Last week I got into a reddit argument, as one does, about the Star Wars Prequels, in response to someone posting this (content warning: epic).
Someone argued that despite the prequel duels being visually exciting, they didn’t show (in the fighting style) the same raw emotion as the OT duels – think how visibly scared Luke is of vader throughout their duel in Empire. He’s hesitant, running, trying to survive. And then in ROTJ, it’s vader who’s hesitant, whose heart isn’t really in it anymore but who’s just doing it through momentum. And Luke, when he’s smashing Vader over and over until he cuts off his hand1, is doing it in anger and frustration, so mad he can’t just get through to his dad.
Those are good points about the OT duels, which in retrospect were better than I thought (even if they were technically unimpressive). But thinking about it, the prequel duels actually show emotion just as well, although they have a constraint the OT didn’t have.
The PT Jedi are all trained in lightsaber fighting. Luke was just using his instincts, so he could get away with being clumsy and emotional. The PT Jedi always had their training to fall back on, which meant they couldn’t be as raw without totally abandoning their characters.
Anyway, here are the analyses of the PT duels, the emotions behind them, and how those are expressed in the duels.
1) Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon vs Maul
This one starts off with simple emotional context: Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon have their mission to fight Maul. They tell Padme to go on, calmly take off their robes, and get to it.
One of the central things Episode 1 tries to show is what the Old Republic looked like just before the fall. We’ve spent time seeing the function (and dysfunction) in both the Senate and the Jedi Council. Now it’s time to see the Jedi in their prime, as the peacekeepers of the galaxy. The primary thing to see here isn’t their power2. It’s their calm determination in the sense of duty. It’s important that they don’t get excited or angry here. That wouldn’t be the Jedi way.
The second part is where it gets interesting. Qui-Gon and Maul get cut off from Obi-Wan, then from each other. Then we get this bit:
That waiting scene shows us everything we need to know about the characters. We have the contrast between Maul striding back and forth, angry and impatient, almost a living embodiment of the dark side of the force, and Qui-Gon, kneeling to meditate and centre himself in the middle of a lightsaber duel, imposing inner balance in the middle of total chaos. We see the man who eventually learned how to keep his identity in the force even in death. And we have Obi-Wan, trying so hard to be like his master but trapped in his own insecurities, anxious and afraid of failing.
The next bit of fighting, I’ll admit, doesn’t do as great a job in showing the emotion behind it. We should be seeing the contrast between Qui-Gon’s inner balance and Maul’s impatient rage, but that’s really hard to show in an all-out fighting scene. It’s visually impressive, but it’s the waiting scene that really shows their conflict.
Then the third part of the duel makes up for all of it. Obi-Wan’s shout and all-out attack are so emotional, it almost feels like physical pressure. He’s going faster than before, keeping up with Maul by himself when earlier he could barely do it even with his master. Instead of sinking into rage, his new determination pushed him into deeper balance and connection with the Force. Winning this duel is what makes him a Jedi – not just officially (by the council’s decision at the end of the movie), but because it pushes him to connect to the living Force in his despair. We never really get an explicit explanation of what Qui-Gon means when he talks about Obi-Wan needing to learn to connect with the living Force, but we can feel it here. It’s the thing that suddenly lets him rise above himself and go toe-to-toe with Darth Maul by himself.
Overall, this is probably my second-favourite Star Wars duel. It’s more about showing the contrast between balance and the dark side of the Force than conflict between characters, but it does it extremely well.
So that does it for The Phantom Menace. And now,
2) Anakin and Obi-Wan vs. Dooku
This one is fairly explicit. Anakin is raw, angry, in a hurry to win so he can get back to Padme (who he last saw falling off the ship in the middle of the battle). He charges in impatiently against a more experienced opponent, and gets zapped for his pains (I do have a criticism for the PT here – Anakin explicitly saying “no time, I want to take him now” is bad. It’s both a violation of “show, don’t tell” and a particularly dumb one, since him talking about it undermines his own sense of urgency.)
