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Evolution of Jedi Fights: From "The Empire Strikes Back" to "Ahsoka"

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

Ahsoka Part 1: Witness the Evolution of Jedi Fights Before Your Eyes

By Dr. Craig D. Reid


All Photos and Images are Courtesy of Disney/LucasFilm

Welcome one and all to another outrageous collection of live-action Star Wars incidences of quantum entanglement and lip-smacking endangerment, all captured within the narratives of the pseudo peace between the Empire and Republic circa 9-ABY, i.e., nine years After the Battle of Yavin when Luke Skywalker destroyed the First Death Star.

Enter the Ahsoka (depending on your perspective, the name can mean Without Sorrow or in Japanese romanization, Is that so?). It’s been years of an uneasy truce. As the misery of the scolded and handicapped Empire supporters increase, so do their secret blossoms of opposing attitudes. Who is the pest to kill the flower and who is the pesticide to kill the pest? It’s blood, sweat and fears, as war is hell on the ecosystems of the galaxies.

As Ahsoka (Rosario Dawson) and Mandalorian Sabine (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) search for their lost friend Ezra, only Morgan (Diana Lee Inosanto), an evil witch-to-be, holds the power of a dastardly key to solve the mystery and roiling insanity of the plot to rescue Admiral Thrawn from exile. More on this Shakespearean tragedy in Part 2.

All Photos and Images are Courtesy of Disney/LucasFilm

I’ve been a lifelong fan of Star Wars since 1977. When I stood by a life-sized cut out poster board of Mark Hamill holding a lightsaber in the lobby of the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 Taiwan, I was mistaken for being Hamill as fans asked me for autographs. It’s the epic lightsaber duels that have truly defined the Star Wars movies.

It's been noted in the media that the fight sequences and lightsaber duels in the early episodes of Ashoka are weaker than a womp rat on muscle relaxants. No way should the choreography look so convoluted as they did early on. Yet keep going, surprises await.

Let's be honest, if you remove the lightsabers' color light effects and the droning, sword-shocking cling-clang clashing sounds, you're left with empty shells of 17-year cicada skins clinging to a tree, where you can't see the color and beauty of the free flying adults.

Film buffs know that George Lucas is a fan of early Japanese chambara (sword fighting) movies, Seven Samurai (1954) being his first, and that Star Wars was heavily influenced by Akira Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress (1958). It's also been widely spread that the lightsaber skills, the force and a Jedi Knight's magical fighting abilities are moderately based on kendo, the world of Chi (ki in Japanese) and samurai cinema, respectively.

Let's see how much of this is true by looking into the evolution of the lightsaber fights because as you will see, Ashoka is either unwittingly or purposely doing this.

Only Star Wars (1977) tried to cling to its kendo guns as each shot seemingly exuded with the simplicity of basic kendo strikes (slashes and pokes), parries and blocks. Stunt coordinator Peter Diamond, a graduate from London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, oversaw the fight choreography and smartly made some acceptable adjustments.

Revisit the first lightsaber duel, Obi-Wan Kanobi v. Darth Vader. Though body postures mimicked the typical few-strike samurai duels by Toshira Mifune (Sanjuro,1962), the sword exchanges mirrored the Robin Hood v. Sir Guy duel seen in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Guinnes had sword stage combat experience, so to sell the kendo look, he simply held the lightsaber with two hands. Since tubular lightsabers have no blades, they looked like bamboo shinai swords used by kendo practitioners.

For the lightsaber duels between Luke Skywalker v. Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983), Lucas wanted Diamond to add in acrobatics and more detailed choreography.

Mark Hamill learned some kendo and during his first fight with Darth in Empire Strikes Back, he often adlibbed during rehearsals using a one-handed grip. When Lucas saw that, he chastised Hamill saying he didn't like it when he took his hand away and insisted that both hands had to always remain on the lightsaber.

Empire Strikes Back also introduces Luke's telekinesis skills. Was that really the force?

Yes & No. Lucas’ notion of the force originates from Carlos Castanada's book Teachings of Don Juan (1968), where he meets Don Juan Matus, a Yagui Toltec who teaches him shamanism. The Yagui are Arizona-based Native Americans and Toltecs are members of a 10,000-year-old sorcerers guild. Don spoke about a life force saying humans were luminous beings and could use their power for good or evil based on their personality.

Any of this sound familiar? Remember Yoda once told Luke, "Luminous beings we are." You can of course guess what the religious saying, "May the Lord be with you," inspired.

All Photos and Images are Courtesy of Disney/LucasFilm

All Photos and Images are Courtesy of Disney/LucasFilm

While the force's philosophy ties in with Native American culture, the force’s combative nature doesn’t. During Jedi duels, the force aligns with Chinese wuxia novels that depict swordsmen using fa jing strikes to send rivals flying backwards without touching them, xi wu da fa abilities to pull foes or objects toward them and ching gong where fighters can leap high, run atop trees and safely land when jumping down from lofty heights.

Prior to 1977, Japanese films didn't use these skills and they also don't exist in samurai folklore yet early in Chinese cinema, like The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1928), it did. In 1965, Hong Kong (HK) and Taiwan began shooting hundreds of wuxia novel-influenced films using fantastical fights that weren’t available to most Westerners until the 1970s. Look no further than the first three fights of the accessible Chinese film Ghost Sword (1970) that reflects many of the Jedi Knight skills seen in Star Wars movies.

Between 1974-2010, I videotaped fight scenes of every kung fu film I could find as to study the choreography. Since HK was a British Colony, it's no stretch that Diamond was aware of these 1970s films that were accessible within the British entertainment circles.

