Fighting with Lightsabers
by John Clements
I’ll admit I’m a big Star Wars fan. As a professional swordsmen (yes, hard to believe there is such a thing in this modern world) who for his career researches, writes on, and teaches historical fencing with long, straight, two-handed blades (among other sword types), I have an opinion regarding the lightsaber fighting in Star Wars Fan films. I have an opinion for that matter on the lightsaber fight choreography in the actual Star Wars films too, for that matter. But, what I have to say here is not about the habits and failings of professional fight-directors and their fencing theories (indeed, critical comments of the theatrical-combat industry and the whole stunt fencing community would fill pages).
Instead, I’ve comments and advice concerning the lightsaber fights that Star Wars fan-film makers create. This is intended as friendly advice from a fellow fan wishing to help improve their admirable efforts. Since for so many aspects of their production Star Wars fans are sincere about their intention to create works that use the most professional and realistic looking costumes, props, sets, as well as the best special effects they can, it’s reasonable to assume this same desire for quality and validity applies to their lightsaber duels. Try to keep in mind this is not a “how to” tutorial on swordplay techniques or choreography.
After a colleague suggested I give a critical commentary regarding the martial value of lightsaber fights in Star Wars fan-films I reviewed about a dozen or so different scenes from the more serious efforts. They were nicely done, but for me the same nagging concerns kept appearing. With just a few small considerations I know these lightsaber fights could have been much, much better. That prompted me to write this short essay on the chance that some of my expertise might be of value to the many talented film-makers. As a non-choreographer, non-actor, and non-fight-director, I enjoy the privilege of being able to freely consider any swordfight in entertainment media exclusively from the point of view of “Would that really work”? Of course, as a swordsman/martial-artist, this invariably means being a critical observer and I make no apologies about that.
The True Nature of the Force?
These lightsaber fights seem to fall into two categories: On the one hand, those strongly influenced by Asian martial arts experience, typically adapting Japanese kenjutsu and kendo, the familiar Filipino Arnis/Escrima, or the stylistic Chinese Opera kung fu clichés of non-stop twirling and obsessive spinning with extra wide exaggerated motion. On the other hand there is more or less a direct emulation of what has already appeared in the Star Wars movies. In either case, the fights consist more or less of constant striking at one another’s weapon (instead of seeming to be intent on actually hitting their opponent…what a concept that would be). Not meaning to sound harsh, but why it is people in these films (even the experienced martial artists) seem insistent on finding the longest complicated means of moving their lightsabers around with the most vulnerable of body positions, rather than the quickest, strongest and most efficient, is something that will always puzzle me.
Now, don’t get me wrong, choreography can be “good” while still being “invalid.” What I mean by this is, the display can be viewed artistically as a physical performance of ballet-like balance and timing, judgment of range, hand-eye coordination, and dynamic understanding of movement. But, to the trained eye (and even the untrained yet perceptive eye) it can still be easily seen to be martially unsound, tactically foolish, and technically primitive.
If the purpose of lightsaber fight choreography is simply to convey drama and excitement within the context of a story, then choreographers feel they've done their job well. But, from my point of view, if a lightsaber fight is supposed to convince the viewer that individuals of great skill are really trying to kill one another with laser swords while using supernatural powers that heighten their senses and physical abilities, well, they fail miserably.
As I see it, the problem with so many of the lightsaber fights in Star Wars fan films, and I am purposely being critical here in my scrutiny, is that there is no real sense of urgency and energy between the combatants. There is no broken rhythm or broken tempo and no sudden changes in the line of attack—they looked choreographed. Often it comes off not like a fight, but a dance routine they’ve done many times before. They lack the subtle sense of shifting balance and leverage and the dynamic hesitation that regularly occurs in strenuous swordplay. Instead, you invariably can see the fighters purposely, purposely, trying to hit one another’s weapons. In some cases, there are even minute pauses as one performer waits momentarily for their partner to catch up, or else slightly delays his own move just until the other is safely ready for it. I suspect that if instead of the cool special effects you were to replace them with plastic toy lightsabers, the problems with the scenes would really show up much more clearly.