Then we get Obi-Wan against Dooku. The real conflict here isn’t between Dooku and Obi-Wan, it’s between Obi-Wan and Anakin. Where Anakin rushed in and got zapped, Obi-Wan is calm, defensive. He manages to ward off Dooku’s attacks, but that’s still not enough to save him – Dooku is far more powerful and more experienced, and playing it safe isn’t going to save him from that skills gap.
Then we get Anakin again, and we see two things. First, that Anakin really cares about Obi-Wan – he’s been writhing in agony for a few minutes, but a threat to Obi-Wan’s life is enough to rise him from that into a leap to protect him. Then we see the other side of his recklessness – going all-out against Dooku, he’s actually powerful enough to match him for a bit, something even Obi-Wan couldn’t do. But this fails too – he’s talented, but he is still an apprentice.
Overall, this duel doesn’t show as much emotion as the others in the PT. The main thing it goes for is showing both the love and the strain between Anakin and Obi-Wan (Dooku is mostly there as a wall for them to knock themselves against). It does kinda show it – the differences in their approach to Dooku, the way they each in turn rise through terrible wounds to save the other one (Obi-Wan by throwing Anakin his lightsaber in mid-duel), but Dooku isn’t a great adversary for them to prove themselves against, so it doesn’t fully come across. I sort of wish they’d kept Maul as the adversary, but not giving Obi-Wan the chance to kill Maul in TPS would have severely detracted from that climax, so that wouldn’t really work.
3) Yoda vs. Dooku
This one’s short, and kind of inevitable. In narrative, it does for the PT what lifting the X-wing did in Empire – it shows that size and overt power are less important than connection to the Force. It’s notable that Yoda doesn’t draw his lightsaber until Dooku draws his, and also doesn’t attack until Dooku does. This is about Yoda’s character (and by extension, that of the Jedi council) – reactive rather than proactive, concerned with keeping balance rather than attacking, for both good and ill. There really isn’t much to say about this one.
So that does it for AOTC. On to
4) Anakin and Obi-Wan vs. Dooku
Episode 3 starts at full sprint and never really slows down. We get the conclusion to the big conflict of the last movie right off the bat. This one comes to show several things.
First, Anakin has actually calmed down a bit from his impetuous youth as an apprentice. He’s an older, mature Jedi now. When Obi-Wan says they take Dooku together now, he takes it in stride, and agrees. But we also see this new harmony doesn’t go all the way down – Obi-Wan still doesn’t totally trust him and needs to remind him of it, and despite his agreement, the comment does seem to rankle Anakin a bit. We also get another “Anakin loves Obi Wan” moment at the end, when he refuses to leave Obi Wan behind despite the risk.
Second, we see Anakin’s growing power. While Obi-Wan gets taken out fairly quickly, Anakin goes one on one with Dooku and disables him easily, almost toying with him. Then we get this
The obvious symbolism is Anakin caught between the dark side of the Force and the light. The more palpable emotion is Dooku’s fear (especially his eyes darting to Palpatine when he tells Anakin to kill him). Dooku’s fear sells Palpatine’s evil better than any other moment in the series – his dedicated servant suddenly realizing he’s been betrayed.
Blow-by-blow, this is a fairly short duel. We don’t see Anakin’s anger until the end (when he executes Dooku), but that’s by design – on the surface, Anakin’s become everything a Jedi should be, and it’s only when he’s pushed to the edge that we see the cracks.
5) Obi-Wan vs. Grievous.
Not much to say about this one. It’s mostly there to provide some campy Star Wars fun in the middle of what’s otherwise an incredibly dark and depressing movie. It’s interesting that Grievous isn’t a personal enemy the way Maul or Dooku were – he’s not a Sith or an enemy of the Jedi, he’s just a guy on the other side of the conflict. Obi-Wan seems to see him more as a worthy opponent than an actual enemy. I’ll note for later that this isn’t really a duel to the death (like the one against Maul was) – If either one had suddenly thrown down his weapons and surrendered, the other guy would have been perfectly happy to take him alive.
Another interesting note from Reddit – Grievous is the third component of Darth Vader, who’s a combination of the three minor villains from the prequels (Maul the Sith consumed by rage, Dooku the fallen Jedi, and Grievous the cyborg).
