By Bob Clark
“Have you ever encountered a Jedi Knight before, sir?”—this question is asked very early on in The Phantom Menace, as a pair of the seasoned warriors, “guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy”, begin to fight their way through a Trade Federation battleship blockading the planet Naboo. It’s an apt question for any audience of the film, especially when it was first released in 1999, twenty-two years after the release of the first Star Wars episode, and sixteen years since the last installment of the original trilogy. Even though the movies had enjoyed blockbuster success at the box-office and achieved near instant status as modern classics, ubiquitous in pop-culture, VHS and worldwide theatrical rereleases, enough time had gone by since for TPM to be the first exposure to the landmark space-opera series for an entire generation of young moviegoers. And even for everyone else, old fans who’d grown up with the original films (but wouldn’t necessarily prove fans of the new ones) and old critics alike, there was something new to experience in the way that Lucas portrayed the Jedi Knights as far more agile and powerful than anything seen in episodes prior (or rather yet-to-come, thanks to the flashback nature of the Prequel Trilogy narrative). With frenetic fencing designed by stunt coordinator Nick Gillard and crisp, polished cinematography from David Tattersall, Lucas’ work on the Jedi fighting of TPM not only sits among the strongest material from the Star Wars movies but ranks high in the canon of action-cinema in general, culminating in a contender for the greatest filmed swordfight of all time with the climactic “Duel of the Fates”. At the same time, however, it stands squarely on the shoulders of such scenes from the first three films, even those outside the centerpiece duels themselves.
While impressive to audiences around the world, the swordsmanship of the original three Star Wars films was mostly serviceable, and little else. Fight choreography was kept simple in the duel between Obi-Wan and Vader in A New Hope, consisting mostly of basic thrusts and blocks, with long stretches of swords locked in cross formations. Mis-en-scene remained simple as well, cutting between a couple of static masters and some medium tight shots following the duelists. It was restrained, distanced and fairly static compared to the frantically shot and cut shoot-outs throughout the Death Star, not to mention the finale dogfights later on, but that minimalist quality worked to its favor, giving it a craftsmanlike, disciplined polish. Despite the addition of new Force powers, as well as more ambitious cinematography from Peter Suschitzky and stuntwork from Bob Anderson’s crew, the duel at the climax of The Empire Strikes Back between Vader and Luke mostly followed the same basic pattern laid down in the previous film of static masters and mobile mediums. The primary differences there were the multiple locations envisioned by Lucas, allowing for more variety in the master shots and coverage of the fight, and Kershner’s more nuanced, yet deliberate pacing of the fencers, lending the duel a rhythm at times almost perfectly in step with John Williams’ score, when not creating a music of its own with Ben Burtt’s sound effects. Things began to change, however, in the Skywalkers’ drawn out rematch in Return of the Jedi, where Lucas & Marquand adopt a much more aggressive and proactive direction throughout the duel.
The same static master shots remain at key points, often during lulls in the action where Luke pleads for Vader to rejoin the Jedi while the sinister Palpatine eggs both of them on, but much of the surrounding coverage is far more mobile, filled with handheld coverage and long dolly shots towards the end. Unusual angle choices are also present, including moments shot from underneath a slotted-staircase, turning the steps into a set of noir-like Venetian blinds, injecting an element of expressionism amidst the documentary camerawork. Close-ups also play a bigger role, like the famous tight shot of lightsabers crossed in front of Palpatine’s smiling face after manipulating father and son into combat. Finally, perhaps the biggest difference between that final duel and the ones preceding it was the way in which it fit into the structure of the film itself—the sword fights of ANH and ESB were both fairly self-contained scenes, with only a little cross-cutting between supporting cast-members for pacing. ROTJ’s duel, on the other hand, arrives in the middle of an ambitious series of intercut action-sequences both in outer-space and down on the surface of the forest-moon orbited by the Death Star. Furthermore, the interrelated nature of this triad of sequences puts the duel on a higher conceptual scale than either preceding film—as the Rebels fight on Endor to destroy the Imperial base generating the Death Star’s shields and the Alliance fleet waits for their opportunity to attack the dreaded space station, the duel between Luke and Vader in the Emperor’s throne room is effectively given a time-limit countdown of action-beats.
Alongside the progressing escalation of the duels and their cinematic depiction from movie to movie, there is also the connected development of the lightsaber in and of itself, both in fights outside of the regular fencing and outside of action altogether. In ANH, Lucas introduces the Jedi weapon in Kenobi’s hut purely as an abstract-visual device, ascribing it almost magical properties as a plain hilt whose blade appears at once with the press of a button, glowing and humming like the fabled singing-sword of Excalibur. Only later during the Mos Eisley cantina sequence does he first put the its deadly power on display as Obi-Wan handily breaks up a bar-fight to protect young Luke. Here, Lucas’s camera is evasive, capturing the action in a deliberately disorienting collection of tight handheld images, capped by a lingering shot of an angry drunk’s freshly amputated limb. This sequence is more or less repeated in ESB, as Luke protects himself from a carnivorous cave monster on the ice-planet of Hoth, and follows the same basic coverage, which keeps the action’s moment of contact—the so-called “money shot”—off screen. Though a savvy Eisensteinian tactic, showing two discrete actions side-by-side and forcing the audience to piece them together themselves, it can in part be seen as a combination of practical considerations, as in ANH, Lucas masks the action both as a means of self-censorship to keep the violence within PG standards, as well as to sidestep the technical limitations against showing hardcore lightsaber combat in unbroken takes. During ESB these are both less of an issue, and indeed Lucas & Kershner are able to pull off more daring action as the film progresses, the quick cheating in the Hoth ice-cave helping to save some of the bolder images for later on, like a ghostly decapitation in a waking dream-sequence on Dagobah, or the graphic loss of Luke’s hand at the end of the climactic duel in the heart of Cloud City.
In the case of the former scene, we have a moment which is built primarily as an aesthetic and thematic piece of foreshadowing. The filmmakers prepare us for the lengthier duel to come by presenting its same basic form in a short-form scale, and set up Vader’s reveal as Luke defeats an apparition of the dark warrior, chopping off its head and discovering his own youthful face beneath the mask. Shot in normal speed during production, the sequence was dragged down to a deliberately choppy slow-motion during editing, giving it the same artificial feeling as the film’s prevalently used stop-motion animation, enhancing the dreamlike surrealism with the language of then state-of-the-arts special effects. It’s a sequence that owes a great deal to the widely acclaimed, though largely unseen cult Arthurian short-film Black Angel, directed by Roger Christian, set-decorator of ANH and Ridley Scott’s Alien, later a second-unit director for TPM as well as solo-filmmaker in his own right (his oeuvre including films like the notorious L. Ron Hubbard adaptation Battlefield Earth). The film was admired by Lucas so much that it ran as a short-feature during ESB’s initial theatrical run, and it would go on to influence John Boorman’s own Excalibur, with its similarly themed Lancelot-vs.-Lancelot sequence. Lucas & Kershner’s own spin on the scene would later influence Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, where Jonathan Pryce faces off against a nightmare vision of a cyborg samurai that wears his own face underneath a mask, not unlike Vader (though far more cartoonish).
