Star Wars introduced the lightsaber in 1977 and ever since then, fans have been captivated. From the “snap-hiss” sound when it activates to endless debates about “why can’t you use the Force to just turn off you opponent’s saber?” fans across the planet adore the “Glowstick of Destiny” in every form they can find.
Speaking of “endless debates”, the fans have also bickered about what the best duel is within the franchise. Yes, “The Phantom Menace” had flips and kicks, which was mind-blowing in 1999 considering what we got before then. Yes, “Revenge of the Sith” had terrific choreography and an emotional ending (once you get past the eye-rolling “high ground” line). But there’s one duel that stands out within the Star Wars franchise and it has almost nothing to do with lightsabers at all.
Yes, you read that right.
In “Return of the Jedi” the buildup of the duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader was immense. Everyone loves the solid buildup to “Return of the King” and Marvel’s “Infinity War” and Star Wars did not disappoint. Fans back in 1983 had been waiting three years for the rematch between Luke and his father. Darth Vader had owned Obi-Wan Kenobi in 1977, made Luke look like a chump in 1980, but now things would be different. Time you got yours, Vader!
What makes this duel truly special isn’t the lightsabers at all, but rather the events and emotions surrounding the duel. The rebel fleet is being shredded by the Empire. His friends on Endor are in the fight of their lives. Luke has the ability to end a galactic war and help countless trillions of people, if he can bring himself to kill an old man who is just hanging out in his La-Z-Sheev chair. He wants so desperately to save his father from the dark side of the Force while also trying not to get killed himself by that same father.
While the length of the duel is roughly 132 seconds shorter than what we saw in “The Phantom Menace”, the emotion is so much stronger you can’t help but be captivated. True, there really wasn’t anything to tempt Luke to go to the dark side, but we were watching to see how he would get out of the situation he had found himself. How can he save Vader, his friends, win the day, kill Papa Palpatine, and escape the Death Star while keeping his morals and integrity intact?
He almost didn’t.
Luke Skywalker is a prototypical protagonist; the Star Wars version of Captain America. This is a character who is a champion for all things good. He isn’t a rogue like Han Solo, not playing both sides like Lando, and strives to be the better person at all times. Luke is who we should all try to be more like. He is the Superman of this universe, morally speaking. He always does the right thing, he’s always there for his friends, he’s grown in power and stature since “A New Hope”, and reads to blind puppies in his spare time while at the same time distributing food to needy orphans.
That last part might have been in the non-canon EU. Oh well!
Towards the end of this duel, we see our Hero of Heroes hiding in the shadows; the symbolism of his inner conflict literally on his face. The audience has seen him try to reason with Vader, try to fight Vader, and neither has worked well. Now Vader is taunting him, trying to bring him out of the shadows for another showdown. When he finally gets Luke to snap by threatening to go after Leia instead, our beloved champion doesn’t just lose his cool, he goes into a full-on murderous rampage.
The first swing of Luke’s lightsaber is at Vader’s head.
And the second.
And the third.
And the fourth.
In fact, if you watch the entire sequence, (see video below) there are only a couple of times Luke attacks Vader that isn’t trying to make him join the Headless Hunt. Luke is done messing around and he’s no longer interested in redemption. There’s only one thought on his mind and that is to kill Darth Vader in a brutal fashion. Forget brilliant choreography, flips, kicks, or spins. There’s nothing neat or fancy about this. It’s pretty much what any of us would do if we had a real lightsaber.
Just bludgeon away until someone drops…which is exactly what Vader does after absorbing the shocking onslaught.
At the very end of the duel, it doesn’t even occur to Luke to swat Vader’s blade aside until the last second. He…just…hammers…away. All logic and reasoning is gone; replaced by emotional rage. Luke isn’t being dipping his toe into the pool of the dark side, he’s going headfirst into the deep end and the audience is stunned; unable to believe what they’re seeing.
And that music, oh man that music. Yes John Williams hit his groove with “Duel of the Fates”, but that song didn’t pair with the duel quite as well as the music does here. Johnny even helps ramp up the tension when Vader says “If you will not turn to the dark side” the music coils up, signaling the strike that is right around the corner. By the time Vader is down, it completes the mission of attaching your soul to the ending of the film.
Emotion, subtext, drama built up over half a decade, this duel rises above all others and demonstrates that the very best lightsaber duels are about the people swinging the laser swords, rather than the objects themselves. Be sure to head over to our home page for MORE news stories from across the geeky realm. You can also find memes, videos, and more news on our Facebook page!