“If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” – Obi-Wan Kenobi, Jedi
“And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” – Jesus of Nazareth, Not technically a Jedi
“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” – Han Solo, skeptic
[Note: if you’re not obsessed with Star Wars, don’t worry. I cover all the necessary narrative points. I would also give a spoiler warning but, seriously, if you don’t know the basic plot of Star Wars, get out.]
In Star Wars: A New Hope, we don’t see a whole lot of lightsaber action. The movie is well underway before Luke almost cuts off his head with his dad’s old lightsaber. As far as actual combat, Obi-Wan cuts off some dude’s arm in a bar, Luke fights a practice droid, and Obi-Wan fights a rather unspectacular duel with his former apprentice. Despite this slow start, the lightsaber became an icon of science fiction. Lightsaber action picked up in Empire Strikes Back and, by Return of the Jedi, became the full-fledged blaster deflecting, high-flying combat we’ve come to expect of our Force sensitive friends.
Despite his progress over the original series, Luke looks like a novice compared to the Jedi in the prequels. Vader and Obi-Wan also seem to have been severely weighed down by age as their prequel counterparts could fight circles around the original series master and apprentice. In The Phantom Menace, the lightsaber spectacle begins in the first few minutes as Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon slice through a battalion of droids. The action hardly abeits and, by the end of the movie, we’ve seen more lightsaber fighting than in the whole first trilogy combined. This continues through Attack of the Clones where dozens of Jedi participate in a huge battle and in Revenge of the Sith as many legendary Jedi and Sith duel for control of the galaxy far, far away.
Part of the increase in plasma swordsmanship is due, I assume, to the advances in technology during the decades between the two series. The rotoscoping used to create the original effects was time consuming and complex. Today, amateurs with a home computer can come up with a realistic looking lightsaber duel in a relatively short amount of time. And, with a budget hundreds of millions of dollars deep, it’s no wonder George Lucas felt the need to raise the bar…or, lightsaber.
Now, there is a plot justification for the more thrilling duels and action as well. Before the Great Jedi Purge, where Darth Vader killed most of his former comrades, the Jedi Order held vast amounts of power, fleets of ships, and libraries of information. With hundreds of teachers and millennia of experience at their disposal, it’s no wonder many of these earlier Jedi displayed considerable lightsaber skill.
Curiously, however, these great fleets and powerful Jedi aren’t able to hold back Darth Sidious’ tide of evil. This lightsaber impotence is apparent in the prequels where Obi-Wan’s victories over two dark side apprentices- Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace and Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith– do not prevent Palpatine’s takeover of the galaxy. In fact, the impressive swordsmanship and military victories of Obi-Wan and the other Jedi actually play right into the hands of the evil Sith. Senator Palpatine- the soon to be emperor and current Lord of the Sith, Darth Sidious – contrives the entire war, using the Jedi as pawns in his scheme to rule.
Only after the near extinction of the Jedi Order and decades of Imperial dictatorship does the tide begin to turn. And not because of great military achievement or impressive displays of Force mastery. Instead, the turning point is when Obi-Wan meets his old apprentice again. This time, instead of dealing a final blow, the old master retracts his blade and allows himself to be cut down by Darth Vader.
The victory Obi-Wan wins in his self-sacrifice is not martial. He doesn’t somehow imbue Luke with the strength to overpower the mighty Emperor, Darth Sidious. Indeed, Luke tries and fails to defeat his Darth Vader in single combat in Empire Strikes Back. At the end of Return of the Jedi, Luke again confronts his father. But, this time, he plans not to duel him but to turn him away from the dark side. Even in this, Luke almost fails in his mission. He gives in to his hate and comes one lightsaber stroke away from killing his father. But he stops. And retracts his blade. He submits to torture and possible death and, in doing so, achieves the victory hundreds of Jedi and thousands of battleships found so elusive. Darth Vader renounces the dark side and casts his evil master into the heart of the Death Star.
The parallels to the story of Jesus are striking. Like Jesus, Luke allows himself to be led to his death like a sheep to the slaughter. He also turns down an offer to rule the world (or galaxy) and refuses to use his martial abilities to triumph, even though this is within his grasp (Jesus is, after all, the Lord of Hosts). Like Jesus, Luke doesn’t run or fight and instead lays down his life for his friends. The analogy isn’t perfect but the parallels are worth discussing. I doubt George Lucas meant for his epic space opera to tell the story of Christ. I think it more likely that he stumbled onto these themes as he drew heavily from mythology and other sources.
Either way, the portrayal of Jedi combat contributes to the themes of military ineffectiveness and need for self-sacrifice. As impressive as it is to see an army of Jedi in the prequels, we know that their lightsaber skills are not only inadequate but counterproductive. Each military victory won by Yoda, Mace Windu, and Obi-Wan brings the galaxy that much closer to Imperial rule. In the end, a working class boy from a backwater world would be the one to free the world(s) from slavery; not through physical strength but self-sacrifice. Lightsabers are awesome but Han Solo was right to question their efficacy. Yet he was wrong about hokey religions. In Obi-Wan and Luke’s sacrifices was a power Emperor Palpatine (and Satan) could never understand. Not the power to control men but the power to draw them away from darkness and into light.