There are many mini spoilers in this analysis, and I didn’t want to pepper it with black boxes. You are forewarned!
It’s hard to imagine the Star Wars movies (hereafter just “SW”) without the lightsaber. The weapon is ingeniously conceived, it looks cool and sounds cool. In fact, I would not so greatly regret how this story element used arises were not its basic concept so grand and imaginitive.
Two main uses
In SW, the lightsaber is used as a general weapon in medium- to large-scale battles and in duels. Both uses may be criticized, but the way the weapon is used in duels is especially regretable.
In battle, etc.
My main objection is that the lightsaber is used as an all-purpose weapon against blaster attacks. Sure, it’s cool and right in terms of story to have the Jedi use the Force (ie, Spidey-Sense) and the weapon as a defense against blaster attacks–but suspension of disbelief can only go so far. If a hail of bullets is coming from both the front and behind, something bad is going to happen.
Yoda’s throwing his saber so that it sticks in a clone trooper like a spear is just wrong on every level.
The sad fact is that the lightsaber duels in all of the Star Wars movies just aren’t very good. Let’s raise some general points and then critique all the duels individually.
First, Lucas et al. clearly don’t understand how sword fighting really works. I’ve watched kendo matches on Japanese TV, and even a brief bit of observation reveals that sword duels are, above all, not about striking and parrying and dodging every which way in uninterrupted succession. Rather, the combatants circle around, light on their feet, looking for the perfect moment and position in which to strike. In general, it is preferable for the opponent to strike first, since it is easier to take advantage of the opponent’s mistake than to strike a sure blow onself in the first place. Expert sword fighting would seem to work much like raquetball at the pro level: most of the time, either your serve is an ace or your opponent kills on the return. (But I’d like to ask: Is Euro-style fencing different? Is Eroll Flynn-style cling-clanging ever how it goes.)
Hence, the lightsaber fights are basically unrealistic. But that’s still OK. I love Jackie Chan’s old kung fu movies, the ones with intricate, perfectly orchestrated and timed (and often very dangerous-looking) fighting routines. My all-time favorite (I think it’s in Fearless Hyena) is the one in which Jackie fights the “Willow Sword,” metal stave vs. sword. It’s just plain amazing–and what you see is what you get: no CGI and lots of long, highly visible sequences.
Sadly, the SW lightsaber duels mostly fail on this level. In general, these are the causes of failure:
Close-ups of faces and whizzing lightsabers (especially prevalent in Ep III). A few of these are OK for drama, but the martial arts thrill is gone from such a moment, and of course a hole thereby is created in the battle sequence (you can’t see how point A gets to point C if B is just a blur).
The biggest sin: Cutting away from the battle entirely. We’re supposed to think, “Throughout that time they were just going at it.” Meanwhile, the Ewoks are snuggling.
Two (or more) against one? OW/Annakin vs. Maul (Ep I), Dooku (Ep II), and later Dooku again (Ep III). Four Jedi against Sidious (Ep III).
I can accept the last example, since it wasn’t supposed to be a battle but simply an arrest (quite stupid, though–they should have had a whole Jedi army in there backed up with clone troopers, droids, whatever).
I was never comfortable with the two-on-one battles though. That didn’t seem Jedi, bushi, or SW. But more important is the fact that any combatant should expect to be killed within seconds in such a duel (assuming that he can’t immediately kill one of the two). The algorithm is really pretty simple: One of the two fights the enemy “for real” while the other stands back a bit and nips away, distracting the enemy from doing his best while looking for a crippling blow.
- Dumb strategy. Whether true or not, the advice to gladiators in Spartacus is at least good fiction: A sure kill is better than a crippling blow is better than a slow kill. The strategy of lightsaber duelists is, as we have seen, not realistic, but what is worse is that one cannot discern even a good fictive strategy, either. The lightsaber would be just about the most dangerous thing would could ever imagine handling for its intended purpose, but the sense of how risky it is just to hold it just isn’t there. To wit:
[list]*It destroys whatever it touches, no pressue required. One slight mistake and, far from hurting your enemy, you’ve killed yourself.