As a piece of sci-fi cinema, the cave-dream sequence represents a finely nuanced turn for the Star Wars series, blending existential conflict with fairy-tale fantasy in a way that articulates the franchise’s long-harbored ruminations on Manichean morality in a visual poetry on par with a similar sequence at the end of Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner (possibly the root of Christian’s film as well, with its literal man-vs.-self confrontation). By the time of ROTJ, we have an action-aesthetic that is by and large less self-serious, looking to provide more old-fashioned swashbuckling thrills than brooding introspection. Lucas & Marquand do an excellent job of building up to Luke’s dramatic turn as a fully fledged Jedi Knight with his new, green lightsaber, but hold back while selling it to the audience in full during combat. During the battle at Jabba the Hutt’s sailing-barge, Luke spends most of his time either posing for hero-shots with the sword or swinging it around wildly, never visibly connecting with any of the enemy henchmen. Perhaps this restraint of on-screen violence is simply due to the lack of special-effects necessary to show the effects of the lightsaber’s blade in single takes. By and large, the film’s most important addition to the vocabulary of action for the series comes later, where Luke uses his lightsaber to reflect bolts of laser fire from a Stormtrooper’s speeder-bike on Endor. Considering Luke’s eventual, climactic decision to spare Vader’s life at the expense of his own by the Emperor’s hand, the combined effect is to turn the Jedi Knight into a safer, milder brand of movie hero, one who fights with gusto but seldom actually kills.
Developed through the 70’s, the Jedi gradually show strong countercultural roots in league with the hippie-movement of the decade prior. While these traits are all to a degree present in the first three films, especially ROTJ, they become most emphasized with the advent of the Prequel films, and especially in TPM, where Liam Neeson’s long-haired Qui-Gon and Ewan McGregor’s braid-and-pony-tail sporting Obi-Wan appear almost tailor-made to resemble 60’s free-thinkers. Like the hippies, the Jedi stand as rebellious anti-establishment figures, despite owing and enforcing deep ties to the establishment (most of those flower-children came from blueblood money); they preach for pacifism and justice throughout the galaxy, but defend it with increasingly radical acts of violence (a little like a combination of the Peace Corps and the Weathermen); with their Carlos Castaneda-inspired theology of the Force, they are at once deeply holistic and dogmatic, even puritanical (as seen in Attack of the Clones, the Jedi Code obviously forbids any practice of “free love”). If at times the associations prove contradictory, perhaps it’s due to the internal conflicts within the counter-culture itself, a phenomenon that could spawn both peace activists and violent cults like the Manson family, showing a Manichean divide between light and dark sides even at the most progressive of social experiences. Lucas’ portrayal of the Jedi continues a line of prevailing skepticism towards 60’s naivety and excesses as evidenced by THX 1138 and American Graffiti, where the generational hallmarks of sex, drugs and even rock-n-roll are all called into question at some point.
By showcasing in them all the same of defining generational characteristics and contradictions that permeate throughout the whole of Star Wars, he effectively turns the series not only into a piece of New Hollywood cinema or New Age mythologizing, but also a key piece of Baby Boomer manifest destiny (ironic, considering that his target audience has always skewed more towards subsequent generations). This pacifist-warrior strain continues throughout the Jedi action-sequences of the Prequel trilogy and especially TPM. Unlike the Jabba sail-barge battle, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan visibly carve their way through legions of enemies, hacking them apart in long, unbroken takes, without the aid of ANH-style cutaways to mask the violence. Thanks to the technological advancements at creating CGI characters, the shooting can employ the same fluid style of ROTJ, and by using that new digital wizardry to concoct robots instead of live enemies for the Jedi to fight, the action onscreen can be far more graphic than films past, without having to worry about blood or gore. Choreographer Nick Gillard had also previously worked on the fencing of Martin Campbell’s The Mask of Zorro, and in that film he also achieved a high level of cinematic sword-fight set-pieces, though often tending towards a more comic level, which is something many films do when pitting a single swordsman against large groups. Perhaps it’s easier to accept a swashbuckling hero like Errol Flynn merely make fools of that many enemies instead of killing them in cold blood left and right, something Toshiro Mifune’s vagabond samurai warriors often did with little moralizing in the Kurosawa classics that famously influenced and inspired the Star Wars series. Lucas sidesteps that problem by using inanimate battle-droids as saber-fodder throughout the picture, enemies who can safely be seen hacked into pieces without painting the Jedi in a bad light, not that far removed from all the faceless Stormtroopers gunned down in the original films, or eventually sliced-and-diced in ROTS, effectively letting our heroes off the hook by masking their enemies into anonymity (a trick Terry Gilliam saw through back in Brazil).
Shooting with long-lenses to capture fast-paced combat from a distance, Lucas mines the same method Kurosawa put to good use in widescreen epics like The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo, but marries it with a bold use of color and composition that accentuate the two-dimensional graphic qualities of the picture frame. One of the principal pleasures of watching lightsaber combat, especially in the Prequel Trilogy, is how the rotoscoped glowing blades register with the eye far easier than a sword of mere steel– the same lightning quick fencing from Mifune that might literally occur within the blink of an eye is simply far easier to see, follow and enjoy vicariously when the blade is highlighted by special-effects. Even then, the energetic hack-and-slash approach isn’t the only impressive feat during the scene, as Lucas takes this scene to breezily introduce new elements to the language of Star Wars action. By taking the laser-reflecting property of the lightsaber from ROTJ and applying it to a battle scene instead of merely self-defense, bouncing back laser bolts in a poisonous fog like batters cracking baseballs straight into a pitcher’s face, the film introduces the Jedi with a perfect visual shorthand for their pacifist-warrior ethos, turning violence itself against the aggressor. By inverting the often used Force-pull from the previous films into the more aggressive Force-push, the film both introduces the telekinetic nature of Jedi power to new viewers while also broadening their skill-set for audiences already schooled in the franchise’s methods and manners. As Qui-Gon attempts to cut through a series of thick blast-doors to reach the Trade Federation leaders, the lightsaber’s destructive capabilities are clearly demonstrated onscreen, slicing and melting metal like butter (and leaving a crescent shaped scar to be repeated subtly in the series). Perhaps most important of all in this early sequence, however, is the fact that despite the display of all their powers, the Jedi still retreat from the threat of stronger, deadlier battle-droids, establishing a base-line between the power of the Force and the mortality of the flesh. Throughout this and subsequent encounters with battle-droids on Naboo, Lucas’ coverage mostly consists of medium shots from a short distance zoomed in with long-lenses, capturing the action in the same polished, professional documentary style with which he tackled THX.
