understandable why this duel remains as one of the highlights of the series.
2. Asajj Ventress vs. Anakin Skywalker
Clone Wars Micro-Series
I will fully admit to being an utter fanboy when it comes to this TV show. Indeed, I dedicated an entire article of this series to praising Clone Wars and its impact on the franchise. In that article, I noted the symbolic importance of this duel in the development of Anakin Skywalker, but its worth exploring why his clash with Ventress on Yavin IV is an essential Lightsaber battle in its own right. It’s the kind of sword-fight that could only have been created by Genndy Tartakovsky thanks to his Samurai Jack sensibilities. Outside of a brief segment in Attack of the Clones, this is the first time that dual-wielding Lightsabers has been featured prominently on-screen. As the duel progresses, the young padawan becomes more and more aggressive, giving into his anger, his hate. His strikes go from a martial art, a thing of elegance to an display of brute force. In that sense, it is the perfect blend of the ballet-esque choreography featured in the Prequels and the rough, brutal duels of the Original Trilogy. Eventually Ventress disarms him, only for Anakin to return the favour and claiming her weapon as his own in a beautifully animated shot of his face eclipsed in the red glow of his opponent’s Lightsabers as a rendition of “Duel of Fates” kicks in. His embrace of this darker aspect of his personality, signified by his use of a red Lightsaber, allows him to emerge victorious. Skywalker may have won the duel, but by forcing him to tap into that that darkness, Ventress may have, in a way, won the battle and contributing to Anakin’s fall to the dark side.
1. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon vs. Darth Maul
Episode 1: The Phantom Menace
Before you grab your torches and pitch-forks, consider this. Before this moment, the only people we’ve witnessed engaging in Lightsaber battles are old-men, aging cyborgs and a newbie with very little in the way of formal training. The climatic battle between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul is the first time we see Jedi and Sith in their prime engaging in Lightsaber combat. These are experts, people who have trained for years to hone these abilities and the duel reflects this. This was before Lucas went a bit overboard with some of the fight choreography as such it features a nice-blend of neatly planned and well-executed combat with the roughness of a real duel. It isn’t just about the spectacle of watching two Jedi face off against a foe wielding the now-infamous double-edged Lightsaber. The synergy between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan in this duel is also noteworthy. The years of the master-apprentice relationship means that the understand each other thinking. As such they are able to co-coordinate their strategy during the fight without a single word being uttered. This is exemplified when Obi-Wan fakes out Maul so that his master can surprise him. It is only when the two Jedi are separated that the duel turns in Maul’s favour. This fight is made so much better by John Williams’ fantastic “Duel of Fates” which gives it the gravitas and energy that it deserves. The reveal of Maul’s unprecedented weapon in conjunction with the opening notes of that song gives me chills each and every time. The Sith had revealed themselves to the Jedi and the result was a glorious battle that has now been etched into the minds of an entire generation of Star Wars fans.
Join us tomorrow as we go take a look at Tales of the Jedi. In the meantime, why not check out yesterday’s article on the NPR Radio Drama.