*Yet, since one lightsaber can push another, there would be a constant danger of the enemy knocking your own saber into your own body, therby doing mortal damage. In other words, even a defensive position would be extremely dangerous.
*All the blows seem to be going for the big kill. Whereas my feeling is that winning a battle would be more about tricky little pokes and prodes–that is, crippling blows per those Spartacus instructions.
*There is no hent on a lightsaber, and even if there were it wouldn’t matter: A blow from the blade to the grip would presumably destroy the saber and the user’s hand at the same time. Further, one could slide one’s blade along the blade of the enemy and go for the grip/hand quite easily it would seem. Instead, in the movies combatants try to overpower each other with the middle of one blade glowing solidly against the middle of the other. (Where is the sense that these are very light objects that, with a flick of the wrist, could do crippling damage even in such a situation?)
- Just plain crappy choriography and filming. There were many times in Ep III it seemed that one combatant had a clear shot at lopping off the other’s head, etc. Plenty of blurry, what’s-going-on shots, etc.
In sum, the SW lightsaber duels build upon real swordfighting poorly while failing to create a believable and consistent fictional martial art. But even this would be forgivable if the duels worked well as plain ol’ story elements. And sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. Let’s look at how each duel in the series works in terms of action and story.
- Obi-Wan vs. Vader
Action: Sadly, an utter joke. Short, foolish, and incompetent. Two old guys just banging sticks together.
Story: Obi-Wan’s disappearing here never made much sense on either a visual level or in terms of the story. Visually, it makes not sense, since it looks like he lets Vader win. If he’s not trying to win, why does he fight Vader at all? Why not just be “struck down and become more powerful than blah blah”? If he’s trying to win, then why the comment and why the visual of not defending against the final blow and then disappearing? I guess it could be that he tried to win at first, realized he couldn’t, and then gave up. Why not try to retreat at that point? Or go for broke and take Vader down with him? Etc. All in all, it was OK and slightly mysterious in a stand-alone movie, but it made less and less sense in the context of the movies that followed.
- Luke vs. Vader
Action: The overall setup and setting of the fight, the feel of it, and the flow of it are absolutely grand. The swordplay itself is still not very good.
Story: This battle combined with Vader’s revelation and Luke’s way of dealing with it are one of the high points of the series. Great dialog: “Join me and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.”
- Luke vs. Vader
Action: This is the best lightsaber duel in the series and the only one that deserves a passing grade. The choriography is the richest, the swordplay the most realistic. You get more action, fewer cutaways, and better shots. This scene and (the Emperor goodies attached to it) are really the only good thing about RoJ.
Story: Nearly as good as in Ep V.
- Qui-Gon vs. Maul
Action: This isn’t really a full-scale duel but more like a blip of action. As such, I have no complaints about it.
Story: What story?
- Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan vs. Maul
Action: The double lightsaber is fine, but the two-on-one thing is just dumb/wrong, as explained above. The action overall is ill-conceived and, owing to the two-on-one setup, flashy without being meaty. Obi-Wan’s win-by-fluke or -by virtue just isn’t satisfying.
Story: What story? Seriously, Maul’s only purpose is to fight in this fight. Hence, the fight is not contected to the story very strongly (even less than the execrably pod races) and thus is an action bonus, nothing more. It fails on that level.
- Obi-Wan + Annakin, then Yoda vs. Dooku
Action: Rushed and unsatisfying. More importantly, we’ve been waiting forever for Annakin to show some heroism (“the chosen one!”) in this movie (you can’t have a tragic hero without heroism, George–duh duh duh), and finally we’re about to get a taste! Obi-Wan tosses and extra lightsaber to Annakin, who is about to whoop ass in a fancy fashion and make us proud.
Oh, but then he loses like a bitch. How stupid is that? I mean, what is the point of Obi-Wan tossing him a second saber if it isn’t going to be used to good effect. Was that sound advice from master to padawan? But such retardation is very much Lucasian.
Yoda arrives to mop up for the defeated boys. The action here–video game Yoda blipping all over the place–may be comic but it certainly isn’t good.