Some quick inserts of in-fight close-ups are also employed—mostly for moments where Obi-Wan cuts up droids and twirls his lightsaber, evoking the visceral, broken-piece editing for the shootouts in ANH, where Lucas’ shots were not just motivated by straight coverage, but also for the graphical presentation of laser beams streaking cross screen —as well as some long shots to clearly illustrate the geography. Long master shots like these are an essential part of Lucas’ classical action cinema, acting very much in the same way that he uses his self-described “pointer scenes”, moments where characters gather around a hologram projection to formulate a plan of attack (or, in the case of ANH, watch a two-dimensional projection that amounts to literally watching a movie). A technique learned from Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and several films by Fritz Lang, notably M, it’s an effective motif to illustrate the characters’ intent to an audience, mapping out a forthcoming action-sequence by literally showing everybody point at positions on a map. It’s a seminal element of cinematic rhetoric, showing the barebones wireframe of a sequence before the actual scene, and when Lucas thrusts his master-shots into the editing of an action-beat, it likewise establishes or reminds us of the area and elements at play, allowing him to then break up the action into smaller units of medium and close shots as he wishes. Unlike movies by modern action-directors like Paul Greengrass, TPM works hard to earn the moments of intentional disorientation and broken-piece coverage with those key pointer-scene shots. Even at his most abstract, he offers more clarity, as evidenced by a brief confrontation between Qui-Gon and Darth Maul right before the heroes depart from Tatooine. There, Lucas cuts the fencing between the Jedi and Sith warriors into a deliberately unclear series of shots, focusing tightly on swinging blades and flowing robes. Still, he doesn’t neglect to include a couple of quick, but decisive longer master shots which impress enough of the fight’s geography on the audience to keep things clear, lending a sense of meter to the tone-poem of the rest of the coverage. With only a slight structure of clarity, Lucas teases his audience but lets them in on it as well, satisfying the hunger for an action beat with an appetizer of a fight, building a basic visual vocabulary of the duel to come.
“The Duel of the Fates” represents a lot of things to The Phantom Menace, the whole of the Star Wars series, and George Lucas’ body of work overall. As the centerpiece action-sequence of the first film he’d fully assumed command of as uncontested solo-director in 22 years (The Empire Strikes Back has his creative fingerprints, but they’re distanced by Kershner’s touch, while by all accounts of his relationship with Marquand, Return of the Jedi might as well be called Lucas’ movie), the duel is his moment to shine as a filmmaker, but also his moment to prove himself as well, anxious to impress over his own foreseen qualms with the script and performances. As the first lightsaber duel between Jedi and Sith in 16 years, the sequence seeks to mix and match various components of the series’ swordfights past while contributing a flavor of its own. Combining the strict discipline of the ANH duel with the multiple locations and studied pacing of ESB, the coverage and choreography of the TPM duel are at once more ambitious than anything from the Original Trilogy while just as careful in their craftsmanship. Pairing that with the aggressive verite approach and conditional set-piece structure of ROTJ, Lucas creates a sequence which not only grounds itself in a slick cinematic realism unparalleled in the series but also interlocks with the surrounding scenes in ways that suggest stakes and scales in league with the film’s epic scope of political and mythic intrigue. But first and foremost, the duel represents the pinnacle of TPM’s action filmmaking, and perhaps that of the Prequel Trilogy as a whole, far in a way outpacing any of the lightsaber battles of the Original Trilogy, and it begins with a long shot dollying into a set of blast-doors in the Naboo hangar opening like curtains before a show, revealing Darth Maul standing behind.
The push in is a somewhat uncharacteristic movement for Lucas, who mainly favors static camera positions, save for dogfighting, where the camera races to follow the action, and moments of special dramatic importance, like the tracking shot of Luke beating back Vader at the end of the ROTJ duel. However, the push also serves a further purpose at this moment, filling the frame with the opening doors, and calling attention to their graphic movement. Like most examples from sci-fi movies and television programs, the doors throughout Star Wars tend to open and close by sliding, like automatic Japanese screens. Sometimes they open horizontally, vertically, or part open from the center, as they do here. Occasionally, such as on the planet Kamino or on the Death Star, the doors open-and-shut in an iris formation, very much like the iris-transitions used between scenes. In fact, all of the doors mimic some kind of transition-wipe used throughout the series, calling attention to that cinematic device and the film itself. It’s a self-referential tactic Lucas employs throughout the series and his career as a whole, using different actions to suggest further wipes (like twirling lightsabers for diagonal and radar transitions), or whole ranges of cinematic techniques altogether. THX 1138 and American Graffiti both often frame their characters within framing-compositions within the shot, accentuating the 2.35:1 aspect-ratio. This same geometric framing occurs throughout the Star Wars films as well, both with rectangular shapes and smaller, more square ones that recall the 1.33:1 of standard television sets (perhaps to remind viewers of how much is lost in pan-and-scan versions, something Miami Vice-maestro Michael Mann achieved as well by tightening on television sets in Manhunter, Heat and The Insider). Revenge of the Sith includes both in close proximity revolving around Palpatine, framing him inside a red-square holographic projection just before his temptations to Anakin (a framing not unlike Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction‘s own CinemaScope frame-within-a-frame moment in the parking lot of Jack Rabbit Slim’s), and then inside his long office-window during his duel against the Jedi Rebel Mace Windu, essentially letterboxing the rest of the fight (at times even seeming to devour the duellists, a continuation of predatorial imagery throughout).
By introducing the TPM duel with a tactic that reinforces the medium-specific qualities of his oeuvre, Lucas encourages the viewer to view the sequence as a piece of post-modern cinema. Invoking the transition-wipes by the sliding blast-door also invokes the memory of the old adventure movie serials like Buck Rogers and the films of Akira Kurosawa, both among the primary influences on Lucas’ filmmaking, and representative of a nostalgic longing for cinema past that will be resurrected again later in this swashbuckling duel. It also begins the duel by subtly announcing itself with a technique most audiences would now associate with the series itself, reinforcing the intertextual connections within the franchise, underlining this as a purebred Star Wars moment. Finally, beyond all the allusions to cinematic technique, cinematic history and cinematic self-reference, the implied wipe begins the duel with a note of transition itself, a notion Lucas continually raises in his work with prominent shots of setting suns, machinery under construction and other imagery throughout. Transition is also a powerful dramatic concern for him as well, focusing his stories on societies transforming from one form of government to another, young people from one stage of life to another, and dystopian prisoners from one way of life to another, all in some way freeing their minds in the process. As cinematic transitions indicate an implied movement from one narrative point to the next, so too does Darth Maul’s entrance suggest that the film is now moving into a different register of mythic time and space.
Before they begin fighting, both the Jedi and Sith warriors throw off their long hooded robes in an extreme long shot, an action which serves several purposes. First of all, there’s the practical reasons, both within the fiction of the film (without their bulky robes, the duelists can move about more freely), and within the film’s making, as well (given that robe-less freedom, the fight choreography can be much less restricted). Second, there’s a certain symbolic significance to watching the Jedi cast off their priestly robes, visually transforming from monastic figures of spiritual wisdom to seasoned fighters caught in a life-or-death struggle, not only about to risk losing their own lives, but prepared to take another’s as well (during their fights against battle-droids, they were never actually killing anyone, and kept their robes on). Lastly, it establishes a new cinematic motif for the Star Wars movies, one that will be repeated several times (in AOTC as Mace Windu joins the fray of battle on Geonosis, and in ROTS before Obi-Wan and Anakin’s duels against Count Dooku, General Grevious, and eventually one another). Cutting to a medium shot, Darth Maul is shown igniting his double-bladed lightsaber, a classic addition to the series’ villains which serves to deepen the film’s ties to world-religious iconography as a dark Christological figure. Evoking the cross image of the crucifixion, Maul’s saber deepens the Biblical associations of his entire ensemble. Many commentators called his appearance devilish, yet each one of his Satanically inspired features also creates an allusion to Christ—the crown of horns on Maul’s head, just one letter away from being a crown of thorns; the red-and-black tattoos on his face, recalling the red-and-black opening title sequence of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.
