Star Wars, Original Trilogy (retrospective)

This will be a post long remembered.

You’re hearing the music in your head right now. It’s okay, don’t fight it.

It’s time for another Retrospective, where we put away the microscope and instead take the bird’s eye macro view of a particular film or franchise. In this case, the great big granddaddy of them all: Star Wars. I’ll try to shy away from going into detail on each individual movie and/or my personal feelings on Star Wars (spoilers: I LOVE STAR WARS), because if there’s one thing the Internet needs less of it’s nerds explaining what Star Wars “means” to them. If there’s another thing the Internet needs less of it’s people griping about the prequels, so I will try to avoid that as well… but not entirely, because, well, that’s impossible.

A few notes first: Mostly because it’s what fits but also for purposes of my sanity, this series will only cover Jedi duels. Fittingly, the word “lightsaber” will come up a lot, and there are only so many ways around saying it over & over again, so I apologize in advance for the repetition. I’ll dispense with the setups here, because if you’re not familiar with Star Wars by now there’s little use in me explaining it to you. The entire series will be split up into separate posts, by trilogy. And despite the fact that George Lucas claims the films are meant to be watched in their own chronological order, I will be covering them in the order in which they were released, as God intended.

Now let’s hop in the Long Ago Machine….

1) Obi-Wan Kenobi vs Darth Vader

“The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master.”

(Episode IV: A New Hope)

The Fighters:

  • Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi, played by Alec Guinness.
  • Darth Vader, played by David Prowse (body) and James Earl Jones (voice).

The Fight: This was the clash of the titans. Coming into Star Wars for the first time in 1977, you’re introduced gradually to what the concept of a lightsaber is but it’s not until here that you really see them as dueling weapons. I wonder how that moment played out to original audiences, as the delightful old wizard squared off against the towering evil villain and they each ignited their blades?

That aside, the rest of what follows is actually not all that interesting. There’s nothing creative about the fight itself or the way it’s shot. Even the normally bombastic John Williams backs off for the most part. The choreography is never truly clumsy but neither does it impress. It’s just two actors swinging clubs at each other.

Though Hollywood sword master Bob Anderson would oversee the more impressive fights of the next two installments, here he’s only listed as a stunt man rather than a choreographer; Peter Diamond is listed as the film’s overall stunt coordinator, so it’s unknown who exactly plotted out this sword fight, if anyone did at all. Despite Vader’s “you can’t win!” boast, there’s never any real indication that he’s winning or that Kenobi is losing. Neither one dominates, hurts or gains an advantage over the other until the very end. Granted, the insta-kill nature of lightsabers as a weapon leaves very little margin for injury, but there are still ways around this.

It’s also always been my pet peeve that Lucas or whoever signed on to the idea of pulling the hood up on Obi-Wan’s robe. The point is to make him look mystical or some such, presumably, but at the best moments it adds nothing and at the worst it looks comical, especially in the shots where you can see how the fabric has bunched up in a point behind his head. Unhooded, the flowing nature of the robe already works as a humble counterpoint to Vader’s intimidating cape, but the hood itself is a bridge on the river Kwai too far.

No shot in the actual fight looks this cool.

And we now know that Kenobi’s famous “I’ll become more powerful than you could possibly imagine” line was pure BS. Once he dies, he becomes a flickery ghost who dispenses advice– something he was plenty good at when he still had a physical body, thank you very much.

What makes the scene work (aside from the coolness of the lightsaber itself as a weapon) are the actors, and the affection we’ve come to have for the characters. Guinness is all dignity & grace (this performance made him the Magic Grandpa to a whole generation, a fact which irritated him to no end) while the Prowse/Jones combo is just pure menace & power. There is a real sense of grandiosity when they square off, and the way they sell their rather portentous yet snappy dialogue it indicates a clear, almost intimate, familiarity with each other.

Anyway, the whole thing ends with Kenobi deliberately taking a blow from Vader’s blade, presumably to encourage Luke & co to escape without waiting for him. You have to love Guinness’ wry little half-smile right before he does so– such a cocky “I know something you don’t” moment. A great beginning & ending to an otherwise underwhelming fight.

Grade: C+

2) Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader

“Impressive. Most impressive.”

(Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)

The Fighters:

  • Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill.
  • Darth Vader, played David Prowse and James Earl Jones. With some significant in-the-suit work done by choreographer Bob Anderson.

The Fight: This is it. The big one. The silver tuna.

You’ll find it’s full of surprises.

Luke has rushed off to face his destiny prematurely, against the advice of not one but two Sagely Mentors, and soon enough finds himself in an eerily quiet chamber with the Dark Lord of the Sith himself. Director Irwin Kershner, who was wisely given the reins on this installment, does everything possible to sell the magnitude of this confrontation. Of course they barely had to at this point in the movie, because there is literally nothing more cool than Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. As great as he was during his debut, throughout the course of the sequel he has proven to be singularly ruthless, cunning, intimidating and driven, yet utterly composed. This is Vader at his peak.

