At last, we arrive at the moment that somebody, somewhere has been waiting for, possibly. It’s not clear as to whether that person actually exists, but I’m going to type as if they do. So, after 3000+ words of drawling build-up, I’m ready to lay down 3000+ words of suggestions for future lightsaber handling in both choreography and plot. I have a certain degree of expectation that these suggestions will be followed, and that degree correlates exactly with the number zero.
Let’s neatly bisect the elephant in the room, then, just so none of you have to wonder when Cullen’s going to bring that up. Namely, the scuzzy, down-to-Earth realism that my longer-term readers are sick to death of. Also, let’s be frank: I mostly care about realism when it’s convenient for me, because I’m a hypocritical nerdling. To kick off my first tier of suggestions for lightsaber practitioners who have had respectable training, let’s talk footwork, stances and forms. There are plenty of ways to do these right, actually, they should just be consistent from one character to the next.
If I’ve trained to fight in the classic L-stance (and I have!), then that’s where my feet should be under most circumstances. This isn’t pure dogma on my part, either. I’m going to bring this up on plenty of other occasions throughout this piece, but giving a character a particular style of fighting actually gives you more options.
Under normal circumstances, a trained fighter will never botch their footwork. They’ve practiced it hours a day for years on end, it’s almost as natural as breathing. You won’t even see them falter until they’re physically and mentally exhausted, and they’ll only abandon it entirely when absolutely desperate. See where I’m headed? If I set a baseline for a character, then I have the option of taking them off that baseline over the course of a fight. When a character with no form stumbles, that’s just a stumble. When the elite Sith duelist with thirty years of intense training and combat behind him stumbles, that’s him collapsing against Death’s Door and trying to support himself on its frame.
That said, not everyone needs to have the L-stance going. In fact, most of them shouldn’t because fighting styles are far more varied than that. As long as a stance is stable and opens up the hips enough to allow for proper swings, the exact angling of feet, legs and the like doesn’t have to be precisely controlled. Certain longsword styles have the feet almost even with each other as if the swordsman were standing with his knees bent, whereas rapier styles have the right foot just inches from the left but put the weight on the left to allow a snappier lunge.
Again, variety overall is fine, and in fact it’s excellent. It’s just that individual fighters should have an individual style. If there simply must be twirling and pirouettes I promise they can still happen just as quickly and extravagantly from a solid stance. More to the point, the lunges and darting steps of proper footwork carry an energy and aggression that just isn’t present when people only walk back and forth.
On to a slightly less boring aspect of stances, let’s talk about holding the lightsaber! In fencing we refer to these as “guards” or “guard positions.” I did say slightly less boring, didn’t I? I’m not going to get into the minutiae of hammer versus sabre grip and so on because those will be almost invisible to the audience most of the time and they don’t make that much difference in choreographing a big-screen throw down. Now, Star Wars already uses different stances/guards for the lightsaber itself, it’s just that no one ever holds those stances once they start swinging.
A stance isn’t just a pose you strike to look cool. Stances are optimized for a certain purpose. Holding the blade overhead allows for maximum reach and lets the swordsman cut down onto the opponent’s forearms if he gets too eager, the middle guard can become a thrust or block instantly as necessary, and these as well as others may be tweaked to create openings while simultaneously allowing a counterattack into the cuts that target those openings. Different stances also lead to different levels of power and and different extensions on the same movements. In other words, they bring variety by default. Actors just need a few days’ training to fight from a given stance and then the rest happens on its own.
Now then, that’s enough of that for now. Practical chat is all well and good, but if anyone’s really interested in this post it’s for the more Star Warsy bits of it. Firstly, the lightsaber should always be terrifying. We’re talking about a weapon that would allow a baby to cut a grown man clean in half as long as the baby dropped it the right way. Rather than cutting through its target, it vaporizes armor, flesh and bone as it passes through them. That’s a horrifying thought, right? So there should be no such thing as a blase lightsaber battle. To that end, let’s talk sound design.
Lightsabers in the Original Trilogy had a marvelous sense of oomph to them. When they collided, they collided. A lightsaber bind sounded like two cobras trying to strangle each other, assuming both cobras were made of exploding stars and pure murder-lust. None of that angry flashlight crap from the Prequels. They didn’t smack into each other so much as crash.
Maybe someone thought that they sounded too loud to be elegant, but whatever the reason lightsabers lost a lot of their menace (ha!) when Episode 1 rolled around. The Force Awakens took some steps towards that end with Kylo Ren’s lightsaber, but I really don’t feel they went far enough. People are trying to kill each other with giant clouds of energized plasma, right? They’re effectively swinging confined explosions at each other, and I can’t think of a good reason why we shouldn’t hear that.
Continuing on to laser-sword laceration, I really don’t like the direction Force Awakens seems to be taking with the actual damage done by lightsabers. The one entirely consistent aspect of the ligthsaber up to that point is that getting cut by it was a game-ender. The very first use of the weapon in A New Hope involved Obi-Wan using it to parry a blaster bolt and cut off a thug’s arm in the blink of an eye. The weapon’s been equally indifferent to everything from the armored belly of an AT-AT to battleship-grade blast doors, both of Anakin’s legs and just about every railing and control panel it comes in contact with.