That film famously portrayed Jesus as a troubled young man led astray from his destined path by the lure of romantic love, the same temptation that ultimately undoes Anakin Skywalker. TPM spends a lot of time turning him into a Christ-like prophesized savior himself, introducing the controversial Force-associated plot device of midichlorians mostly to add a scientific root to the revelation of Anakin’s virgin birth, and indulging in a prolonged pod-race sequence on Tatooine (the film’s other centerpiece action-sequence) which consciously evokes Ben Hur. The references embedded in Maul’s design help serve to offer a dark echo of the light Christ-themes of young Skywalker’s circumstances, offering a crystal-clear projection of the dark figure his savior-complex will take him in his evolution into the twisted Darth Vader. It’s fitting, then, that during the sequence of Maul’s reveal Lucas begins cutting back to Anakin as he watches a trio of powerful battle-droids attack Padme’s team. Though ordered to remain safely hidden in a Naboo starfighter’s cockpit, young Skywalker activates the controls to shoot down the droids and rescue Padme, for the first time disobeying a Jedi order for the sake of a loved one, the very girl he will grow up to marry in secret. Meanwhile, Lucas officially kicks off the duel’s fighting with a couple of quick-motion close-ups of Maul flipping and engaging the Jedi, followed by a distanced medium-long capturing all three exchanging blows with their sabers in two-on-one combat. For the time being he’s still just teasing the audience, showing a few fancy moves and violent contact between lightsabers with just enough clarity for the composition to register before cutting away to follow the rest of the film’s heroes.
As the duel progresses, Lucas cuts back and forth between three additional strands of parallel action sequences, where his editing “especially comes to fruition, rhythm and touches along…with the 4 alternate sequences” which are cut to mix and match in the same way as John Williams’ “overwhelming singing chorus”, an example of the series’ oft-observed “Opera-like vocation”,” of repeating and intertwined themes. The four-fold action-sequence builds from ROTJ’s finale—Padme’s strike-force in the Naboo palace to capture the Trade Federation leaders; Jar-Jar Binks and the Gungan army engaging the bulk of the enemy’s battle-droids; and Anakin with a small Naboo star-fighter fleet attacking the Federation’s battle-ship. Like the previous film, the sequence uses a series of interlocking conditional set-pieces to drive the action, creating connections of interdependency between the key players both implicit in the editing and explicit in the mutually tied action that furthers TPM’s theme of symbiosis between living things. However, while the previous film constructed a straight line of connected action in the battle of Endor, here Lucas ties all the different strands around one central hub of importance in Padme’s mission. Everything else is done to make that objective possible—the Gungan army draws the battle-droids out of the city, acting as a diversion so the others can slip into the palace; the Naboo starfighters’ offensive against the Federation battle-ship aims to knock out their remote control of the droids below, both defending the Gungans and keeping the army from returning to the city; and the Jedi duel with Maul only when he stands in Padme’s way, forcing her group to take “the long way” to their goal. Instead of a linear string of conditions, Lucas weaves something like a spider’s web, which makes any of the side-missions expendable at some point as long as they keep off defeat long enough for the main objective to be achieved. It adds a theme of sacrifice that wasn’t as heavy in ROTJ, where each objective could only be made possible by the success of the last one, save for Luke’s efforts to free his father from the grip of the Emperor. In both cases, Lucas portrays the Jedi as the ones most willing to risk their own lives for the sake of the mission, but in TPM, he spreads the sentiment of self-sacrifice to include everyone.
An extreme high long-shot brings us back to the duel in the Naboo hangar, just after Anakin flies out of it. Lucas balances a healthy mix of static medium-longs and mobile close-up through the duel, giving us a clear idea of the action and geography without sacrificing the thrills of a front-row view. This mix of different shot depths and angles helps bring a sense of vitality to the duel’s staging that isn’t quite there in the sometimes strict coverage of the OT duels, which mostly juggle masters and close-ups that often follow the 180-degree rule to the letter. Here, the approach is more cubist—save for the handful of establishing shots throughout that mostly bring us back into the fight from one of the other action-strands, he keeps the camera-angle on the same level as that of the fighters, treating us to a subjective view which keeps us psychologically in the action. Frequently the camera is in some kind of motion, but more often than not the movement is motivated purely to follow the action, panning to keep up with the fighter’s flips, kicks and wide swinging blows from a fixed, but distanced position, allowing the image to follow plenty of ground without losing its footing, like footage from the turf of an NFL Films production (or Oliver Stone’s approximation of them in Any Given Sunday). Action is cut closely in time with John Williams’ choral-score and the distinctive hums and crackles of the lightsabers themselves. Maul’s flips and jumps here, as like much of Nick Gillard’s choreography, carries a dance-like affect and intent, not always entirely necessary for combat purposes but enhancing the visual flair of the production. As he rapidly throws debris with the Force to open a door behind him, Lucas keeps the focus on the Sith warrior in a tracking close-up—important details are made clear, but not always foregrounded, keeping the pace of the fight fast at all times without any pit-stops for the audience than absolutely necessary.
As the fight moves from the Naboo hangar to a series of bridges around long columns of reactor-energy, Lucas dollies a long shot forward following the fighters, making use and an extreme wide-angle lens which visibly curves the vertical elements of the picture. Along with the fixed-position pans throughout the duel, the anamorphic fish-eye effect brings a documentary element to the film, polished but not bothering to correct or cover-up any natural lens-distortion. A brief pause in the fighting signals the end of this first long segment, as Maul backs away from the Jedi in a long shot, edging near the pit of the room’s large, seemingly endless chamber. All three duelists receive quick close-ups that push into their faces, setting each of them up as distinct individuals and putting the Jedi and Sith on an equal level, an effect achieved by all the lightsaber duels in the series, especially when contrasted with battles between large armies of massed collectives. It reinforces the humanistic theme of mutual dependency and respect, even among opponents—in Star Wars, even a villain has a moment to shine in a hero-shot. Maul then jumps backwards onto a bridge across the pit, covered in two leveled pan-shots, while the Jedi make the leap in a single take, proving them as individuals who can still act in concert as a team. The high-angle of the Jedi’s leap asserts the bottomless-pit imagery of the setting, which is further reinforced by the columns of bright energy, lending a deep sense of perspective to the environment.