The Force is Your Ally
Filmmakers can find inspiration wherever they want, and admittedly there’s no reason to think that Jedi or Sith couldn’t or wouldn’t fight similar to any of the World’s martial arts. Yet, somehow I like to think that a long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, “guardians of the old republic” as well as their dark adversaries would have something far better that our familiar ethnographic combat systems.
Whether the performers are martial artists trained in something like sport saber fencing or Asian-Pacific stick fighting arts, the stylistic techniques and movement patterns bleed through to the detriment of the scenes—although, admittedly the average viewer can’t tell this. It seems it's the nature of these lightsaber scenes that if you digitally add a cool glowing blade with the correct sound effect you can pretty much make anyone look competent onscreen. But try turning off the sound and re-watching the scene a few times and a range of obvious goofs, mistakes, and subtle flaws become abundantly clear. The fighters expose themselves with nearly every move they make while neglecting every opportunity to actually take advantage of the huge openings their opponents present. There is little to know feinting, pausing to out time or out step the adversary, and no real grasp of the use of range to successfully hit. Instead, the purpose of the fight is, naturally enough, to show off lightsaber effects “vooming” and “zwrrrlling” and “pfffzzzzttting” against one another as the actors do their best Darth Maul and Obi Wan impressions.
Even novices can quickly begin to notice, for example, that the fighters are pulling their blows or are striking from well outside the range to actually impact one another with a hit. Or with locked eyes they are constantly watching each other’s weapon so as to safely and conveniently follow the choreography and not mess up their rehearsed series of movements. For expert swordsmen such as myself, these things are even more glaringly visible. I say this not to be critical for criticism sake, but rather to constructively offer recommendations to improve.
Arguably, there’s only one martial sport today that comes close to reflecting something of the use of a lightsaber, and that would arguably be Japanese kendo, which uses a long, straight and exceptionally light bamboo stick held in two hands. The round sword (or shinai) used has no hand-guard and no real discernable “edge” either and in that sense closely resembles a lightsaber’s geometry. However, kendo also is extremely restricted and ritualized. Its practice is limited to hitting only above the waist and even then only to three prescribed target areas using a small range of specific blows. Further, it does not permit a wealth of other techniques and actions integral to more martial swordplay. Kendo fencers are easily recognizable by their traditional linear footwork and hopping movements. So, while it’s a start for inspiration, we have to look beyond kendo for lightsaber skills. Traditional Japanese swordplay of kenjutsu (or its solo version, the quick-drawing ballet Iaido art) is also an inappropriate source, as it employs a single-edged curved blade, not a long straight one. The differences are significant once you understand them. I understand completely why the makers of the Star Wars films originally used Japanese swordplay, combined with some elements of modern sport fencing (i.e., foil, epee, sabre), as their first model for lightsaber duels and I understand why Chinese styles and a few other tidbits were adapted in the recent films. But I’m fully convinced that’s only because they were simply ignorant of other traditions and styles that they would have incorporated had they known anything substantial about them.
In contrast to these sources, within historical European martial arts, the use of straight bladed two-handed longswords and great-swords was developed to an exceptionally high degree. That their systematic art consisted of sophisticated and deadly methods of fencing for hundreds of years (nowadays notoriously misrepresented in popular media, stunt shows, and re-enactment) is now unquestionable. The fencing arts of Medieval and Renaissance Europe produced a range of highly effective and dynamic fighting techniques for all types of blades and staff weapons. The techniques, principles, and concepts they employed in many respects are quite distinct from those typically seen in traditional Asian fighting systems (as well as modern sport fencing, for that matter). The historical material is an undeniably enormously rich source of techniques, moves, and fighting concepts that has so far barely been tapped.
