Star Wars turns 40 this year – a profound anniversary which brings up all kinds of nostalgia for fans and even non-fans alike. Whether you love it or hate it, Star Wars has had a cultural impact and longevity unlike any other film before it, or after it.
Although the original film’s 4 decade celebration is paramount in everyone’s mind this year, I’m going to explore the film’s two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi – and more specifically the lightsaber duels in each film between the hero, Luke Skywalker and the villain, Darth Vader.
While watching the films recently I realized something I hadn’t noticed before – at least not consciously. The duel between Luke and Vader in Return of the Jedi is very similar to the duel in The Empire Strikes Back except it is mirrored. What I mean by that is everything is ‘flipped’. If you watch them side by side you’ll notice things like in Jedi Luke is predominantly on the left side of the screen while in Empire he’s on the right. Vader plays a game of cat and mouse with Luke in Empire whereas in Jedi it’s the other way around – sort of.
While they’re not exactly the same, the same themes and dynamics – even though reversed – reverberate through both battles. I’m going to break down both fights and show the aspects that mirror one another.
In the opening scenes of the Empire duel Vader stands above Luke on a platform. This visually shows Vader’s superiority and dominance over Luke. Luke climbs up the steps to stand eye to eye with Vader. Luke stands on the left side of the screen while Vader stands to the right.
In Jedi Luke and Vader are both at the same height, showing them to be equals at this point and Luke stands to the right of the screen while Vader has taken Luke’s place at the left. You’ll also notice that Luke has his back turned to Vader as opposed to facing him in Empire.
The two then cross swords, again from opposite sides.
We then see the two fight until in Empire Vader knocks Luke down the steps of the Carbon Freezing Chamber.
In Jedi Luke knocks Vader down the steps of the Emperor’s Throne Room.
In Empire Luke’s lightsaber is knocked from his hand and he momentarily faces Vader without it.
In Jedi Luke chooses to deactivate his lightsaber and again he faces Vader without it. In these scenes Luke and Vader are on opposite sides of the screen as well.
Next we have Luke jumping above Vader in Empire when he escapes carbon freezing.
In Jedi Luke jumps above Vader – but not to escape, but to evade.
Throughout both scenes there is dialogue exchanged between Luke and Vader. In Empire Vader first remarks that Luke may not be as strong as the Emperor thought, while in Jedi Luke talks to Vader about how he feels the conflict within him.
It’s a role reversal where in Empire Luke is viewed as weak yet resourceful and ends up kicking Vader off the Carbon Freezing platform and making him fall, while in Jedi Vader is viewed as potentially weak due to his conflict but then shows his strength as he sends Luke falling from his position of power and dominance.
In all of these scenes the mirroring of Luke and Vader’s positions on screen (left and right) remain.
What follows is a game of cat and mouse between Luke and Vader. Both must descend to find the other.
In Empire Luke searches for Vader when suddenly Vader surprises Luke with an attack.
In a similar fashion Vader searches for Luke until Luke surprises Vader when he cries out “NEVER!” and attacks in Jedi.
Leading up to this moment we see the conflict within Luke visually in this scene:
While searching for Luke in Jedi Vader starts to manipulate him by talking about his friends and learning about Leia as his sister. He threatens to turn her to the Dark Side instead of Luke. This goads Luke in to revealing his location and attacking Vader, but also triggers a response in Luke that Vader soon realizes makes Luke even more powerful than before.
In Empire Vader uses his mastery of the Force to best Luke by using other objects to attack and weaken him, making him more susceptible to Vader’s offer of joining the Dark Side.
The battles ensue as in both films we wind up on a catwalk.
During the final moments of both battles we reverse again as in Empire Luke lies back with Vader’s saber pointed at him while in Jedi it’s Vader who lies back with Luke now pointing his lightsaber at him.
And of course in both films Luke and Vader each have the same hand cut off.
Now, both wounded and seemingly defeated, Luke and Vader are each faced with a choice in both films.
For Luke it’s discovering that Vader is his father and not only the choice of whether or not to believe it, but also the choice of joining Vader or seemingly falling to his death.
For Vader it’s choosing to remain loyal to The Emperor or choosing to save his son and turn against his Master, dying in the process.
In both films we also have someone falling down a deep chasm. In Empire it’s Luke jumping and falling, yet saved at the last minute.
In Jedi it’s The Emperor who is thrown down a shaft to his death.
You’ll also notice that in Empire the bottom of the shaft is black while in Jedi it’s white. Personally I feel that the black represents the darkness of the unknown combined with the information Luke has just learned while the white represents the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ so to speak where the evil has been defeated and good has prevailed.
So there you have it. That’s my breakdown of the lightsaber duels in Empire and Jedi and how they’re mirrored as well as some of the symbology inherent in these scenes.
Mirroring and repeating has been a common theme for George Lucas to put in the Star Wars films as he mentions it in the behind-the-scenes of The Phantom Menace and how it “rhymes” when you have similar scenes, dialogue and actions reflecting similar things seen in the previous films. Much like a musical cue being re-used to evoke a certain emotion or understanding.
I hope you enjoyed my analysis.
These are strictly my interpretations of the scenes and do not necessarily reflect George Lucas’ original concepts or ideas. But I thought it was pretty obvious that the fights mirror one another and I would be shocked if it wasn’t completely planned that way.
I also doubt that I’m the first person to mention this, but I haven’t been able to find any other information on it so I thought I would post my own thoughts on the matter.
Thanks for reading and may the Force be with you!