In Part One of this blog, I noted that the sword fights from the first six Star Wars films were superior to those of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.
Fans of the films claim that because of executive producer George Lucas’ love of early Japanese chanbara films, the lightsaber duels, the force and the amazing fighting skills of the Jedi — which were based on kendo, ki (chi in Chinese) and samurai/Errol Flynn films, respectively — were emphasized.
Studying the evolution of the lightsaber duels throughout the original trilogy served as a basis for determining the extent of kendo’s real and fake influence. With Luke Skywalker using telekinesis in The Empire Strikes Back, it begged the question, Was this the force? My “yes” answer was revealed in that blog, and my “no” answer will be expounded here.
While the philosophy of the force ties in with Native American culture (see Part One), the combative nature of the force does not. Instead, during Jedi duels, the force falls in line with Chinese literature and kung fu cinema, where swordsmen use fa jing chi strikes to send opponents flying backward without touching them. In Chinese films, they also use xi wu da fa “suction” abilities to pull opponents or objects toward them, and they apply ching gong to leap high, run atop trees and land on their feet after jumping down from tremendous heights.
Before 1977, Japanese films didn’t use these techniques, and indeed they don’t exist in samurai folklore. Yet these fantastical abilities were commonly featured in Chinese literature and films dating back to the 1950s. They didn’t become widely available to Westerners until the 1970s. However, we need look no further than the first three fights of the Chinese film The Ghost’s Sword (1971) to see many of the skills of the Jedi knights that are shown in the Star Wars movies.
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In the 1990s, when director Sam Raimi heavily used Hong Kong martial arts action in TV shows like Xena: Warrior Princess, he had an assistant whose job it was to watch “fant-Asia” action movies and make fight-scene compilation videotapes for him. When I learned fight choreography in the Chinese film and TV industry in 1980, I was instructed to do the same thing. It’s no stretch to think that the British stunt coordinator for the original Star Wars trilogy was aware of 1970s kung fu films, especially when you consider that Hong Kong was a British colony and Chinese films were more accessible in the British entertainment circles.
Tapping into the success of fant-Asia films in the West, Lucas wanted to ramp up the speed, agility and aerial capabilities of the Jedi fights because the films were set during the Jedi council’s heyday, when Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, “Darth Vader,” Count Dooku and other Jedi were at the pinnacle of their fighting prowess. The standard for this new action look was set by British stunt coordinator Nick Gillard, who intelligently hired legitimate wushu and guan (pole) expert Ray Park to play Darth Maul, a vicious, fighting-machine Sith warrior who wielded a double-bladed lightsaber.
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When Gillard added one-handed, figure-8 twirling and body-hugging swordplay to block, parry and slice; spinning footwork; aerial cartwheels; and flips to the Jedi repertoire, that marked the end of any kendo influence. In reality, samurai films from the late 1970s on have become increasingly influenced by Chinese-style choreography. Yet Parks pointed out that after flashing fancy whirligig wushu swordplay, all he had to do to sell the kendo look was end the swirling with a two-handed sword grip. As the trilogy evolved, there was more one-handed sword work, acrobatics and Hong Kong-style, frenetic-paced fights. To see what I’m talking about, watch Kenobi vs. Gen. Grievous or Yoda vs. Count Dooku.
Now, let’s briefly revisit the plotlines of Star Wars and The Force Awakens.
For those who came in late, in the first movie, Luke Skywalker joins a cocky pilot, a wookiee and two droids to save the galaxy from the Empire’s world-destroying battle station while also attempting to rescue Princess Leia from the evil Darth Vader.
In the Force Awakens, Finn, a former Stormtrooper, joins two cocky pilots, a wookiee and one droid to save the galaxy from the First Order’s world-destroying battle station while also attempting to rescue rambunctious lass Rey from the evil Kylo Ren.
Déjà vu. Not only has the plot of Star Wars come full circle but so have the lightsaber duels — except that in The Force Awakens, there’s no new creative choreography and the duels look more like the hackem-whackem sword fights we used to do as kids using tree branches.
There are only two novel ideas in The Force Awakens: One, Kylo Ren uses a lightsaber that looks like a medieval sword; and two, a fight takes place between Finn and a Stormtrooper who wields a large tonfa-like cattle prod. The fight was reminiscent of the Shaw Brothers movie The Magic Blade (1976), in which Ti Lung brandishes a slender, machete-like sword blade with a tonfa-style swiveling handle, but The Force Awakens didn’t match that fight’s creativity or intensity.
For The Force Awakens, critics lauded the boastful words from the filmmakers, who said that they didn’t need wires to pull off the fights and that John Boyega (Finn) would wake up early and train for a few hours before beginning four to six hours of stunt preparation followed by a day on the set. So what? Thousands of great sword fights before The Force Awakens had actors doing the same thing, and often with better results.
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In the benefit-of-the-doubt world, since The Force Awakens is a nostalgic homage to Star Wars, perhaps overtly mimicking the simplicity of the original lightsaber duels was intentional. But still it’s pretty chintzy. Our only hope is that with Donnie Yen being cast as a Jedi in the next Star Wars production, we may be in for a return to the more entertaining use of Hong Kong martial arts and fight choreography. May the force be with them.
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