So, while popular Asian martial arts are already fairly well-known and widely available to audiences, the teachings of authentic Renaissance fencing unfortunately are widely misunderstood and unappreciated. It remains largely obscure and unknown. When studied now from a pragmatic, functional point of view—without the hierarchy, mysticism, and hyperbole so frequent within others forms of swordplay—it quickly and easily reveals a lot of subtleties that others typically underestimate.
It is from this perspective that I look at the lightsaber. Knowing just what it takes to defeat an armed opponent in a fight with long, straight, double-hand blades while ensuring my own safety, I think, makes it a heck of a lot easier to understand how that could be conveyed in film if a lightsaber were a real weapon.
Thus, for what it’s worth, as an expert consultant on swordplay I offer my services to creators of Star Wars fan-films. Here then are six simple pieces of advice to consider in creating better lightsaber fights:
- Act like you are in a fight – When defending your life, you have to do so by fighting to win. Otherwise, you lose and die. So, when arranging the physical behavior of a character in a lightsaber duel, think about how your life is on the line and that you are using a lethal weapon. Don't move as if you are merely working out a set series of prearranged and planned movements with your friend (or have been at it all day and are bored and tired). If you are pretending to fight, then pretend you are in a fight. Express emotional content. Don’t let yourself just give a “performance” like you’re at a dance recital or talent contest. Convince the viewer that your Force powers are for real, that your weapon really can cut through the other guy, and that you really are trained to wield “the Force.” …Of course, this is easier said that filmed.
- Don’t forget physics – Even though you have the “power of the Force” at your disposal, and your sword slices effortlessly through nearly anything, keep in mind that you are supposed to be fighting strongly, not swinging around some practically weightless piece of plastic or bamboo. There is a certain physics to swordplay with a double-handed weapon. It’s really just a matter of understanding the leverage points along a blade’s length, where its stronger and where its weaker in order to strike and parry with strength. But don’t just “pretend” you are striking strongly. Instead, try to “feel” what its like to give and receive strikes with serious intent. Here’s a simple exercise to help understand what I mean:
Have you and your partner get two solid hard-wood sticks and stand on guard facing one another, slowly pressing each blade against the other, middle to middle. See how quickly you can “feel” whether he is pushing or not? How you can “sense” whether he is resisting or pressing? Whether he is starting to yield or soften? Whether he’s trying to push or force (no pun intended) your weapon off line? Try slowly altering the pressure, going from harder to softer, extending and withdrawing your arms, and shifting your weight by bending and straightening your knees. Next try altering the location along one another’s blades that you both press against. See the differences? Notice how depending on where the contact is it become easier or harder to press and resist? Now, amplify all that by someone in an instant using all his strength to suddenly swing his weapon from the shoulder (not merely from the elbow) as he lowers and turns his hips to add all his body weight behind it? Consider this while stomping forward in a large passing step or leap, and then also while lunging diagonally or jumping backward. Now you get the idea of the physics of what occurs when speed and force are used in armed combat with such two-handed weapons! Simple.
It’s no big deal to mimic this in a pretend fight, but you have to first understand something about the real leverage and balance and momentum involved in order for it to “look real.” Otherwise it’s just going to look “showy” and lame. The more you do this, the more you can use your peripheral vision and not amateurishly “stare” expectantly on camera at the other person’s weapon. The more you understand this the more you will then be left free to act out the role of your character in the scene instead being occupied with “going through the routine you rehearsed.” Make sense?
- Moves that Look Cool are usually the Stupidest – One of the worst clichés of these fan films (and in professional films too, so don’t feel bad) is this ridiculous spinning around action. I’ve lost count of how many times Obi Wan has used this move so far in two films. Stop trying to spin around at every opportunity! I can’t tell you what a phenomenally useless move this overused cliché really is. Against a skilled opponent it’s virtually suicide. The move is ubiquitous in countless sword fights and each time it’s made to look like it has some value, but in reality, it’s about the most inane thing you could possibly do in a real sword fight. You gain nothing from it. No experienced fighter or fencer is going to intentionally turn his back, taking his eyes off his opponent while exposing his whole body in the process, just so he can turn himself around and bring his weapon back predictably from the other side. To what purpose? It’s not going to make you any more deceptive nor any quicker in your strike nor any better defended. It fools no one, adds no real power, and immensely delays your attack.
