In Search of the Best Star Wars Lightsaber Duel

Some dedicated soul cut together all the lightsaber duels from the first six Star Wars episodes. 1 hour of lightsaber action? Yes, please.

And because I spent way too much time watching this and enjoy the geekier things in life, below are some filmmaking/sword fighting/Star Wars thoughts, all in an attempt to decide which lightsaber duel is the best.

The Criteria

In my opinion, a lightsaber duel in film should be graded on four criteria:

  1. Swordplay – are we in awe of the participants’ skill with a “blade”?
  2. Emotional tension – do we emotionally care about who wins the battle?
  3. Shot composition – is the duel filmed in an interesting and energetic way? Wider shots that are on screen longer can help showcase the skill of the duelers and maintain the illusion that holy cow—these guys are really fighting!
  4. Creative use of environment – does the fight move through different spaces? Are there unique obstacles that change the tempo and style of the duel?
  5. Bonus: Music – some fights don’t have music, while others do. Both are used to strong and weak effect.

The Prequel Trilogy

With these four (+ bonus) things in mind, I think the prequel trilogy started out incredibly strong. The final duel with Darth Maul is perhaps the second strongest fight of all six films. It easily meets all four (+ bonus) criteria. The sword play is dazzling, accentuated by the wide shots and low angles that pan with the action.Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 5.44.10 PM This is the desperate fight against the Sith, who could destroy everything the Jedi have worked for, so emotional tension is at a peak. (Plus this was the first lightsaber duel in 16 years, and also the most energetic Jedi/Sith fight audiences had ever seen.) The environments move from the hanger to those walkways around huge beams of light and then into some bizarre tunnel with rotating shields, which give the fight moments of tense silence and frustrating separation. As a bonus the music here is really strong, especially when [[SPOILER!!]] Qui Gon is killed. [[END SPOILER]]

From there, though, the duels drop off precipitously. The next real duel between lightsaber-weilding masters is with Count Dooku, but the emotional tension is low. Yes, Dooku is the bad guy they’ve been searching for, but why are they searching for him? Is he the guy in charge of the taxes or the blockades? And how the heck did he accidentally bend his lightsaber?! The swordplay doesn’t really dazzle—to me it looks like they’re trying to hit each other’s swords instead of each other—and the fight takes place in just one area of a nondescript hanger.

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 5.49.24 PMWhat really breaks this duel, though, is the use of close-ups in the middle of the fight. Sadly this shot becomes a frequent sight in the following duels. It lacks any context for where the duelers are or what is happening with the lightsabers. Thus the tension of “Will his arm get chopped off?!” is lost.  To top it off, most of this fight has no music and it just feels awkward and lifeless. To top off that top-off, the use of CG for the location and body doubles lacks any weight or authentic texture. (I’m not arguing against the use of CG entirely. We wouldn’t have lightsabers without it, after all.)

To give a contrasting example, just think back to the duel with Darth Maul—or check out this amateur lightsaber duel. It is also between two Jedi and a Sith, but the wide shot and fast movement through the parking lot result in far more energy and tension than the fight with Dooku.

The only thing that saves the Dooku duel from obscurity is Yoda, who for the first time flips and spins and is all-around awesome and not old. I’m sure that got a huge cheer in theaters.

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 11.35.23 PMScreen Shot 2015-08-20 at 11.35.30 PMThe next several fights all blur together. Even Obi-wan fighting General Grievous with four (FOUR!) lightsabers holds no tension, despite covering the most ground out of any of the fights. Or maybe it’s that I can’t take that two-finger pose of Obi-wan’s seriously.

The next fight of note could possibly be the one between Yoda and the newly-revealed Emperor. There’s a good amount of emotional tension there and the fighting is decent, but other than Yoda’s present the fight doesn’t feel unique. Plus it quickly shifts into a force-throwing battle instead of a duel, which as we all know is a different conversation entirely ;)

Thus it’s not until Obi-wan and Anakin face off at the end of Episode 3 that we finally get another good lightsaber duel.

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 12.14.48 AMAnd what a duel it is. Emotional tension is definitely high. This is the showdown the whole prequel trilogy has been leading to, and boy do Lucas & Co. let it rip. The fight itself is the longest duel in the six films at over 10 minutes long and has over 1000 moves, according to the actors in one of the behind-the-scenes videos. They make excellent use of environment, moving from landing pad to control room to walkways to lava shields! to lava flows!! —gasp for breath–

The fight does have close-ups and a lot of pointless lightsaber spinning (that one part in the control room where they both spin their lightsabers around and around before clashing still makes no logical sword-fighting sense to me), but what saves this duel, I think, is its relentless pace and skill (never have we seen two master Jedis fight to the death), incredibly high emotions (“You were supposed to destroy the Sith, not join them!”), and some of the most stirring, tragic Star Wars music John Williams has composed.

It also has my favorite shot in all of Star Wars:

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 12.19.23 AM

There is such tension in that shot! And the music hits such a beautifully tragic, epic note. I would watch Episode 3 just to get to this moment. George Lucas is not without cinematic genius.

Given how much I’ve praised it, you might be surprised I would say this duel only ties for third best. That’s because the duel with Darth Maul is so tightly choreographed, well paced, and shot that it has an immediacy and efficiency that this duel seems to be missing.

(Side note: I like that they included an insert of Obi-wan picking up Anakin’s lightsaber. He had to do that in order to give it to Luke in Episode 4.)

The Original Trilogy

At last we arrive at Episode 4. The duel between Darth Vader and old Obi-wan gets high emotional marks, both because Obi-wan is [[SPOILER!!]] about to give his life so Luke & Co. can get away [[END SPOILER]] and because this was the first lightsaber fight anyone had ever seen. That second fact, though, also means that the swordplay lacks any vigor or creativity and the fighters barely move from where they stand, let alone throughout the room. Shot composition is decent, but nothing noteworthy.

