Tag Archives: Luke Skywalker

The Lightsaber Duel at Cloud City: A Nightmare in Three Stages

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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?”)

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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.

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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).

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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.

Fun notes:

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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My Thoughts on: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983)

Until the release of The Force Awakens (2015), Return of the Jedi stood as the definitive conclusion to the Star Wars saga. And what a conclusion it had to be, there were multiple loose ends to tie up: Han Solo had to be rescued from Jabba the Hutt; Luke needed to reconcile/accept the fact that his father was Darth Vader; the Rebel Alliance needed to defeat the Imperial fleet and most importantly, the Emperor needed to be defeated.

It might seem strange that the Emperor would choose to build another Death Star (considering what happened to the first one), but then again I can only presume that this one had been modified to have no weaknesses like before, that’s why it had to be destroyed before it was completed.

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Return of the Jedi Speeder Chase (1983)

For a long time Return of the Jedi was my favorite Star Wars film: it has the speeder chase, Ewoks, and it also has that final confrontation between Luke, Vader and the Emperor. I know some people don’t like the Ewoks, but I love them, they’re cute (The scene between Leia and Wicket is awesome). I have a goal to visit the forest they used for filming the speeder chase, it looks absolutely gorgeous!.

Return of the Jedi- The Emperor’s Throne Room (1983)

The final duel comes at the climax of the movie. While the Rebel Alliance attempts to put their plans into motion, Luke has turned himself in to Vader and is taken to see the Emperor. Considering this is the first movie to have the Emperor in the flesh, he’s quite menacing (the eerie music accompanying him helps with that impression a great deal). The Emperor insists that Luke is on the edge of falling to the Dark Side of the Force and that he is already a servant to him (which Luke denies). The whole time, Luke’s light saber is kept in plain sight, tempting Luke to try and take it and strike the Emperor down. While Luke resists for a while, he inevitably gives in and the duel commences.

As with the Cloud City duel, Vader is portrayed by Bob Anderson, with a number of different camera angles used during the fight (to great effect I might add). There’s an interesting moment towards the end, when Luke has vaulted up onto a catwalk and is looking down at Vader. Someone (I wish I could say who to give proper credit, but I honestly don’t remember) pointed out that this mirrors the situation at the conclusion of the Mustafar duel in Revenge of the Sith, where Obi-Wan has the high-ground above Anakin, but Anakin jumps anyway and that’s when he loses. Now that Luke is in the same position as Obi-Wan was, Vader has seemingly learned his lesson and instead of jumping up after him, he throws his lightsaber instead.

Now, the big moment in this duel is when Luke finally snaps and attacks Vader in a fury when the Dark Lord threatens his sister (who we all know to be Leia). However, this detail had NOT been established when the script was written. All Lucas had written for this point was “Vader taunts Luke/Luke snaps and attacks.” They’d always put off exactly WHAT Vader does to cause this issue, and finally it got down to the wire and they had to come up with a reason, and as they considered what Vader could possibly say that would get Luke to go off, and finally the light bulb went off as they realized “Leia is his sister and Vader threatens Leia!” That’s right, up until that moment, Leia had NOT been identified as Luke’s sister, and I’m tempted to say that the only reason she was identified as such is because they needed a reason for Luke to snap. That being said, I’m still not entirely convinced that Vader knew that Leia was Luke’s sister. In the dialogue, he only discovers that a sister exists and refers to her strictly in the abstract as “she.” He may never have made the connection that Leia and Luke’s sister were one and the same.

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Return of the Jedi- Final Duel (1983)

Return of the Jedi- Final Duel (Soundtrack Version) (1983)

One moment in the duel that I’ve heard get a lot of flak is the very end, when Vader 1) discovers that Luke has a twin sister and 2) teases that he’ll get her to join the Dark Side if he won’t, inciting Luke’s fury. The problem (people argue) is, considering how powerful Vader came across in Empire Strikes Back, how is it that Luke can suddenly overpower him? It does seem odd, and for a while I couldn’t answer this argument at all, until I gave it some thought. There are several ways to solve this puzzle, and I’ll list a few here:

Solution #1: Vader’s lightsaber skills aren’t what they used to be. Yes I know how he came across in Empire Strikes Back, but in that duel Luke wasn’t fully trained and he certainly didn’t have control of his emotions (which is key if you’re going to engage in a duel with a Sith Lord). If you think about it, it’s really been close to 20 years since Vader has faced an equally powerful and skilled opponent, his fighting skills had to have deteriorated over time.

