While it’s fairly common now to have epic lightsaber duels with equally epic soundtracks backing them up, it’s easy to remember that this wasn’t always the case. The first lightsaber duel (in Episode IV) had no music until the very end, and even the iconic duel in Episode V has minimal music in the background. The action was more of the focus at this time, music just didn’t play that large a role, presumably because it was felt it would be a distraction.
And then came Episode VI, with the final lightsaber duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader (with the Emperor watching).
This duel changed everything as far as the relationship between lightsaber action and film music is concerned. For the first time, the music firmly established the tone of the fight, not only that, it also illustrated what was at stake. For this reason and more, I need to talk with about the “Final Duel” cue in Return of the Jedi.
This cue comes at the very end of the duel between Vader and Luke. It starts when Luke has fallen from the gantry and Vader is hunting for him in the shadows below the Emperor’s throne. I’m pretty sure this is low woodwinds in the beginning, but it could easily be low strings as well. Regardless of instrumentation, this opening portion screams of the menacing evil personified in Vader as he hunts for his son. Furthermore, Luke himself is fighting the urge to give in to the Dark Side, something the music could also be symbolizing.
But this is just the beginning. After Vader comes to the conclusion that Luke has a twin sister (note the *crash* in the music as Vader makes the connection), the music ups the ante. Take note, when Vader begins the line “If *you” will not turn to the Dark Side…” listen to how the strings begin to rev up and join the melody. They sound tightly coiled, as if ready to spring and boy, do they ever! Once Vader makes his threat to turn Luke’s sister to the Dark Side, all hell breaks loose, both physically and musically speaking. (And on a practical note, the sudden appearance of the strings could also be helping to transition between the opening part of this cue and the climax).
For over twenty years this has been my favorite piece of music in all of Star Wars. When Luke gives in to his anger and lunges at Vader with all of his fury, you KNOW this is it, this is the critical moment, and it’s all because of the music. This is the first time John Williams paired a choir with the lightsaber duel, and it works to perfection. The chorus is mournful as we watch Luke chase Vader across the scene, a reminder that this is a BAD thing we are watching, if Luke goes all the way, he’s doomed. This all culminates in a series of brass “strokes” not quite timed with Luke’s own hits until finally…WHAM!! There’s a musical “blow” as Luke cuts off Vader’s hand, effectively ending the cue as the music transitions to the Emperor’s Theme in full force (no pun intended).
I have to go back through, to the key moment in the duel when Luke gives in to the Dark Side because I can’t emphasize enough how powerful this part is. The music here is simple, but extremely effective. Sure, it’s child’s play compared to “Duel of the Fates” and “Battle of the Heroes” but it’s safe to say that “Final Duel” provided the genesis of both of those themes by proving that film music and lightsaber duels work very well together.
If you’re going to properly appreciate all of the lightsaber duels and their music, then you really need to start here, with the climax of Luke and Vader’s duel in Episode VI. This scene laid the foundation for so much that was to come later and I will defend the awesomeness of this scene forever.
Let me know what you think about “Final Duel” in the comments below and have a great day!
The Empire Strikes Back: “The Imperial March” by John Williams
Star Wars: The Force Awakens “Kylo Ren’s Theme” (2015)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi “The Spark” (2017)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker “Kylo Ren’s Theme (Redeemed Version)” (2019)
Star Wars: The Clone Wars “Bad Batch Theme” (2020)
Star Wars: Rebels “It’s Over Now”
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