And this isn’t just the galaxy’s #2 Dictator here– to Luke, Vader is also the cold-blooded bastard who killed his father AND his kindly mentor/brief father-figure, not to mention ordering the deaths of his aunt & uncle. This is personal. So when Luke struts in with unearned cockiness and draws his own weapon, the audience feels all sorts of tension. Props are due to Hamill here, who portrays Luke’s eagerness to prove himself and emotion-driven decisions while still not coming off as an unrestrained spaz, as Hayden Christensen would do decades hence (more on that later).

More props due to Kershner and his cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who, mostly during the first half of the duel, play excellently with light & steam so that the two combatants are frequently in varying amounts of silhouette, giving their clash an iconic look. Also, I’m not sure if this was deliberate, but the wide shots seem to work smartly with the camera angles and actors’ body posture so that Vader still towers over Luke but not comically so, as a more natural contrast of Prowse (6’5) and Hamill (5’9) might appear.

The fight is basically broken into three parts. In the first, Vader’s main goal is to trap Luke in the carbon-freezing chamber and get him to the Emperor, but Luke’s secret training makes him more formidable than Vader had guessed. They fence a bit both before & after Luke escapes from the freezing pit, with a few neat tricks along the way, such as Luke stunning Vader with a ruptured steam hose or Vader swooping down dramatically after knocking Luke down a flight of stairs. “Dramatic” is definitely the name of Vader’s game here: since the entire confrontation was engineered by the villain from the start, he seems to be almost deliberately (even theatrically) playing up his superior power, often fighting with just one hand and coolly tempting Luke with the power of the dark side. The soundtrack here is mostly silent, with only sound effects and brief snatches of dialogue to highlight the proceedings. The choreography is nothing flashy– that stuff doesn’t really kick in until the prequels– but it’s stately, compelling and thrilling nonetheless. Also it’s not long before Luke is looking visibly sweaty (by the end he’s incredibly ragged and bruised, in fact), which further hammers home his underdog status here; this is a sort of happy accident of costume design, because considering the steamy environment and physical exertion Vader would surely be sweaty too (in fact underneath that bulky armor he’s gotta be stank-ass filthy), but since he’s covered head to toe we never see it, thus preserving the character’s unflappable cool.

The second part begins after the pair are separated when Luke kicks his foe off a platform. Rather than merely hiding, Vader is actually just cannily controlling the battlefield, forcing Luke to chase about. Vader reveals himself near a window overlooking a vast chasm in the enormous Bespin mining structure, but rather than going back to fencing, the Sith Lord decides to show Junior what it’s like when the kid gloves come off. Without even the physical prompting that usually accompanies Force telekinesis, Vader quietly tears off huge pieces of the scenery and throws them at Luke, faster than he can keep up. Soon enough he’s battered to the point where he can’t resist the vacuum after one chunk of debris smashes a hole in the window, and he goes tumbling down. This is where John Williams’ famous music kicks in rather ominously, accentuating what’s already clear to the audience and probably to Luke: he’s not going to win this. He was never going to win this. He’s completely outclassed and has majorly screwed things up, just like Yoda and Obi-Wan warned him. He was a fool to come here.

The final part takes place as Luke tries to make his way back up after recovering from the fall onto an isolated platform (hey, what’s that platform there for, anyway?), but is ambushed by Vader and the fight resumes. The villain doesn’t try any of his cool Force mojo from this point on, but he doesn’t have to: he’s dominating the poor boy more than ever, pushing him back out onto the platform with no place to run. Luke does get in a painful-looking strike on Vader’s shoulder, but shortly after he gets his own hand chopped right off, his weapon along with it.

As Luke crawls out onto the (very narrow) end of the walkway, the dynamic in their struggle changes: because Vader wants & needs Luke alive and Luke is in a precarious position that Vader can’t forcibly extract him from, suddenly Luke has the upper hand, and Vader’s temptations turn almost pleading– he needs to quite literally talk Luke off the ledge.

He tries threats, he tries bribing him with power, then he pulls out the big guns and hits him with the revelation that shocked the world. Watching the scene again now, after 30+ years of repetition, imitation and parody, it hasn’t lost one ounce of its thunder. Done wrong this could have come across as a cheesy soap opera-esque reveal, or the inescapable truth of it might not have been conveyed, but everything here comes together just right: Jones’ growling delivery, Hamill’s reaction starting out as quiet realization and quickly escalating into panicked desperation, and Williams’ music coming in at just the right moment. Perfection.

Vader tells Luke to come with him because “it is the only way,” but Luke proves that there’s always another way, even if it’s probable death. He lets go of his grip and plummets into oblivion. But despite his escape from corruption, there’s no mistaking that Luke scored no victory here: this is a man who has been utterly defeated, inside & out.