Solution #2: Vader’s connection to the Force (which helps his fighting abilities) is severely weakened. If we (reluctantly) assume that the midichlorians are canon, then Vader can’t possibly have as strong a connection to the living Force as he used to. By my calculations, the only human parts of Vader left are his torso and his head, which would have severely decreased his midichlorians, and thus his ability to use the Force.

Solution #3: Vader is not fully committed to killing Luke. Vader seemingly has no problem with potentially killing Luke in Empire Strikes Back; as he tells the Emperor “He will join us or die.” But now, in Return of the Jedi, it’s become obvious that Vader is torn between his son and his duty to the Emperor. This emotional conflict (which Luke can sense) is throwing Vader off, influencing his fighting abilities.

Solution #4: Luke is simply more powerful in the Force than Vader. Being his son, this is certainly possible, and unlike Vader, Luke has only lost a hand at this point. Also, he is fully engaging in the Dark Side of the Force and his fury has magnified his abilities many times over.

Any of these could be viable solutions (or a combination of all four), and therefore I have no trouble with Luke overwhelming Vader at the end. This is really the first moment where the music plays into a lightsaber duel in the same way that “Duel of the Fates” and “Battle of the Heroes” will in the prequel films. The chorus is eerie and foreshadowing: by attacking Vader in anger, Luke is basically throwing himself off of a cliff into the Dark Side, and if he’d cut off Vader’s head instead of his hand, there would’ve been no going back. The Emperor knows this, that’s why he pushes Luke to finish the job. But for once, the Emperor has gravely miscalculated. The last time he tried this (pushing Anakin to kill Dooku), he was able to succeed because Anakin had no blood connection to Dooku, in fact, he had every reason in the world to kill him. But with Luke…he’s asking Luke to kill his own father, and that’s something the Jedi can’t do, no matter what Vader has done.

Of course the Emperor responds by trying to kill Luke with Force Lightning, and the sight of his own son being tortured finally snaps Anakin back into existence and he throws the Emperor down the core shaft, where he (presumably) dies (but I have my own theories about that which I’ll discuss another time, especially now in the wake of The Rise of Skywalker).

To summarize the ending, Luke and Anakin make their way to the shuttle, but the former Sith Lord has been too badly injured and makes a last request to see Luke “with his own eyes”, leading to an all too brief reunion between father and son. I honestly wasn’t sure what to think when Luke went through the motions of taking the helmet and mask off. Considering how terrifying Vader looked (and sounded), there was no telling what might be found underneath the mask. I thought Sebastian Shaw’s brief performance as the redeemed Anakin was good though. The final touch on this scene that I’ll mention is, just after he dies, there is a final refrain of the Imperial March, plucked out on a harp. It’s fitting and symbolic of how Anakin was finally brought back to the Light Side of the Force.

Return of the Jedi- ORIGINAL ending (1983)

Now, the ending of Return of the Jedi…well, I have a lot to say (I probably need to make a separate post on my feelings regarding the various changes). I for one, liked the original ending with the cute Ewok sound. True, what John Williams created to replace it is also good, but I didn’t feel the change was necessary. I did like how Luke looked back and saw the ghosts of Obi-Wan and Yoda with Anakin appearing to join them (I still think it was wrong to put Hayden Christensen in that scene, but at least they didn’t put Ewan McGregor in Obi-Wan’s place too). And at the very end, all the heroes are together, celebrating, the Empire has been overthrown…or has it?

For over thirty years the impression was given that the Empire was dead and the good guys had won. But now, with the Expanded Universe being discarded and a new Star Wars Universe coming out instead, we know this isn’t true. The victory at Endor was not total, and it now seems that the fight is far from over.

I still like watching Return of the Jedi, even though Empire Strikes Back is now my favorite, and I hope that someday, somehow, I can watch the original cut of this film again. Hope you enjoyed this, I know it ran a little long (but then again I had a lot to say, lol).

*all images are the property of 20th century Fox/Walt Disney Studios

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See also:

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Star Wars, the one that started it all! (1977)

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

My Thoughts on: Solo: A Star Wars Story (with spoilers!) (2018)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, My Thoughts!!

My Thoughts on: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

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