These forced-perspective shots in vertigo inducing altitudes are frequent in the series, mostly in dark-settings like the Death Stars or the underbelly of Cloud City, and likewise this vertigo-effect helps foreshadow some of the darkness in Naboo, as well, being the home-planet of the future Emperor. In a canny bit of repetition, the next action-strand that Lucas devotes the most attention to has another vertigo-perspective moment, as Padme’s team are forced to blast open a window to escape an ambush of heavy battle-droid fire in a red-columned hallway, climbing out on the ledge and ascending to a higher floor with Batman-style grappling hook gun (the echo-editing looks forward to this just prior, as Anakin tells R2, navigating his starfighter, to “hang on”, recalling Luke’s use of an ascension gun in ESB). The high-angle of the stately, Italianesque palace and the surrounding story-book countryside below evokes the Powel & Pressburger classic Black Narcissus, another story of emotional and sensual temptation within members of a strict religious order. Cutting back to the duel, the camera pans up from another bottomless-pit shot to follow the Jedi and Maul fighting on a high bridge a long distance from where we last saw them. It’s an epic camera movement that’s usually reserved only for the space battles (perhaps due to the technical limitations of previous films and their reliance upon static matte-painting shots). Again, use of background elements communicate as much information as anything else, showing how much ground has been covered in the duel’s interim. Lucas builds more layers of cinematic realism with some carefully applied lens-flares and standing his fighters in front of the bright blinding light of the energy columns, rendering them silhouettes.
Like the techniques used throughout much of his career, the effect is both dramatic and documentary, adding just enough obscurity to the image to produce a feeling of on-the-fly authenticity without going overboard and making things incoherent. While making THX 1138, Lucas commented that while he wanted it to have a documentary look, he also wanted it to look as attractive and professional as possible—“I don’t believe that a documentary has to look bad because it follows a cinema verite style. It can look good and still look real”. That same spirit was carried through the rest of his films, including the previous entries of the Star Wars series, although at that time the limited technology available for creating whole environments on-set necessitated a somewhat more artificial studio-feel for much of the live shooting, the most authentic and seemingly documentary moments tending to occur during outer-space dogfighting styled after aerial combat stock footage and WWII movies like The Dam Busters. As Obi-Wan is knocked off the bridge, Maul and Qui-Gon continue their fight, with young Kenobi quickly grabbing hold of a ledge and pulling himself up in a high-angle close-up which looks forward to a similar moment later in the duel. Standing back up, Obi-Wan takes a moment to watch his master and the Sith warrior fight far above him, and Lucas cuts to a far long angle from his point-of-view, allowing the audience to identify with the Jedi apprentice. It’s a natural decision to make—as the highest profile hero from the original films to present himself in a somewhat recognizable form in TPM (except maybe for R2-D2), he acts as the closest thing we have to a familiar face, and a bridge between the two trilogies. This duel, set as it is with a series of bridges in the middle, becomes a transitional moment between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan as the central Jedi mentors of the series.
As Obi-Wan leaps back to join the duel, Lucas cuts from a long-shot to a medium of the same angle, a technique in constant use throughout TPM with roots in the filmography of Kurosawa, who frequently cut deeper into or out of shots of identical composition, notably during the opening of Rashomon and the ending of Ran. It’s another example of self-conscious on-the-fly practicality in the film’s shooting, reinforcing the realism in this inherently artificial fantasy construction by relying on cinematic tactics more frequently used during live location shoots. Yet he tweaks the technique subtly as he cuts even deeper into a slight dutch-angle of Qui-Gon and Darth Maul entering a long hallway of red laser-gateways, a composition that draws out the expressionistic qualities of this new setting for the duel—a narrow corridor with high ceilings and endless red (similar to the red hallway Padme & Co. escaped from). Lucas then cuts to a low shot from within as the fighters enter the laser gate hallway, covering them from a wide-angle medium-long that quickly turns to a medium-close as they fight within, panning to follow the action. Unlike most of the close-ups throughout the duel, which were flattened from shooting from a distance and zooming in, this moment is more three-dimensional thanks to the anamorphic-lens, giving their entrance a dramatic feeling of naturalism (complete with more slight fish-eye distortion). Furthermore, by shooting from a lower angle, almost a worm’s-eye-view, Lucas breaks the pattern of covering his action from the same level as his fighters, yet does not deprive us of the visceral, subjective quality by capturing it from above. Instead, the figures tower over us like Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton on the floor of the post-election newspaper offices from Citizen Kane. Dueling in low close-angles as all-powerful titans instead of the small figures of extreme long-shots like the ferris-wheel window seat from The Third Man, it signals that we are watching history’s key-players, instead of its pawns, officially entering cinematic mythic space.
Obi-Wan soon catches up, but not in time to make it past the laser gates as they activate all down the hallway, separating all three fighters from one another. While they may be overly deliberate in how they break the characters apart, the laser gateway sequence is important for a number of reasons. First, it allows for a necessary pause in the duel, both for the audience and the fighters themselves (even Jedi need a chance to catch their breath). Second, it provides an opportunity to display the differences of personality between the three characters—Maul tests the laser gate with his lightsaber and then paces like a caged animal, and Obi-Wan fares no better, anxiously staring ahead and waiting for the gates to reopen. Only Qui-Gon actually takes the moment for rest, and even kneels down to meditate with closed-eyes, displaying a Zen-like grace in the face of danger and foreshadowing a death he already seems at peace with. As a mechanized corridor leading to a bright light, it recalls the opening of the “shopping mall” sequence from THX 1138, where one mindless drone after another rides an escalator into an all enveloping light to the tune of lazy elevator music. Cloaked in red and shot from angles that accentuate its vertical space, the hallway is very much a spiritual pathway to death, as well as a repetition of the series’ classic trench motif, which exceeds the bounds of the famous Death Star run and includes obvious precedents from THX, as well as Godard’s Alphaville and Tarkovsky’s Solaris (which also features an “into the light” sequence). Finally, the gateways add yet another layer of cinematic reference by imposing a layer of “film grain” over the image when closed. Turning the image into a reddish, almost sepia monochrome, it invokes a longing not only for films of the past, but also specifically films of the silent-era, when adding tinting the image was popular—an appropriate association for this sequence to make, a prime example of the director’s skill at creating wordless cinema.
Like the transition door-wipes (which the gateways do, as well), the laser hallway reinforces the image of Star Wars as pure cinematic nostalgia, forever seeing the world in rose-colored glasses. Events parallel as Lucas cuts to the Gungan battle as their shields go down, at the same time that the Jedi are trapped in the laser hallway. Just as that sequence invokes cinematic nostalgia, another attempt is made to rekindle the spirit of silent-movie magic during Jar Jar’s slapstick antics to escape the battle-droids, at each turn accidentally contributing more to the battle in his pratfalls than he had been while actually fighting. While a couple of images here are mildly amusing and even clever as echoes of war-films past (Jar Jar straddling a phallic tank-gun like Slim Pickens riding the bomb in Dr. Strangelove), for the most part it’s the lowest point of interest during the film, more useful as a bathroom break than anything else. The parallelism continues as Lucas cuts between the capture of Padme’s party, the surrender of the Gungan forces and Anakin’s crash-landing in the Trade Federation hangar, introducing trouble for every action-strand’s heroes in unison, setting up the same for the Jedi. In a canny bit of associative editing, Lucas cuts from Anakin in the Federation hangar to Maul’s looming face in close-up, almost subliminally implying the latter is menacing the former. In one sense, this is correct, as by locking himself in mortal combat with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, he is literally playing life-or-death with young Skywalker’s future, especially his future training with whatever Jedi eventually survives this battle. More than that, however, it is only the most obvious of many cuts made between Maul and Anakin, suggesting a connection between this present Sith warrior and the boy who will one day follow in his footsteps.