Story: Ep II had perhaps the worst story conceivable for a SW movie, and Count Dooku is a weak, useless character. Poor action, poor connection to anything else.
- Obi-Wan + Annakin vs. Dooku: the Reprise
Action: Short and unsatisfying. If such a thing is possible, Dooku is defeated with a visual “tell” instead of a “show.” Suddenly his hands are cut off, it’s hard to see what he did to get into such a fix (the final chop makes sense enough, but the leadup to that is highly unclear).
Story: In general, the way the duels fit into Ep III makes good story sense; this is one of the strongest things about the movie. The revenge against Dooku as part of Annakin’s trip to the Dark Side (which is still woefully weaaaaak) is quite good.
In Sith in general: Lightsaber duels used properly in the story but nevertheless with extremely poor action.
- Sidious vs. four Jedi (primarily Mace).
Action: Not believable. We see a close-up of Sidious stabbing a Jedi (bug eyes) right through the torso while apparently the other three have a shot at any part of Sidious’ body (stabbing him in the back or lopping off his head is advised here).
The Mace vs. Sidious portion of the battle isn’t great action, either. It’s full of fudgy closeups in a tight space. McDirmiad acts the action part well, his face full of believable Sith aggression. I’m just not a SLJ fan; he’s acceptable here, I guess.
Story: It’s fine, but as a springboard to total Dark Side seduction it’s still not enough.
- Obi-Wan vs. Grievous
Action: The concept is great, couldn’t wait to see it, but what you get is one big visual fudge, a cheat. Again, you have a lot of closeups and bright lights flashing, but you don’t get to see just how Grievous’ hands get chopped off one by one. The final death by blaster is unsatisfying for the very reason that Obi-Wan notes (hey, isn’t this the only time a blaster is used successfully against a real character in all 6 damn movies?!).
Story: Again, not bad at all.
- Sidious vs. Yoda
Action: The lightsaber portion of this is not major and is really just throwaway visuals (“yeah, now they’re going at it with lightsabers”). The battle between them overall, however, is probably the most satisfying action in the movie. That’s not saying a whole lot, but it really is a pretty good confrontation. The ending, however, with Yoda fleeing like a bitch, seems like a story fudge to me, however.
Story: Necessary and generous. Lucas rightly puts in all the confrontations that should be in there.
- Obi-Wan vs. Annakin
Action: Pretty close to fitting the category of “all wrong.” Choriography and filming just ain’t all that. Relationship of characters to setting (killing-hot lava) is just about as unrealistic and unsatisfying as it possibly could have been. Suddenly they’re balancing on a pipe! Suddenly they’re climbing a tower that is collapsing into the goop!–Wha?! Such grand chunks of action are fine–so long as the characters really seem to be relating to those situations.
The “high-ground” BS has been fully discussed elsewhere. I’m in the camp that calls it a Lucas fudge. We’ve seen these guys go boing-boing with the sabers without really any ebb or flow to the battle, and suddenly Annakin goofs and it’s all over. For not a very good reason.
Story: This pretty much is the story, so no complaint there. Too bad it had to be fleshed out in such a mediocre fashion.
The lightsaber is one of my favorite SW elements, but IMHO its use in the six films is pretty poor, and the OT doesn’t have much of an advantage. The only truly satisfying duel as action is Luke vs. Vader in Ep VI.
I saw Ep III again, and I was struck again at how generally poor and unsatsifying the action sequences were, despite the fact that they fit the story OK.
But what is really poor in terms of story, a real missed opportunity, is that we don’t get to see Annakin discover or flirt with the Dark Side. For instance, he’s a straight Jedi but then turns to the Dark Side in a key moment in battle and kicks ass. Obi-Wan looks at him and says, “It’s great that you just won for our team, but wasn’t that a little dark.” “Yes, it was, master.”
Consider how Luke is fascinated when he discovers the Force, when he turns on the lightsaber for the first time (but without enough of a sense of danger!). If we could see Annakin discover the Dark Side in the same way, Ep III would have been 3x the movie it was.