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The lightsaber duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back is often referred to as the greatest saber duel of the saga, and for good reason. The staging is perfect, the tension is spot on (and it happens to feature the biggest cinematic twist of all time).
I already wrote about the duel somewhat here but now I’d like to go into a bit more detail.
As I see it, the duel is divided into three stages, with a different setting and feel for each.
Stage One is set in the carbon freezing chamber on Cloud City (where Han Solo was recently frozen into carbonite) and is also where Vader plans to do the same thing to Luke. At the beginning of the duel, Vader believes that Luke will be a pushover, so he’s not really expending a lot of energy. Quite the opposite, he lets Luke initiate the duel (Luke activates his saber first AND he makes the first attack), Vader only parries the blows in response. In fact, Vader isn’t even holding his saber with both hands, whereas Luke is clearly expending a lot of energy early on (and getting nowhere).
There is a bit of taunting (on Vader’s part) but not too much, as he wants this duel to end quickly. It doesn’t take much to get Luke down the stairs and right in front of the pit as Vader activates the machine with the Force. And then Vader gets cocky: forcing Luke down into the pit, he boasts “all too easy” and flips the switch. But Luke (thanks to his training) is able to leap out a split second before the freezing process begins, much to Vader’s surprise (he says he’s “impressed” but I really think surprised is the better word). Clearly, this duel is not going to be a quick pushover, so once Luke kicks Vader off the edge of the platform (and I somewhat believe Vader let that happen), the Dark Lord disappears to regroup for Stage Two.
Stage Two takes place in an abandoned hallway deep inside Cloud City. And even before it begins, Luke has a choice to make: at this point, Vader has vanished to who knows where and Luke doesn’t HAVE to follow him (I know I wouldn’t, I mean really, venturing into a dark hallway in search of a ticked off Dark Lord with a lightsaber? NOPE!), but of course he does.
There’s a literal transition point as Luke comes to a brightly lit service corridor that takes him to the location of stage 2: the abandoned hallway with a large octagonal window looking out into the air shaft of Cloud City. And once Luke reaches that point…the breathing begins (a moment that always sends a shiver down my spine). Luke re-ignites his saber (Vader’s is already activated), but instead of launching back into the duel, Vader decides a “lesson” is in order (this is discussed more in the radio drama version of ESB and as far as I know is canon): sure, Luke is (at best) a competent duelist, a skill surely inherited from his father, but what experience does he have against a veteran Force user who can duel AND manipulate objects in the Force at the same time? Of course Luke doesn’t have any such experience which is why he gets the crap knocked out of him by various flying debris. At this point, Vader is still somewhat toying with Luke, but things are definitely more serious (I’m still not sure if Vader intended to have Luke go flying out the window, cause after that moment Vader comes over to look like “did I kill him?”)
Fortunately, Luke doesn’t go falling to his death, but instead manages to make his way to a platform station of some kind even lower down the air shaft, the setting for Stage Three (and the end of the duel) But he barely has a chance to look around before Vader shows up, and this time the Sith Lord isn’t messing around. His strikes come fast and hard, and Luke is quickly chased backwards out to the near edge of the platform. Vader (holding Luke at saberpoint) declares his opponent beaten, it’s time to give up. Unfortunately, Vader also taunts Luke by saying “Don’t let yourself be destroyed as Obi-Wan did” reminding Luke about how Vader killed Obi-Wan in front of him. This visibly angers Luke and he stages a miraculous (and brief) comeback, which ends when he manages to score a partial blow on Vader’s shoulder.
That this not-even-half-trained-would-be-Jedi managed to score a blow on him enrages Vader and pushes him over the edge. He pushes Luke back again and in a short series of moves deprives Luke of his lightsaber…and his right hand!! (For years I dreaded this moment, because it always seemed to come out of nowhere, and I hated Luke’s scream of pain).
Now the fight is really finished, but Vader isn’t done yet. Now that Luke is cornered (literally), he makes his “pitch” for Luke to join the Dark Side. Of course Luke refuses, pointing out that he (Vader) killed his father. This prompts the biggest cinematic twist of all time:
“No” (Vader says) “*I* am your father.”
On the one hand, it makes no sense because Episode IV clearly establishes Vader and Luke’s father as two separate people. And yet….why would Vader lie? Luke knows there’s no reason for Vader to lie, hence his (understandably) upset reaction.
With the duel over, it appears Luke has no place to go except with Vader, but Luke figures he still has one way out: he’s at the edge of the main air shaft of Cloud City, and he’s not sure what’ll happen down there, but it has to be better than going with Vader…so he lets himself fall! There’s more, but that’s a separate scene.
I remarked in my earlier post that Vader was played by master fencer Bob Anderson for this entire duel (David Prowse kept breaking the saber blades), hence the reason this duel is shot from so many unusual angles (looking down at Vader, looking up at Vader, a lot of close-up shots) because Anderson was nowhere near the height and size of Prowse.
Only Mark Hamill, George Lucas, and one other writer knew the truth about the big twist. Everyone else was given a fake page of script where the “twist” was given as “You don’t know the truth, Obi-Wan killed your father.” (I mean that WOULD have been a pretty epic twist in and of itself)
The hallway seen in stage 2 is the same hallway Rey sees early in her Force vision in Episode VII. I really hope they explain at some point how Maz got the lightsaber, because last time it was seen, it was tumbling into the atmosphere of Bespin.
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