I’m not saying that lightsabers can’t hit people and not bifurcate them, but particularly in the final battle I felt it was going too far. Finn gets his back sliced open.
You know what’s in your back? A bunch of muscles you need to stand, your spine, and then past that literally every body part that keeps you alive. There was no conceivable reason for Kylo to pull his cut enough not to split Finn in half. If I were a Sith Lord (I’m aware Kylo isn’t a Sith Lord) who’d just disarmed some troublesome wannabe, I’d have zero hesitation in ventilating his chest cavity from left hip to right shoulder (or vice versa). If you don’t want people to die, don’t write them getting hit with a lightsaber. Even if Kylo was trying to leave Finn alive, it would only take a couple of inches’ over-extension on his part to cut through the spine and into Finn’s heart.
Do I even need to mention how absurd it is that Rey cut Kylo’s goddamn face and he was not only alive but still conscious seconds later? In two minutes we get two separate, very pissed-off people using almost impossibly shallow uppercuts that don’t do lethal damage. I could be persuaded to excuse the one, but it happens twice in the same scene.
I know uppercuts very well, as it happens, because I do around six hundred of them each week. You actually have to try harder to pull the hit as much as Kylo and Rey do then you would have to in order to extend and make both those hits instant kills. In both cases, my solution is simple: have the hit happen from further away. Perhaps have the injured person flinch or dodge or something as people normally do by reflex in these scenarios?
Heck, if Kylo just stumbled a little bit (consistent with his being, supposedly, horribly wounded), that would’ve given Finn time to get far enough away that the glancing hit makes some kind of sense. Actually weakening a direct hit makes the lightsaber seem far less threatening than it’s supposed to be, and I simply can’t abide that. When we see lightsabers raised to duel, that moment should always have some degree of tension because someone will die on the first mistake.
On the note of the Force, I’d like to see more of it. Among trained practitioners, the one option that should always be there is the use of the Force to get out of a tricky situation. I’d like to write a separate post about the Force both in and out of combat at some point, so for now I’ll just say that more interaction between lightsabers and the Force (the two are closely linked, after all) in combat situations would be lovely. The occasional lightsaber throw would be nice in situations where it’s appropriate. While its handling of lightsabers was pretty dismal otherwise, the buzzsaw saber throw from the video game The Force Unleashed would be my go-to for examples here.
Maybe it’s too dirty for a Jedi, but we all know I prefer the Sith. The idea of standing around a corner and slinging an activated, impossibly fast-spinning lightsaber into a group of unsuspecting grunts has a certain morbid hilarity. Also, if I were a dirtbag having trouble pushing my opponent over in a saber bind, using the Force to hit the back of his knees with a log or deactivated protocol droid seems like a nice change of pace. His sudden loss of leverage (and possible exploded kneecaps) would allow me to push his own saber into his neck, and that’s the end of it.
As for trying entirely too hard to have our lightsaber cake and eat it too, if people are going to be involved in a lightsaber duel and not suffer debilitating injuries then it makes more sense to have them Force Pushed into a bulkhead or something.
If I really wanted to get zealous, I’d argue that since lightsabers burn rather than cut they should leave people crippled for life absent high-tech surgery. To be fair, Star Wars has that, but it would have to be accounted for. That said, most films handle injuries based on plot convenience so at that point I wouldn’t be discussing Star Wars anymore.
Second to last: better overall handling of individual lightsaber combatants. Their levels of skill need to be more carefully considered when writing scenes, and the choreographers need to stop being lazy and try harder to make sure everyone has a distinct fighting style. In general, Sith or Dark-Siders should be more aggressive and Jedi or Lightsiders should be more balanced or defensive. Kylo seemed promising at first, but in the fight with Rey he just ended up copying a sequence from Obi-Wan and Anakin’s duel on Mustafar.
Using Kylo as an example, though, his fighting style (at least for his character in The Force Awakens) would more appropriately be one of almost no restraint. Every thrust and cut should take him to full extension. If he twirls, a cut should come out of that. His movement during the actual fight should be less a bow-legged walk and more a series of full-out lunges, as if he cares more about killing his opponent than protecting himself. That seems well in line with the tantrum-prone, brooding Vader fanboy we saw in the film, doesn’t it?
Every fighter has certain favorite moves, and it shouldn’t be that difficult for a choreographer to think of some. One of my preferred tricks is a right uppercut which immediately becomes a thrust if the other person doesn’t block it far enough out. If they do, I’m able to immediately shift into another block or cut as needed. Just starting with things like that would be fine, not everything has to be done in sweeping strokes? Does a particular Jedi prefer to block, parry or flat-out dodge attacks? Does this Sith attack in a straight line or suddenly dart off-center at the instant of the cut so as to cut around her foe’s blade?