Obi-Wan ignites his lightsaber before the gateways reopen, a display of Jedi foresight that perfectly illustrates the prescient powers of the Force in “show, don’t tell” visual storytelling. Tight close-ups of the lasers deactivating and the elder Jedi opening his eyes immediately key us back into the duel, followed by a clear, centered medium of Obi-Wan from behind with his sword raised and a repeat of the previous low wide-angle pan as he enters the gates. These brief shots accomplish two things—first, they continue his transition onscreen from student to master, giving him his own knightly “hero shot” and then echoing the same imagery used when Qui-Gon entered the same territory, allowing him to continue in his mentor’s footsteps while carrying his own unique traits. Second, they cement his connection as the audience’s surrogate for the duration of the duel, shooting mostly from behind, using the same tricks that Welles and Polanski did for Citizen Kane and Chinatown, showing us more of their detective’s backs than faces so filmgoers would identify with them easier. This is all the more relevant to the sequence to come, as Obi-Wan races forward but arrives just as the final gateway is closed, locking him out, meaning that all he can do is watch, just like us. Lucas covers the action between Maul and Qui-Gon from a level medium-long take, the same viewpoint that young Kenobi watches from, only without the red gate in the way.
They and a brief high-angle capture the fighting, now with a newfound speed and fierceness, while also conveying the geography of the “black gleaming amphitheatre”-like room, akin to the Jedi Council and Galactic Senate chambers from this film, or the various Jedi and Rebel briefing rooms of episodes past and future. Throughout the Star Wars series, and especially in the Prequels, key actions are set in vast theatrical venues where high-perched camera angles become stand-ins for views from the nosebleed seats, like the pod-race on Tatooine, the gladiatorial-execution arena of AOTC and the posh Coruscant recital-hall where Palpatine tempts Anakin in ROTS (a scene reminiscent of similar dark opera moments in Coppola’s final Godfather film and De Palma’s The Untouchables). As Godard would later do in his cross-cutting between the ruins of a Greek amphitheatre and C-Span footage of the US Congress in Film Socialisme, Lucas illustrates the ancient link between theater and politics, how “democracy and tragedy were born in Athens”. Furthermore, they calls to attention the position of the film’s audience itself, not unlike various films by Fritz Lang– Dr. Baum’s rotunda lecture-hall from The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, courtroom screening in Fury, the Nazi-occupied Czech cinema that Brian Donlevy’s assassin escapes to in Hangmen Also Die (which The Phantom Menace at times recalls in its story of entire populations held hostage by bureaucratic invaders)– as well as others (Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, Contempt and Alphaville especially). Like the door-wipes and frame-within-frame imagery, it reminds the audience that they are watching a film, but also invokes a longer memory to more ancient narrative delivery, an aspect evoked previously by C-3PO’s storytelling to the Ewoks in ROTJ. Lucas cuts between Obi-Wan, his POV and tighter shots of the duelists themselves, keeping up with their action but also looking in on a brief pause between the two, as if silently sizing up the differences in their characters.
And then comes the kill, a moment that Lucas has carefully gone out of his way to prepare us for throughout the fight, and would almost be a foregone conclusion to any Star Wars fan with an eye for the series’ habits of repetitions and a working memory of which characters likely would and wouldn’t live to see the original films. Qui-Gon’s defeat was inevitable from the start both for the way it would echo Obi-Wan’s death as an old man back in ANH, but also for the way his name never came up in that film, or either of the sequels that followed. Yet it still comes with a ring of surprise, despite the deliberate foreshadowing, perhaps because of the way in which it breaks the patterns previous scenes have set up before. The fatal blow is captured off-screen in a medium close-up of Maul’s thrust and a pained expression on Qui-Gon’s face. That expression is mirrored by Obi-Wan as he screams from behind the laser gate (another standard Star Wars moment, repeated to almost comical proportions by the time of ROTS, the dramatically drawn-out cry of “Nooo!”). A high-angle in medium long-shot finally shows Qui-Gon’s impalement clearly for the first time as Maul cold-bloodedly pulls the blade out of his torso. Lucas uses all the cinematic tools at his disposal to prolong the effect of the moment, first heard as the sound of lightsaber against flesh, reacted to in the form of Obi-Wan’s anguished cry, and at last shown on-screen, after all the damage is done. Now Maul turns his attention to the remaining Jedi in a centered take from Obi-Wan’s perspective that almost seems a direct opposite of his hero-shot before—shot facing the camera instead of from behind, hunched forward instead of standing tall, with his lightsaber pointed low instead of high. A “villain shot” in composition and poise, if there ever was one.
It’s at this point, ironically, that Padme’s mission succeeds, rendering all the other action-strands moot. Following a clever action-beat riff on the film’s Queen decoy role-reversal (itself a plot point gleaned from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, famous for inspiring the basic outline of ANH and copied again here, in something like a cinematic homecoming), Amidala and her troops capture the Trade Federation leadership, thus finishing the major crisis of the movie. Significantly, however, the fighting on all other fronts has yet to be resolved, all their heroes either captured (the Gungans by the droid-army), caught in a deadly trap (Anakin in the enemy battleship) or soon about to be (Obi-Wan in his duel against Maul). This is where the non-linearity of the film’s conditional set-pieces turns somewhat ambiguous, as the central objective is allowed to be played to completion while the others are left dangling. Like the Russian Doll-like system of nesting cliffhangers in many a Frtiz Lang thriller (or, to take the filmic lineage further, the Fantomas serials of Louis Feuillade, a criminal mastermind whose cinematic DNA is easily detected in Ian McDiarmid’s role of the sinister politician Palpatine, often introduced in a ghostly holographic form, and even alluded to in the title as a “Phantom” himself), the suspense is now generated less from the question of whether the heroes’ plans will succeed, but rather how many sacrifices will be made in its name. Now that the main priority has been met, the remaining action-strands become loose threads, their characters very much expendable to the main plot of this individual film, and though we may know from films past which ones will live to see another trilogy, the danger they are placed in is no less palpable in the present. Perhaps in that same spirit of foreknowledge that we’re brought back to the duel at another moment of Jedi prescience, both Obi-Wan and Maul lighting up their sabers before the laser gate deactivates, setting up a heated spirit for the fighting to come.
The fighting now reaches a fever-pitch point of speed and ferocity, both the Jedi and Sith blocking just as many blows as they attempt to strike out themselves, always only one bad stroke away from certain death. Nick Gillard’s stuntwork blends any number of global fencing disciplines together, from Japanese kendo to European rapier styles, pushing an ambitious level of agile physicality from both McGregor and expert swordsman Ray Park, whose double-bladed saber is put to good use in the choreography here. Lucas begins his coverage of the fighting with a level medium-long, then cutting to the setting’s default high-angle, both takes the longest and most sustained in the fight to showcase the performers’ agility first and foremost. As Obi-Wan splits Maul’s saber the coverage breaks into tighter shots and faster cutting, throwing us into the hectic pace of the battle with rapid close-ups and an occasional return to the medium-take, with distinctive elements from the background (the red laser hallway especially) acting as visual anchors to keep us situated. The young Jedi enjoys a dramatic in-fight close-up, aggressively pushing his saber against Maul’s in the duel’s sole moment focusing on locked cross-sword formation (the bread and butter of duels in the original films) before the Sith takes advantage of his opponent’s position and pushes him into the pit. Because the room’s geography has already been well developed, the push can begin in a tight shot, closing in on Maul’s hand, before cutting to the Jedi as he falls backwards and quickly grabs hold to the edge. Lucas sums up Obi-Wan’s predicament in two shots—a static low angle medium-long from within the pit, situating him at the top of the frame with plenty of empty space below, and a pan down that moves to follow the Jedi’s lightsaber down into the depths, after it’s kicked in by the Sith warrior.