6) Palpatine vs the Council
Back to full-on intensity! Again, this one isn’t that emotional for the characters – we get to see how dangerous Palpatine (openly as Darth Sidious at last!) Really is, when he kills three Jedi masters in as many seconds and laughs at their agony. We kinda get to see Windu’s anger, and the difference between him and Qui-Gon – where Qui-Gon was all about the deep connection to the living Force, Windu’s more practical and more about duelling. He’s no dark side user, but it seems to be more because he’s never really had to deal with hard choices than because of a deep commitment to balance like Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and (later) Luke.
The emotional part of this one, of course, is the climax of Anakin turning against Windu and the Jedi. I’ll avoid analyzing the full context (I’m just talking about the duels here), but I’ll note that it was a good choice on Palpatine’s side to make Windu (the somewhat unsympathetic Jedi who Anakin had no personal connection with and was kind of frustrated by) the stand-in for the Jedi order that Anakin had to betray (Thinking about it, this was carefully planned – he waited until both Yoda and Obi-Wan were away to reveal himself). Overall, Mace Windu isn’t really important enough for the rest of this duel to be emotional, and they kept it technical for a reason.
I’ll also say I don’t buy the theory that Palpatine let Windu win. Palpatine’s greatest weakness throughout the movies is his tendency to underestimate both his enemies and the light side of the Force, and I don’t think he believed any Jedi would stand a chance against him in a fight.
7) Yoda vs. Palpatine
The big showdown! The Grand Master of the Jedi order vs the Emperor and Lord of the Sith revealed!
This one is all about their different visions of the Force, and it constantly shows in their fighting styles. First, they’re evenly matched (which surprises the emperor, since as always, he thinks the dark side is stronger). We see this right off the bat, when he thinks his first Force lightning zap was enough to kill Yoda.
Second, this duel doesn’t involve much lightsaber use. This is pretty much what we expect – lightsabers are a tool to reveal the Force within you, but these two are so powerful and experienced they don’t even really need them for it.
A convoluted metaphor: Lightsabers are to Jedi duels what physical beauty is to the art of seduction. They’re a tool, and an important one, especially for a young woman. But an experienced older woman who knows what she’s doing can be far more attractive than a younger, prettier woman – she makes up for her lack of youthful beauty with learned skill and grace. This is what we see here, more or less.
Third, we see their differences in the throne room. The Emperor is literally throwing pieces of the hall of the Senate at Yoda. He’s carelessly smashing the seat of Democracy to gain power and destroy his enemies, cackling while he does it (not just because he’s evil, but mostly because he thinks his willingness to smash all barriers will ensure his victory). Yoda dodges, waits for his opportunity, then suddenly throws one of the pods back. We see the sudden shock on the Emperor’s face just before he dodges it – he was sure his willingness for wanton destruction would give him an easy victory, and he’s shocked and scared that there’s something here that can actually threaten him back.
This is also a metaphor for Yoda’s general style in two ways. First, he waits carefully for his opportunity, then prepares it and hits hard. He does this on a larger scale throughout the series – in the prequels, he waits for the Emperor to reveal himself. In the OT, he hides on Dagobah for decades until Luke finds him, then prepares him and sends him at the Emperor. Again, he’s reactive, not proactive.
Second, Yoda believes in order. While the Emperor is happy to cause as much chaos as he can, Yoda is patiently looking for a pattern in the chaos, waits for his opportunity, then threads the needle. He acts like someone who wants order and balance, not just random chaos (this, by the way, is another bone between Anakin and the Jedi order. Even from the start, as a kid, Anakin always loves jumping into chaotic situations and racing through them).
The last interesting thing to note about this duel is their conversation about Vader. The Emperor starts the duel by telling Yoda Darth Vader will become more powerful than either of them. Why would Palpatine, who’s been engineering his way to total domination his whole life, want Vader to surpass him in the dark side?
