Dissecting Fight Scenes (Luke vs. Vader)

For the past couple days, I’ve been doing a series on fight scenes and how to make them more effective:
Part One (Will Turner vs. Captain Jack)
Part Two (Black Widow vs. Hawkeye)

And, in case you don’t have time to read those other posts, what IS the secret to a really great fight scene?

Character! 

Fight scenes, really good fight scenes, are all about character.

Today we’re going to talk about probably my favorite fight ever…

Luke vs. Vader from Return of the Jedi.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a fight scene without character stuff is meaningless: it’s just pretty choreography, and this scene, even though the fight choreography isn’t wicked intense (like in, say, the mediocre prequels with their lava battles and such) is still a totally riveting scene. Luke is trying to redeem his father; Vader is trying to push Luke to the dark side and, meanwhile, the Emperor is just being a jerk to everyone in a sort of “Let the best minion win!” kind of thing.

If Luke wins, the Emperor wins because he’ll have pushed him to the dark side.
If Vader wins, the Emperor still has his trusted right hand henchman.

This is one of the few fights I can think of where the stakes are this high, and the outcome of the fight is actually really crummy for the two combatants no matter who wins. Conflict! Character! Story! Awww, all the ingredients for a really great fight.

But, of course, one of the best moments of this fight is the moment where Luke stops fighting, where he throws away his lightsaber and says “No, this isn’t who I am”. His line, “I am a Jedi. Like my father before me” is one of my favorite parts of the movie, and it’s a really powerful choice. Story-wise, character-wise. Sometimes choosing not to fight can say everything you need to about your character.

The moment Luke chooses not to fight he wins. Because this isn’t really a lightsaber duel, it never was. The duel is just a physical symbol of the greater struggle for Luke’s soul. Luke surrenders in the lightsaber duel but triumphs in the larger battle. Even if the Emperor had killed him Luke would have won by staying true to himself. But then that choice to step back, to surrender, ends up saving not only Luke but Vader as well, when Luke’s bravery inspires his father to turn from the Dark Side and save himself as well.

You know you have a really great fight scene when the choice not to fight is just as riveting as the actual fight itself. 🙂

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