Star Wars takes place in a very large, very old galaxy with a whole lot of history, and lightsabers aren’t exactly new weapons. There can and should be as many different ways of handling them as there are people who wield them.
As some examples, consider all the different ways of handling the lightsaber’s namesake, the sabre. British military sabre is very straight-laced, with quick controlled cuts that lash out to full extension and come back. To a limited extent, this is the style which inspired Count Dooku’s. Polish sabre, by contrast, uses constant footwork not unlike the base-step in Capoeira mixed with continued twirling of the sabre around center line. The point of the twirling in Polish sabre isn’t for its own sake, but that each turn of the wrist can instantly become the wind-up for a cut. In effect, it fools the opponent into treating the start-up of an attack as just another link in the constant chain of spins. It looks flashy (or, er, it is flashy), but there’s actual sound logic behind the flair.
Then, of course, there’s the katana, which arguably did more to inspire the lightsaber than any other weapon (the stances in the original trilogy suggest as much, anyway). There used to be hundreds of traditional koryu for kenjutsu (the fighting art of the Samurai, as distinguished from kendo which is really just sport fencing at this point.)
Very few of these survive today, but they offer a surprising variety of stances, footwork and principles of attack and defense. Some of them emphasize parrying and counterattacking almost exactly like that in German longsword fencing, where others put the emphasis on a dodge and counter-cut in the instant of the enemy’s attack. Believe it or not, even spinning exists! However, it exists in grappling situations when the grappler has a solid grip on his enemy’s main hand and spins in order to disarm his opponent. I wouldn’t necessarily advocate this for lightsabers since the spinning man could end up spinning in two different directions if his opponent manages to flick his wrist far enough inward.
I should repeat that I’m not saying everything that’s been done needs to be thrown out or anything like that. I would simply love for any of the options I’m presenting to receive consideration. Movies are supposed to involve creativity all the way through, and the fact that the choreographers granted the enormous privilege of working on Star Wars ever find it acceptable to phone it in is infuriating to me. I say that both as a martial artist and an artist in the liberal-educated snobby sense.
My final note is this: lightsabers themselves should never be treated as less than the deadliest, scariest (and coolest) weapon in the universe, and a battle between two saber-duelists should always reflect that. The one immutable rule I’d insist on if I were doing choreography is that unless one person is trying not to injure the other, every attack should look lethal. Every cut should be aggressive, powerful, and follow a fast-faster-stop pattern (thrusts too). That is, the cut (or thrust) beings swiftly, hits lightning speed as the attacker extends her arms out, and when it stops it stops. No twirling, no slow pivot of the wrists as if the fighter can’t control her weapon. It just stops.
Maybe it rotates into a guard position first, or maybe it stops and then goes to a guard position, but the cut shouldn’t just linger long after it’s missed the opponent or been driven off. That’s wasted energy and looks just plain drunken. If the cut continues into another cut, there shouldn’t be a slow-down. The follow-through of the first cut becomes the windup of the next, and so on until the combo ends. Yes, I just said combo. Had to break up my authoritative tone a bit there.
You’ll note my one immutable rule is for saber duelists. A duelist is a professional. They may not be called or identify as a duelist, but they’re reasonably well-trained. If the characters scheduled for instant-cauterized dismemberment in a given scene aren’t trained, then all bets are off. I mentioned in the previous part of this post that it was hard for me to analyze the battle in The Force Awakens because only one of the fighters had any actual training.
If the fight just involves two complete novices going at each other (for our purposes someone is a novice if they have less than three months’ training, saber geniuses aside), then there’s no telling what they might do. They could both be so timid it takes them a whole minute to get around to fighting, or so suicidally aggressive that they cut each other down in the first move. Any amount of jumping, twirling, dumb stances, staggering, stumbling, tripping and general abject failure is not only allowed but unassailable. They don’t know what they’re doing, remember?
In order for the amateur hour fight to make sense in-universe, though, there need to be some core rules as to competency with a lightsaber. To use Earth swordfighting as an example, we have hundreds of different styles surviving in some form today (they used to be beyond numbering), and all of them are different to some extent. But each individual one of them is internally consistent in its approach to footwork, stances, striking and defense. Not every lightsaber style needs to be the same, and in fact they should be wildly different. Each of them needs to be clearly visible as the style it is, however, and that should involve more than just a single stance.
And if all this seems like too much work, let’s remember we’re talking about fricking Star Wars, not some passionate but cash-strapped Indie space-opera. It’s one the thing if none of the stuff I’ve suggested works. Now don’t say it doesn’t work, because I know for a fact they haven’t tried it. I’m always watching, friends. Always watching. That said, until everyone’s confirmed it doesn’t work the choreographers and actors have no excuse not to put in the work. There’s plenty of variety out there waiting to be created. The worst that could possibly happen is we end up with a sub-par lightsaber duel in a franchise that’s basically guaranteed to succeed anyway.
Besides, isn’t there something a little ironic about a futuristic franchise that doesn’t experiment?