What else can you say?

Grade: A+

3) Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader (rematch)

“I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”

(Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)

The Fighters:

  • Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill.
  • Darth Vader, played by David Prowse (though mostly Bob Anderson for this fight) and James Earl Jones.

Also Ian McDiarmid is there as Emperor Palpatine, overseeing the whole thing and stepping in at the end for a light show.

The Fight: This one is surprisingly abbreviated, and concerned with drama as much if not more than it is with action.

Goaded on by the Emperor, Luke tries to resist the anger bubbling up within but eventually lashes out, and engages with Vader. The action is noticeably more aggressive than what we’ve seen before and more complicated as well, with Luke pulling off a nifty backflip or two. Hamill does his best work yet in this duel, actually, clearly at war with his roiling emotions and trying to restrain himself yet coming off utterly psycho whenever his rage does take over.

Twice Luke tries to disengage and twice he’s pulled back in. The first time he’s pursued by Vader and forced to defend himself, so he then gets some distance and hides out as Vader hunts; this creates an interesting reversal of the duel in ESB, where Vader made Luke chase after him– except here Luke is trying to defuse the conflict whereas Vader was only turning it to his advantage. In fact there are several inverse parallels in the two showdowns: last time, Luke was warned not to go to Vader even though he wanted to, but now Yoda explicitly tells him he must defeat Vader even though he doesn’t want to, in order to become a full Jedi. This is the kind of thematic resonance snooty critics must be thinking of when they deride Star Wars as “shallow” and “simplistic.”

Anyway, Luke stays out of sight and tries to play it cool, but soon Vader’s continued speaking and threats rattle him enough that he can sense the boy’s anxiety about Leia. Vader plays on that, which finally provokes Luke into a full-fledged Jedi tantrum. This is when Williams’ music, which has mostly stayed quiet throughout the proceedings, kicks in. But it’s not thrilling or scary but sad, because this is a family tragedy playing out before us, this is the wrong path for Luke to take.

Junior finally gets Dad on the ropes and pins him down with a series of furious blows, culminating in Vader’s own hand coming off. Luke finally stops his assault but he still looks truly unnerved– he’s really on the precipice here. But that’s the moment Palpatine chooses to close in (he arguably overplays his hand), gleefully telling Luke to give in & take his father’s place. Luke looks wary at being turned into the Emperor’s next disposable pet, then he looks at his father’s sparking stump and compares it to his own prosthetic fist. It is, oddly, the physical parallel between the two that finally snaps the hero out of it; he sees how alike he and his father already are, and chooses not to go any further.

Standing down for good, Luke throws his lightsaber over the edge of the pit (seriously, pits everywhere in this universe), and tells Palpatine that he’s failed forever. Luke knows full well that he may not leave the room alive, but he has faced his own inner demons and come out victorious, proving himself a true Jedi. He won the battle his father lost long ago.

Fittingly, that also seems to have earned Anakin’s redemption: when the Emperor starts to torture Luke with Force lightning, his father steps in and tosses the despot to his death, at the cost of his own life.

Very good, but this is easily the most over-edited of the trilogy’s fights, cutting in and out to other parts of the movie’s triple climax several times; necessary from a storytelling standpoint, but arguably aggravating the scene’s own energy. As stated the choreography is more complex, even though it’s missing the same level of dramatic oomph as in the previous fight. Hamill acquits himself quite well indeed on all fronts, and McDiarmid’s unnerving presence as the ever-confident Emperor is creepy as anything. But the real missing X-factor here is Vader himself: throughout the fight and indeed throughout most of the film, Darth Vader seems like a shadow of his former self. His whole body language seems tired & resigned, nowhere near the menacing mystical shark of a man we saw in the previous two installments. He’s less of an implacable force of nature and more of an old man with regrets. It’s a shame.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: The complementary retrospective. I dread what awaits me.

Might as well get this meme out of the way now.

2 comments on “Star Wars, Original Trilogy (retrospective)

  1. Brian says:

    Good reviews. I think I might have added some of the non-duels that still were definitely fight scenes with a beginning and end (as opposed to just a blaster shot here or there). I’m thinking specifically the Rancor pit, and fight on the sail barge.

  2. Andy says:

    I think the Obi-Wan/Vader duel was underwhelming because Guinness was too old for swashbuckling by then. Maybe the scene would have worked better if they’d gone more in the direction of Japanese samurai films, in which duels are about mental preparation before one, maybe two or three if you want to get really serious, instant-kill strike.

    I sometimes wonder how the movies would look if they’d gone with the earlier idea that Vader really wasn’t Luke’s dad but a man who in his youth had rashly promised his sword to an unworthy lord, not truly evil but doing evil things because his honor required him to uphold his bargain.

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