The latter shot is one of the most constant in Lucas’ work, found in some shape or form in every film he has directed except for American Graffiti. With a deliberate use of perspective all drawn to a central point on the distant horizon, he evokes the speedlines from Japanese manga and anime, often used to inject a subjective sense of speed to the image, as seen from a moving-body’s point of view. It’s a concept that Lucas literalized himself with the famous image of streaking-stars during the hyperspace sequences of the initial Star Wars films, an event curiously never duplicated onscreen in the Prequels (perhaps seeking to preserve the integrity of their original presentation). Speed-lines are present in the chase sequence through BART tunnels at the end of THX 1138, and in the bottomless pits of both Death Stars (the duel through the underbelly of Cloud City in ESB comes close, but that sequence employs more of a circular motif than straight lines). They would later be featured prominently in the succeeding Prequels as well, but at the time of TPM’s release the last speed-line moment had been in ROTJ, at the moment where the Emperor is hurled down a reactor-shaft to his demise (an end alluded to in Palpatine’s clinging for dear life in an elevator shaft during ROTS). That moment signaled the Sith lord’s redemption, so it’s appropriate that Lucas cuts away from this new speed-line shot to Anakin as he regains control of his starfighter and performs his first major (though accidental) act of heroism by destroying the Federation battleship from the inside. It represents another layer of associative editing between young Skywalker and the Sith, and begins to close the remaining action-strands left dangling by Padme’s early victory. As the battleship is destroyed and remote-control over the droids is deactivated, a cut down to the Gungan army celebrating illustrates the conditional nature of Lucas’ set-piece structure, even as one strand is left in a literal cliffhanger situation.
There’s a sense of humility to the way the duel is the last plotline to be resolved, an implicit spirit in keeping with the Jedi’s self-sacrificing code of honor. Sparks fly bright and loud cutting back to the duel in a low-angle from within the pit, as Maul strikes his saber against the ledge to menace Obi-Wan, offering an almost direct recall of the Federation’s battleship explosion. After a brief master-shot of the pit, again accentuating the vertigo-depths with the perspective speed-lines, Lucas cuts to another low angle shot from inside the pit, this time tightening in on Maul, in a composition that matches almost exactly a wider take of Luke during a pause in his ESB duel, both images dominated by the colors of their sabers, suggesting the same kind of inexperienced hubris that humbled young Skywalker in this nimble Sith warrior (an occasion matched by a similar echo between Luke and Palpatine in ROTJ and ROTS). As John Williams’ music begins low in the background, we return to the master-shot of Obi-Wan, and slowly zoom in on him, followed by a cut to a zoom onto Qui-Gon’s saber, linking the use of the Force with cinematic technique. It concentrates the dramatic weight to a single moment, lighting the fuse to the young Jedi’s last gambit, which explodes on the screen all in separate close-ups, isolating each piece of the action from one another. Obi-Wan pulls himself out of the pit in a giant flip, catches his master’s sword with the Force, and then cuts his opponent down, but like Qui-Gon’s defeat before, Maul’s death is presented abstractly before it all comes together. First the fatal blow is heard in an angle that keeps the Sith warrior looming large in the frame, with Obi-Wan kept small in the bottom left-hand corner, like David before Goliath, wielding the lightsaber just off-camera with a mighty baseball swing.
Lucas cuts to a close-up of Maul, where a fine red cloud of blood sprays mistlike in front of the camera, by no means gory but just enough to suggest the wound he’s been dealt. He then falls down into the pit, and from the master-shot we watch as he splits into two halves, finally making the full extent of his death visible. Originally Maul was only supposed to die from a fatal slash across the chest, a common death in the samurai movies that inspired much of the series, but Lucas made it much more violent in order to leave no question of the villain’s fate, displaying visual storytelling at its most committed. Combined with the sight of Qui-Gon’s impalement, Maul’s evisceration helped make TPM the most graphic entry in the series, and one of the grisliest entries of Lucas’ entire filmmaking career. Since ESB, most of his productions have grown progressively darker in terms of content, pushing the boundaries for acceptable levels of violence for films aimed towards children. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom famously outraged parents with its sights of bodies burnt alive and hearts ripped beating out of victims’ chests, helping to pave the way for the more relaxed standards of the PG-13 rating, and Willow demonstrated similar levels of onscreen cruelty with monsters meeting bloody ends, heroes and villains alike killed brutally in combat, and most of the villainous forces rallying to capture and murder a newborn infant. Curiously, the darker Lucas’ works have gotten, they have also become more childlike, perhaps as a way of balancing everything out. Though he has often been criticized for the juvenile tendencies in his work, this specific escalation is one that would eventually come to a startling climax in the subsequent Star Wars films, when Anakin makes children his targets in his fall to the Dark Side.
As Obi-Wan deactivates his saber and cradles his dying master in his arms, it’s important to note that in defeating Maul he becomes one of the several figures to use a lightsaber that does not belong to him. Luke inherited his own sword from Anakin, courtesy of old Kenobi, in ANH. While stranded in the tundra wasteland of Hoth in ESB and facing certain death from exposure to the elements, Han makes quick, but awkward use of that hand-me-down saber, not in combat, but for the utilitarian purpose of building shelter out of a dead animal for survival. Perhaps most subtly, Vader handles his son’s new lightsaber after Luke allows himself to be captured in ROTJ, but Lucas and Marquand are careful to shoot the scene in close-up fragments, never once showing the Sith Lord’s distinctive mask and the green Jedi blade at the same time, suggesting that while he is inching away from evil he is not yet prepared to go cold turkey just yet (Palpatine will also cradle Luke’s saber in his hands later on, but never ignite it himself). By picking up Qui-Gon’s sword, colored green like Luke’s mature weapon, Obi-Wan can be seen rising to the same ascendant role himself, not only in wielding his master’s lightsaber, but also in wielding a lightsaber whose color is generally associated with Jedi Masters in general (even Yoda would eventually carry one like it). Perhaps green is particularly striking as the Jedi color of superior skill and wisdom because of how it stands opposite on the color-wheel to Sith red, or perhaps that’s merely a coincidence for how it was chosen to stand out against the bright blue skies of Tatooine when Luke first held his. At any rate, it’s a fitting end to the duel for Obi-Wan to strike back with his master’s weapon, and then share a final, unexpectedly tender moment with him before he expires. The fact that Qui-Gon fails to disappear as the masters of the original trilogy did may raise questions, but does little to dampen the power of the sequence, nor its influence on modern cinema.