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 12.26.12 AMThe next thing that is noteworthy is the first time Luke duels Vader. Emotional tension is high, obviously, and—unlike the Dooku duel—the lack of music lends the fight a sense of dread, both because we know the fate Vader has planned for Luke and also because the only sounds are the buzz of lightsabers and Vader’s ominous breathing. The fight makes excellent use of the environment and the silhouettes of Luke and Vader crossing lightsabers is one of the iconic Star Wars shot. The only criteria that I wouldn’t give high marks to is the swordplay; Luke is still learning and the moves are mostly feints and slashes.

If it weren’t for the earlier duel with Darth Maul, the first Luke/Vader duel would probably come in second for best fight. Instead I would put it at a tie for third with Obi-wan vs. Anakin. The second and final Luke/Vader duel, however, maxes out each criteria.

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 12.35.53 AMNot only was the ending of Episode 6 the final film of the original trilogy, in the big picture it’s also the end of the six-film cycle. All twelve hours of film have been leading to this showdown and at last Luke is ready to fight. Emotions are high from the start—but the film doesn’t stop there. Several times throughout the fight the emotions are cranked up: the Death Star is actually operational, the rebels are no longer winning, Luke accidentally reveals his sister to Vader, Luke almost goes to the dark side, the emperor starts killing him–gasp!–The newer versions of the film make the mistake of cueing Vader’s turn by adding audio, but in the theater audiences had no idea which side Vader would choose until he makes his move. Talk about emotional!

(Side note: it’s interesting how similar the two frames from Luke and Vader’s fights are. Both are fought on a flight of steps, both in black. The only thing that has changed is Luke now stands where Vader once stood. Perhaps an intentional nod to the Emperor wanting Luke to take his father’s place with the dark side?)

The swordplay is more involved than their first meeting and does a great job of illustrating the emotional state of Luke. The fight makes use of the entirety of the emperor’s chamber: they move down the steps from the emperor, Luke jumps up to the second level in possibly my favorite flip in all of filmdom, they fight under the second level in the shadows, they fight along the walkway and railing, and they look down into the chasm below.

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 1.00.18 AMShot composition is spot on, moving from wide shots as Vader and Luke fight to intimate close-ups of Luke worrying about his friends. The desperate image of Vader clinging to the railing as his lightsaber is hammered from his hands has always stuck in my head. Lastly, the music supports the duel magnificently, aided by that foreboding choir.

Conclusion

For me that final duel of the six films takes the trophy and concludes the original trilogy in the best way possible. It squarely hits all four (+ bonus) criteria.

So to recap, here are my top three fights:

  1. Luke vs. Darth Vader final duel (Ep. 6)
  2. Qui Gon and Obi-wan vs. Darth Maul (Ep. 1)
  3. Obi-wan vs. Anakin (Ep. 3) / Luke vs. Darth Vader first duel (Ep. 5)

It will be interesting to see what a new generation of lightsaber duels looks like in Episode 7 and beyond. One thing I noticed is there are no duels with female Jedi. We do see a few female Jedi but none of them are involved in the main duels. I’m hoping J.J. Abrams & Co. bring some diversity to the fights, and also treat the duels like the classic sword fights of old.

If they need some ideas, they can take a cue from this amateur duel, which still remains one of my all-time favorites. (Hint: it fulfills all of the criteria superbly, particularly lightsaber skill and environmental use.)

Now if only I could find a compilation of all the times a lightsaber is dropped….

What are your favorite fights? Are there other criteria to consider? Let me know!

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2 thoughts on “In Search of the Best Star Wars Lightsaber Duel

  1. Danielle Rizzo

    I love that you analyzed this video and wrote a post about it! I really enjoyed reading your thoughtful and entertaining study.

    I think my favorite Star Wars fight is the first time Luke duels with Vader. I like it because it has a lot of tension. It’s dark, there’s a time where Vader disappears and reappears out of nowhere and what follows the duel is one of the greatest Star Wars story points of all the films “Luke, I am your father.” I had never considered the four elements you used to critique the duels but I definitely agree that all are important. The shot composition is one point that really makes sense to look at, the scene has to flow right or else the audience can’t get out of it what they’re meant to.

    I have to say my favorite element was the bonus one simply because I love the Star Wars scores, especially the original trilogy. I think one of elements I notice the most about films are the scores, or lack of, and always try and pay attention to how they make me feel during a film.

    John Williams gave Star Wars the iconic themes we all know at an instant. However, what I love most about his scores is that he not only assists you in feeling the emotion of the scene but composes some of the music in such a way as you almost physically feel the scene. As an example I present one of my favorite tracks of all the Star Wars film scores, “The Asteroid Field.” The following link is an approximately four minute clip from The Empire Strikes Back. Take special note of how the music is paired with what’s on screen after the two minute mark. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvJDItC6tE0

    If you haven’t seen them you should check out episodes 1-3. They definitely have their faults but are worth a watch for some elements, like the backstory to the original trilogy and the scores. Thanks for reading my long Star Wars geek out comment :)

  2. Jesse Koepke

    Thanks for your thoughts, Danielle! John Williams’s score definitely raised the films to a whole other level. I’m glad he’s scoring Episode 7! And I would definitely agree that the reveal in the first Luke vs. Vader fight elevates it to a classic scene. How the fights reveal story and character is an element I considered adding to the article at the last minute, because (especially for that scene) it does add so much. In the end, though, considering those story elements broadens the discussion to how the scene fits in the whole of the film. Fair or not, I decided to focus on just the fight itself. But you are absolutely right; that first duel between Luke and Vader is the ultimate Star Wars scene and probably one of the most iconic film scenes of all time.

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