As a personal anecdote, in my 25 years of training with swords (mind you, that’s martial, not choreographic or sport practice) I’ve had countless students and people attempt this spinning move without success in sparring against me with all manner of long swords. I’ve heard countless claims that they or someone else made it work against others. But the reality is, it’s silly and leaves you horrendously vulnerable. I cringe every time I see it in a sword fight scene. To show you what I mean, stand on guard with your partner and ask them to try to spin around and hit you high or low. When they do this, simply step in with your weapon and tap him between the shoulders or on the back of the head as soon as they turn their back. Or, right when they spin step backward out of the way and just stand there waiting for them to miss you. Or to be safe, try it without any weapons at all using just your open hand and finger tips. Even a child playing innocently understands how useless a move this spinning is.
Fighting is about perception, about footwork, timing and spatial awareness of distance, and about proficient delivery of deceptive technique. But this spinning move violates just about all of that. Try to apply this same common sense reasoning to all of your lightsaber combat. If in order for a move to work in a fight scene the opponent has to agree to stop and do nothing, or do something foolish, then that’s a dead giveaway the move is something you should discard. Simplicity of action may appear to sound boring at first, but when performed well it increases tension and excitement in a fight rather than diminishing it.
- Feint, Dodge, and Pause – A sword fight is not just about constant hitting and parrying as you move around. It’s also not about sporadically doing some impromptu trick or acrobatic maneuver. Similarly, a lightsaber fight does not have to be an endless series of strike on strike on strike on strike with a few kicks and punches so that you can display your talent at remembering a long sequence of dance steps you worked out ahead of time. That only ends up looking like you practiced the scene over and over for the camera, not that your characters are really in that fight now for the first time. When fighting you are actually trying to aggressively hit someone and earnestly keep them from hitting you (the very essence of fencing). Even if they were “using the Force” to psychically foresee and forestall your moves or overwhelm you with their will, there are going to be considerable instances where you will be trying to fake them out by false moves and evade their blows rather than parry every single one of them. No swordsmen blocks every single attack with a perfect parry!…except in choreographed fights it seems. Even in the most intense fights there are momentary brief instances of pause, where suddenly the timing or rhythm is broken by one or the other combatant, a feint or two made, and the adversary countered in some way. Don’t neglect in your scene the richness of simple actions of guarding, stalking, threatening, probing, inviting, misdirecting, etc. These things, as much as energetic striking and parrying, are what sword fighting is all about.
- Don’t Stop When You Get in Close – Ironically, unlike what we have been spoon-fed and brainwashed into imaging by movie and television and stunt show play fights, when two fighters are locked face to face, weapons crossed, that’s not where fighters stop to push and talk, but precisely where they immediately act to instantly employ a grappling or disarming technique that results in a killing move! There are a whole array of specialized grappling techniques for fighting at this important range (though it’s largely ignored by most all martial sports and fencing styles taught today). We can well imagine that experts with the Force would be even more effective at them. The one thing that cannot and does not occur though, even against the physically strongest opponent, is to just “push” the other person and their weapon off. Basic leverage (and that pressure thing I described earlier) simply prevents this cliché from ever happening in swordplay…except in the movies, again. Additionally, if you find yourself close enough to just reach out and punch your opponent in the face with your hand, well, you are also close enough to do far worse with your weapon. You can seize and hold his arm or his handle, you can lock up his arm with yours and disarm him, you can trip or throw him, smash your pommel into his face, or slam against with your own body, or hit behind his knee with your knee or thigh, and best of all, you could just release your weapon and cut him instead. Incorporating these ideas into your lightsaber duel will enliven the fight—and hopefully diminish all that ubiquitous overused twirling and whirling around.