From the fight choreography by Nick Gillard to the stellar coverage by David Tattersall, the action sequences of The Phantom Menace stand among the best work of its kind from the past fifteen years, and along with the work of Yuen Woo-ping on the Matrix trilogy and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, have helped usher in a new era of quality movie stunt-work. Since then, we’ve seen a rise in the popularity for films driven by similarly styled acrobatic fighting and one-on-one combat, mostly tied to the wuxu school popularized by the films of Ang Lee and the Wachowski Brothers, and further perfected in art-house craftsmanship by Zhang Yimou’s latter-day breakthrough hits as a Hong Kong action-director and Quentin Tarantino’s grindhouse action-packing in the Kill Bill movies. Though these swordsmanship-driven sequences have proven somewhat over-the-top for some filmgoers, and not quite as accessible as a simple punch-out or feats of down-to-earth aerial combat, they have proven exceptional contributions to the adventure genre and prove that swashbuckling in any form is likely to remain in style for the foreseeable future, a brand of wish-fulfillment as old as Douglas Fairbanks, as international as Toshiro Mifune, and as modern as Scott Pilgrim. And while we’ve seen impressive high-concept action set-pieces from Bond-maestro Martin Campbell, stellar movie shootouts from Michael Mann and Tom Tykwer, and a discouraging trend towards intentionally disorienting choreography and cinematography in Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies and their ilk, the kind of work evidenced by TPM’s showstopping duel can provide either a classically styled palate-cleansing chaser to modern-day efforts, or even, if need be, an antidote.
The final question remains as to where “The Duel of the Fates” sits in Lucas’ filmography, and how it affects the level of action set-piece work in the remainder of the Star Wars canon. Barring personal preference or nostalgia-flavored favoritism, it almost without doubt stands as the single most impressive sequence of lightsaber combat in the six-film series, as well as a high point for the director’s career in his command of all the elements of cinema. Though the ESB duel may carry more dramatic heft and by no means skimp in the quality of their style or substance, its somewhat blocky-staging and shooting keep it from truly rising above the artificiality of its artifice, and while the ROTJ swordfight bristles with an unleashed quality to its fencing and an adventurous, documentary richness to its cinematography, the lack of ambition in its single-setting staging (perhaps to stay out of the way of the additional action-strands competing for attention) clips its wings just enough to keep it from rising too high. The TPM duel represents the best elements of both fights, and while the narrative it’s tied to may not be as well developed or personalized as the epic family struggle between Luke and Vader, it more than earns its keep as a masterpiece of archetypal mythmaking. As for the duels of subsequent installments Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, while both feature plenty of entertainingly staged and impressively shot swordsmanship, nothing really stands above and beyond the quality and scope of the work performed in this film.
Furthermore, they could very often be overpowered by the sense of escalating spectacle each aimed to provide—Yoda’s showstopping surprise at AOTC’s end and the fabled duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin in ROTS are by no means lacking in style or substance, they at times lack a sense of focus that the dedicated craftsmanship of earlier fights carried by exercising a more careful degree of restraint. At the same time, those centerpiece moments often found themselves somewhat overshadowed by unexpectedly effective action-sequences in other parts of their films. In Kenobi’s multi-faceted rumble in the rain against Jango Fett, Lucas finally puts all the tools and gadgets he and designer-turned-director Joe Johnston dreamed up for bounty-hunter Boba in ESB, pitting the Jedi Knight against an arsenal that would make a Bond-villain blush, and though his later fight against the cyborg General Grevious may start as an epic four-handed lightsaber duel, it ends with a twist as an inventively staged fistfight and shootout. Scenes like those demonstrate Lucas’ imagination outgrowing the basics of swordfight set-ups, pushing himself into more creative brands of high-concept sequences. That’s not to say that there weren’t lightsaber sequences as rich as before in the subsequent Prequels, but more often than not they occurred in more unexpected and subdued forms, driven less by a need for action-beats.
Take Anakin’s brief duel against Count Dooku in AOTC, for example, an moment of pure tone-poem set-piece cinema, with Lynchian strobe-flashes and fluorescent sabers in the dark providing the only light sources in a shadowy cave. Or Yoda’s lightning-quick deathblows throughout ROTS, dealing out impalements and decapitations with a casual brutality that makes him live up to being called a “great warrior”. If there is a lightsaber set-piece to rival TPM since its release, it may just be Yoda’s showdown with the Emperor in the vast, cavernous halls of the Senate, but even there the hallmark of the fight isn’t necessarily the early portion of expertly composed fencing between the two enemies, but the death-defying “wizard’s duel” between them later on, casting great arcs of lightning and hurling Senatorial balcony-pods at one another with the Force, transforming the heart of the galaxy’s government into a war-torn battlefield, amounting to one of the cleverest cinematic political-cartoons ever devised. It manages to distract just enough from the fabled volcano-planet duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin to make all but brief moments from it feel anticlimactic—a few spare shots of the former friends’ hands nearly clasping as they channel the Force against one another aggressively might be the most poetic bit of sci-fi action Lucas ever dreamed up. Even so, it doesn’t quite match the TPM sequence, but with that kind of perfectionism, perhaps it’s best to avoid even making the comparison anyway. At the end of the day, “The Duel of the Fates” remains one of the most impressive action sequences of recent memory, the best of all the pure lightsaber duels in the Star Wars films, and as strong a contender as anything else for the greatest movie swordfight of all time.
All in-text hyperlinks courtesy of Michael Hopcroft’s Galactic Symphony.
 “BFI Film Classics: Star Wars”, Will Brooker, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, Page 63
 “The Worlds of Roger Christian”, Martin Anderson, Shadowlocked, Mach 9, 2010, http://shadowlocked.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=134:exclusive-interview-the-worlds-of-roger-christian&catid=47:movie-interviews
 “The Problem of the Real and THX 1138”, J.P. Telotte. Film Criticism, Allegheny College Press, Spring 2000
 “The Phantom Menace: Repetition, Variation, Integration”, Anne Lancashire, ibid. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek has also frequently commented on this point in speeches and writing. An example can be found in his article “Revenge of Global Finance”: http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/2122/
 Pierre Berthomieu, Positif, issue unknown, available at http://starwarsprequelappreciationsociety.wordpress.com/2010/09/23/old-french-review-of-tpm/
 See also: “Complex Design in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’” and “’Return of the Jedi’—Once More, with Feeling”, Anne Lancashire, Film Criticism, Spring 1981 and Winter 1984 respectively. “‘Attack of the Clones’ and the Politics of ‘Star Wars’” available at http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~anne/clones.html
 “Bob dreams a little dream of ‘Inception’”, Bob Clark, Wonders in the Dark, July 21, 2010, https://wondersinthedark.wordpress.com/2010/07/21/bob-dreams-a-little-dream-of-inception/
 “THX 1138—Made in San Francisco”, American Cinematographer, 1971, available in “George Lucas: Interviews”, ed. Sally Kline, University Press of Mississippi, 1999, page 10
 “Re-watching The Phantom Menace”, Stephen Russell-Gebbet, Checking On My Sausages, August 19, 2010, http://checkingonmysausages.blogspot.com/2010/08/re-watching-phantom-menace.html