How did the fights change in the prequels The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005)?

Tapping into the success of HK's fant-Asia films in the West, Lucas wanted to ramp up the speed, agility and aerial capabilities of the Jedi fights because the films were set during the Jedi Council's heyday where Obi-Wan Kanobi, Obi's master, Yoda, Darth Vader, Count Dooku and other Jedis were at the pinnacle of their fighting abilities.

The table for this new look action was set by British stunt coordinator Nick Gillard who intelligently hired legitimate wushu and pole expert Ray Park as Darth Maul, a vicious, fighting machine Sith Warrior who wielded a double-bladed lightsaber.

When Gillard added one-handed, figure-eight twirling and body-hugging swordplay to block, parry, and slice, spinning footwork, and aerial cartwheels and flips to the Jedi repertoire, kendo’s influence on the fights became limited.

Samurai films from the late 1970s on, became increasingly influenced by Chinese style choreography. Park told me that after flashing fancy whirligig wushu swordplay all he had to do to sell the kendo look was end the swirling with a two-handed sword grip.

All Photos and Images are Courtesy of Disney/LucasFilm

All Photos and Images are Courtesy of Disney/LucasFilm

As the trilogy evolved, there was more one-handed sword work, acrobatics, and HK frenetic paced stylized fights as in Kanobi v. General Grievous and Yoda v. Count Dooku. These fight influences are now all standard in the Jedi fight bible.

By the end of the next four films, The Force Awakens (2015), the important honorable mention lesson of Rogue One (2016), The Last Jedi (2017), and The Rise of Skywalker (2019), the directions for weapon fights and fight choreography are now set for life.

Weirdly, Force Awakens is Force Asleeps. In Awakens, former Stormtrooper Finn, joins two cocky pilots, a wookie and a droid to save the galaxy from the First Order's world-destroying battle-station, while rescuing the unruly lass Rey from the evil Kylo Ren.

Déjà vu…not only had the plot of Star Wars comes full circle but so had the lightsaber duels, except in Force Asleeps there's no new creative choreography and the duels look more like the hackem-whackem sword fights we used to do as kids using tree twigs.

They had two novel ideas: Kylo Ren’s lightsaber is a Christian Crusade Medieval sword; and Finn fights a Stormtrooper who brandishes a large tonfa-like taser influenced by the Shaw Brothers film Magic Blade (1976), where Ti Lung wields a slender, machete sword blade with a tonfa swiveling handle, yet Asleeps fights lacked creation and intensity.

Critics lauded the filmmakers boasting that the actors trained 4-6 hour/day in preparation. So? Thousands of great sword fights before Awakens have done the same thing and done better. It’s not the actors’ fault, the filmmakers were complacent and lacked ingenuity.

The only fight in Rogue One (2016) featured Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe, an inciteful blind Guardian of the Whills who with a simple wooden long staff, stole the movie and reinstalled faith into the legions of Star Wars fans that expect thrilling entertaining fights.

It was a typical superb Yen fight: unique; dynamic; energy-ridden; and deliciously shot with low angles, wide angle lens while on a dolly, to track his flowing spinning body covering a large area while taking out a ton of stormtroopers constantly shooting at him.

The fight choreography in Last Jedi treaded new ground. The best fight is when Kylo Ren and Rey battle Snoke's blood-red armored bodyguards where each guard wields a traditional kung fu weapon that has a glossy space-age sheen. The coolest weapon is a sword length pole that breaks into solid flexible sections so it can be used like a whip to trap an attacker’s weapon. It's modeled after the evolutionary process behind the Chinese nine section whip, which originally was a heavy club-sword that evolved into a whip.

The shot of Ren and Rey physically fighting multiple attackers within the same frame, was similar to Yen's Rogue One pole fight, except the dolly is tracking the movements of two fighters in a slight semi-circle to the left as the fight frames right…it’s beautiful. The wide angle allows us to see both actors flowing from one movement to the next.

The finale duel between Ren and Luke is akin to when in wuxia novels, two combatants would sit opposite each other, and their spirits would fight. I’ve seen this done once in a film, Yen v. Jet Li in Hero (2002), yet Last Jedi's astral bout was soul stirring.

The evolutionary impact of Chinese wuxia films on Star Wars combat and Chi power aspects of the force depicted on screen had been growing for 47 years, yet it reached shocking new heights that I should have seen coming in The Rise of Skywalker (ROS).

Though Kylo Ren’s opening blood-letting mass sword fight was a so-so version of Jimmy Wong Yu’s Golden Swallow (1968) finale fight, I was soon to be blown away.

In the wuxia film, The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1963), the hero and villain toss their swords skyward, then controlled its movements using Chi emanating from their hands. Whoever's chi was stronger, the sword would kill the weaker. Ren and Rey did this in ROS andOMG, their tug-of-war wasn’t with a sword…it was a spaceship!

Even more mind numbing than the Luke and Ren astral bout, in ROS, Ren, Rey and Princess Leia are using their powerful spiritual forces…from three different planets!!

The ultimate way of using Chi in battle is learn little golden bell (xiao jing zhong) and big golden bell (da jing zhong). They’re not bells, they're Chi Gong skills used to protect one's body; the little bell prevents body damage by physical strikes and big bell protects the body from weapon strikes. Ren and Rey have perfected these force's versions.

In wuxia legends, the ultimate and rarely attained power of Chi is using their Chi to heal others. When my wife and I saw Ren using his force to save Rey’s life, it was a cathartic moment for us, this is what we have been doing with our Chi since 1987.

We have all finally witnessed the ultimate mastership of the Jedi skills; it's not about using brute force yet simply using the force. May the Chi be with you.

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