- Move Your Feet! – Swordplay is about footwork. It’s about movement. You lose half the energy of the fight and half the possibilities when you only concentrate on moving from the waist up. There is virtually no action performed in swordplay where you don’t also move one or both feet in the process. Yet lightsaber fights typically have the figures standing with feet planted stationary while they statically exchange blows with their knees straight so that they have no real leverage or energy. This looks stiff and inept. If the fight were real they’d lose a leg in an instant because they are much too close and forgetting to step in and out as they cut, thrust, parry, bind and beat. To this we should add that not every single blow must impact somewhere, there are plenty of times you purposely throw a cut short in order to cause the opponent to react in some way. There is also a lot of excitement and energy conveyed in a fight scene when the combatants occasionally miss a blow because the opponent was too far out of range or managed to evade. Including this will go a long way to offering a sense of uncertainly, tension, suspense, and even the feeling that they really are trying to wield the Force!
Depending Upon a Certain Point of View
Again, I’m a fighter, not a choreographer. I look at things differently. There’s plenty of advice to be found already in stage combat circles about how to safely choreograph for film while avoiding tired clichés. But, their theories of fighting and their flawed ideas on fencing are really not what are needed by Star Wars fans. Heck, if lightsabers really existed, the most effective technique would be to thrust, thrust, thrust! Hit the face or hands once and it would be instant hole burn. Fight over. Let’s face it, you wouldn’t have to actually swipe very hard with the thing, just touching the other person would be enough. But I know, that defeats the whole purpose of a thrilling “sword fight” between duelling warriors of the Force. Let’s face it, real swordplay is about ending fights for survival; film swordplay is about prolonging them for entertainment. That’s a big difference. One is about lethal results, the other about pretend display. That still doesn’t mean you can’t conduct the illusionary one as if it were serious and realistic.
The more aware you are of the physicality of personal combat (that is, how the human body actually moves and how a weapon actually performs when fighting in earnest), the more dramatic opportunities you have at your creative disposal. The clear reason why Darth Maul looked so darn menacing as a fighter was the simple fact the performer was a real life martial artist, not an actor just faking it (even if it was often clear he was just doing classic kung fu staff moves). His obvious sense of personal space and balance as well as his firm and agile stances made the other actors look amateurish by comparison. It gave the creators more possibilities. Still, he was nonetheless working within the fight director’s conception and notions and limited by Lucas’s personal vision. But the results overall were a good thrill.
It’s been said before that “realism” would supposedly make a choreographed fight too short for entertainment purposes. But that claim is in my opinion something a cop out excuse for poor swordplay. Realism can unquestionably also make a fight more dramatic and intense—provided you understand something of the real fighting, that is. Realism in a dramatically choreographed fight is not so much about the techniques but rather merely the crucial suspension of belief that an audience needs to feel in order to believe for a time that what they are seeing is real (even if they are not experienced enough to appreciate just how real). But this suspension of belief is weakened by endless blade banging and tactically irrelevant flips, spins, and whirls while the opponent just “waits.” Consider for example, the Obi Wan-Darth duel on the Death Star in the first film, neither actor/stunt-man was executing particularly impressive (or flashy) movements, yet the fight works really well because of the dramatic intensity of the scene—not because of the somewhat subdued fighting techniques (which, actually, were not unrealistic). Indeed, one got the feeling the two combatants really were straining to use the Force to fight on some other than physical level.
You’re Not a Jedi Yet
Several times it’s been said to me the techniques and actions used in real swordplay that I teach seem like they would end a fight really quickly, and you know, that’s completely true. But then that was their purpose after all, and I’m not a fight-director, I’m a martial artist. By their very nature martial techniques are probably not the best for using in pretend fighting scenes that need to be drawn out at length (indeed, skilled swordsmen try to be as efficient and deceptive in their movements as possible and the most effective moves are often the most subtle). But then again, for nearly every move there is a counter-move, and the combinations of elements possible are endless. Arguably, the more you appreciate and understand about real swordfighting, the more stylish your pretend ones can be. So, I say it’s up to visionary filmmakers to find ways to make real world things work in a pretend world.