I don’t have a certain answer, but I love that touch because it’s so realistic. You see it with far-right nationalists all the time. They don’t just want their own country first, they want all countries to put themselves first. They’re against the very idea of international cooperation, even when no one defects. When Trump says “America first”, he also says China should put China first, and Canada should put Canada first. This is weird – if Trump genuinely just wanted to optimize America while screwing over other countries, he should be happy if other countries are willing to cooperate while he defects.
I have some theories about this. Maybe it’s that these people just love conflict, and when someone else doesn’t love conflict they feel like they’re ruining the fun. Maybe it’s about fear of missed opportunities, and people who defect instead of cooperating don’t want to believe other people were willing to cooperate and they missed the opportunity to do that because of their own mistakes. And maybe it’s because people who defect do hate themselves a little for it, feel a little dirty on the inside, and they want to reassure themselves that everyone’s as dirty on the inside as they are.
Anyway, onto the last duel (and greatest moment in all of Star Wars):
8) Obi-Wan vs. Darth Vader
This is it. The big one. The thing the the whole prequel trilogy was leading up to. And also the one the original complaint was about.
There’s a few obviously emotional parts of this duel, which even the other guy in the original argument recognized, so I’ll skim past: The bits of dialog whenever they have a break. The part when Anakin Force-chokes Obi-Wan, incredibly angry but also strangely gentle. The last strike at the end, Where Obi-Wan uses a brutal, crippling, dark-side move to destroy Anakin, but can’t bring himself to finish him off.
Most of the duel is lightning-fast, graceful both sides pushing themselves to use every bit of technique and Force they have. We don’t get anything like Luke’s fight with Darth Vader, where he shows his fear, his anger, and in the end, his serenity. But this isn’t because the duel is technical and unemotional.
The duel is technical because it’s emotional. It’s that way because both sides are trying to kill each other.
It’s important to emphasize that this is unusual. The only other duel this happens is the one against Maul. The Jedi would have been happy to take Dooku alive (as shown when Anakin regretted killing him in the immediate aftermath). In ANH, Obi-Wan was just trying to ward Vader off, and let him kill him in the end. When Luke fought Vader, it was never about trying to kill the other one – the first one was about Vader wanting his son to join him, and the second one was about Luke wanting his father to join him. We see their fear and anger, but mostly their uncertainty – they’re never sure they’re doing the right thing, and their other emotions come from that.
In this duel, we see none of that. This duel isn’t about signalling. It’s not about trying to convince anyone of anything. It’s about trying to kill the other one. There’s a rationalist proverb about putting all of your effort into something, trying like your child’s life depends on it or like you’re a heroin addict trying to get his next fix. This is that.
And because they’re truly determined, they stick to their technique, because they actually care about winning. We see that from the first moment, when Anakin leaps at Obi-Wan and tries to cut him apart from the very first blow. And the fact that this time they’re both actually trying to kill each other says it all – all the anger, all the despair, all the love they had. All the loss. They’ve even given up on trying to win the other back.
I don’t have much of a conclusion. Writing this summary made me realize that Dooku was probably the most disappointing part of the prequels for me (I know it should be Jar Jar, but Jar Jar’s role is easy to cut out and ignore. Dooku’s a load-bearing character, and he doesn’t bear it as well as he should). It also made me more disappointed in the rematch between Vader and Obi-Wan in New Hope – it’s both technically unimpressive and unemotional, and there’s no excuse for either of these (we didn’t know the full backstory at the time, but we did know Vader had been Obi-Wan’s old apprentice who betrayed him. I wish we’d gotten more of an “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you” vibe from Obi-Wan. And better stage fencing doesn’t require modern effects to pull off). But it also made me notice some nice things I hadn’t thought about before, like how the conflict with Dooku was more about showing the differences between Obi-Wan and Anakin than about Dooku.
I’ll probably watch the prequels again at some point to get the taste of TLJ out of my mouth. I might have more to say then, but I doubt I’ll write anything – there’s a balance between having too little to say to be worth writing, and having so much that I don’t know where to begin and it scares me away from trying to write any of it. So no more Star Wars writing for a while.
2. We already saw that start, when Nute Gunray nearly had a panic attack when he realized the ambassadors were Jedi Knights. Jedi in the old republic are scary. ↩