We also might consider that if the Force were real whose to say how it might affect the way you’d fight? For that matter, how would real lightsabers actually handle when swung through air or when contacting and impacting on one another? People have said to me, “Well if they have the Force can’t they do moves that might seem combat ineffective to us but still make sense to them?” To which I can only answer, you can argue that, but there are people grounded in reality who know better about these things and they feel differently. Reasonably, Jedi or Sith would be even more able to identify useless moves and self-defeating techniques than we are, not less so.
Interestingly, if we assume that the Jedi and Sith in these combats are employing the power of the Force to aid them, calling on it to guide their actions as well as obey their commands, this is all really just an extrapolation and progression of what already occurs at the higher levels in actual fencing arts. Real swordplay is already largely a matter not of physical strength or even speed, but of audacity, initiative, courage, caution, and cunning. These are essentially intuitive and non-cognitive matters that anyone who has mastered virtually any craft to a high degree comprehends. To convey this level of skill in film is a far greater challenge than the mere physical performance of exchanging some series of practiced move and counter move. In the real world, form follows function in swordplay, but in the entertainment world whatever you can make look good, no matter how impractical, you can include. However, as I’ve tried to express here making it “look good” is the real problem, isn’t it?
The point in all this is that, utilizing a greater understanding of fencing and fighting in your films can’t help but improve them dramatically and cinematically. It’s not about making the fight “real” so much as opening up a whole new domain of potentials…thereby taking “your first steps into a larger world.” The idea behind a serious lightsaber scene is, arguably, not to merely mimic a fight, but to make it appear to be a real fight…with real emotional content.
It’s impossible to teach how to realistically handle a lightsaber in a short essay such as this. But I can say that the variety and diversity of moves possible with such a weapon is far more than the back and forth up and down smacks and whacks with rigid blocks and occasional circular slashes. Such limited repertoire is not what it can be all about. So, the solution I suggest is not for the performers themselves in these films to become martial artists or fencers (as some of them already are and it didn’t make things much better). Rather, given consideration of the above, the answer is for the directors to be more creative in their use of camera angles, close-ups, cutaways, and editing in order to produce a more intense and dynamic combat encounter.
Personally, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve taken an individual with no prior fencing or martial arts background and within 3 or 4 months of instruction and exercise enabled them to adequately hold their own with a longsword. It’s not that hard a skill to learn—provided you have the right instructional method presented to you and you apply them with the proper attitude. So, if I can teach real fighting skills to beginners in this time frame, it’s pretty certain that (unlike what we sometimes hear) it doesn’t take 6 or 9 months just to teach someone to pretend to fight for the camera for 5-minutes.
In conclusion, because I was very impressed with the sincerity and ingenuity of so many of the fan films I’ve seen, I decided to write this essay in the hope that future lightsaber duels can be improved. Whether or not you perceive any problem with past lightsaber fights, or are satisfied with what there is and see no room for improvement, either way all I can say is, “May the Force be with you.”
About the Author
John Clements (a self-admitted long-time critic of movie and TV swordplay) teaches and writes on historical swords and swordplay full-time as one of America’s leading instructors and practitioner-researchers of historical fencing. Having studied the subject for over twenty-four years and taught it in eight countries, he is director of ARMA, the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (www.theARMA.org) and author of the books,
Renaissance Swordsmanship: The Illustrated use of Rapiers and Cut & Thrust Swords, and
Medieval Swordsmanship: Illustrated Techniques and Methods, both from Paladin Press. His forthcoming titles are “Historical Training in Renaissance Martial Arts”, “The Longsword Fencing Study Guide,” and “Renaissance Swords – From Battlefield to Duelling Field.”