I am not a ninja. I am not a knight. I am a Jedi. In 2006 I taught a long sword and lightsaber seminar at LucasFilm Singapore to a group of animators working on the Clone Wars series, which, if you think about it in just the right way, makes me a Jedi Master. Hah!
I mention this to make the point that we all come to historical swordsmanship from different backgrounds and for different reasons, aspiring towards different archetypes, and this can affect how we train. It has often puzzled my medievalist friends that I'm not more interested in armour. Medieval knightly combat is armoured combat. Armour is ok; I have a lovely harness, and I take it out and fight in it every now and then. But I'm not, and probably never will be, really into it. The knight in shining armour is cool and all, but the archetype that imprinted itself in my soul at that formative age wasn't Sir Lancelot, or William the Marshall; it was Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi. And the only armour in the Star Wars universe seems to be worn by the villains. Plus, it’s completely useless anyway, as teddy bears with slingshots can get through it.
Since watching the original movies (the first one I was old enough to see in the cinema was Return of the Jedi; the rest I only saw on grainy Betamax until they were re-released and digitally remastered in the nineties), the central mythos of my martial arts aspirations was set. Yoda is the ultimate martial arts master, settled in a remote location, concealing his true nature until the disciple appears. Han Solo is the competent older warrior, skilled but not gifted, who mentors the acolyte but must be outgrown; Obi-Wan is the gatekeeper to the tradition; it's all there. It's just a shame that Luke is such a whiny little brat. I always wanted to be a Jedi, but never wanted to be a Jedi like Luke! Except for the amazing bit on Jabba's barge, of course. I mean, talk about super-cool. Walking the plank, about to get eaten, and suddenly with a couple of back-flips and a lightsaber, you win. Wow.
This of course has deeply influenced my training interests; I’m especially drawn to anything Jedi-like: meditation, for instance. Breathing exercises for another. Don’t worry, folks. I am actually a grown-up, and I do know that you can’t really force-choke people without actually, you know, choking them with something. But it’s as well for you to know where I’m coming from: this underlying archetypal aspiration has guided me more than I had imagined.
I have only one real objection to the Star Wars universe (other than the unassailable fact that in any sane version of the story, the Jedi would be the villains (see here, or here)): the ancient and now discredited notion of heredity and talent. I’m sorry, but Jedi’s should be made, not born. The idea of there being only one bloodline in the entire galaxy that can produce decent Jedi is silly. Not least because of the sheer number of non-Skywalker-gened Jedi we saw in the prequels. And yet a central concern in the original movies was Luke being the only Jedi that could take on Darth Vader. Silly! My regular readers know how I feel about talent, so I won’t belabour the point here, but I am philosophically opposed to any system that requires a specific abnormal genetic inheritance for excellence. This aspect of the mythos comes straight from a thousand ancient tales in which the Chosen One, the Heir to the Kingdom, or whatever else, imbued by his (and it is almost always his) parentage with special specialness, goes off and does stuff only he can do. Bugger that. Lucas, you could have done better.
As with the rest of my generation, I waited with baited breath for the prequels, and, like the rest of my generation, was appalled. I saw each one once, but only once, and have tried not to think about them since. Even so, I was horrified when Disney bought the franchise. Because in my house of little girls, Disney = sickly-sweet pink films. Bleagh. I was all ready to miss the new film, until the interwebs blew up with people my age raving about it. And so, I went.
I practically wet myself with glee for two hours straight. It was absolutely everything everybody said it was. Disney, I apologise.
Spoiler alert. DO NOT READ ON IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE MOVIE AND WANT TO. Go! Watch It Now!
As soon as my readers heard I'd seen the film, I got a bunch of requests to comment on it, especially with regards to the lightsaber fighting.
OK, here goes.
There are no real plot twists or surprises in the film. It's a myth; an epic re-telling of an ancient story. As soon as Han steps onto that bridge, you know his son will kill him. It's necessary. As soon as Rey finds the sword in the stone light saber in the box, or it finds her, she is clearly going to go and find Luke. But that’s ok; a myth well told is never surprising. How many viewers didn’t know whether Frodo would make it to Mount Doom?
There are plot-holes aplenty. Of course. The idea of Luke being somehow hidden, and the star-map that shows his location having a long orange trail marked on it, is just silly. Luke went to find the original Jedi temple; he couldn't have known where he was going, so he couldn't have left a map in R2D2, nor could he have chopped the important bit out and put it on a thumb drive and given it to the old man in that village on (yet another) desert planet. And how did Poe know to find him there? And how did Maz Kanata end up with Luke's lightsaber, the one that Obi-Wan gave him and he lost when Daddy chopped off his hand? I'm not the only one to wonder.
And why does the Empire (sorry, First Order) care where some old Jedi is, in hiding, in isolation, affecting nothing?
Because it's a myth. And myths aren't about making perfect linear sense; they instead bring out deeper truths of human nature and cast them in story form.
The plot is fine.
A female lead character? About time. I want my daughters to have Jedi they can identify with. Lead Jedi. Badass Jedi. Jedi that don't need rescuing like a dopey Princess. OK, Rey ain't a Jedi yet, but again it's obvious that she will be one day. Also, a female storm trooper captain? Yay! I'd take orders from Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) any day (if my wife said it was ok) 🙂 A black lead character? Also about time. The casting of Finn goes some way to atoning for the blatant Jim Crow racism inherent in Jar Jar
fucking Binks. Lando was cool, but peripheral. Finn is a major character. Incidentally, the way he refuses to fire his weapon during the massacre of the villagers has many real-life examples. It was perhaps the most realistic bit of the whole film. [approx 18 “fucks” deleted from this paragraph. I got quite cross. If you have a problem with black leads or female leads, then get off my blog and don't come back.]
Now to the bit you've all been waiting for: the lightsaber fights at the end. Because you can’t have a Star Wars movie without a duel at the end. It wouldn’t be right. Somehow, armed with Luke's old lightsaber, both Finn (an ex-storm trooper) and Rey (an untrained person) stand up to Kylo Ren, supposedly a highly-trained Jedi turned to the Dark Side.
Let's examine Kylo Ren for a moment. He was trained first by Luke himself; turned to the Dark Side, and then was taken on by Gollum Supreme Leader Snoke. He has serious anger-management issues (smashing up parts of a space-ship with his lightsaber, while it's in space! No space-navy could allow it. But I digress), but is extremely good at stopping blaster bolts, force-choking people, that sort of thing. He has a lot of the Luke-style whiny-brat about him, especially when he takes off his helmet, but he is at least supposed to be the arch-baddy, Darth Vader-type villain. Granted at the time of the duels he is badly wounded with a blaster bolt to the side (the sort of hit that would kill any fully-armoured stormtrooper, of course), but really, he should be doing a lot better.
Finn is a) motivated b) a trained warrior and c) has never used a lightsaber or anything like it before. He ought to be dead in a single move. Maybe Kylo would toy with him a bit first, but Finn should be dead in seconds, not injured in minutes. That was pretty unrealistic.
Rey though, is a somewhat different story. Throughout the movie she has carried a deeply impractical quarterstaff, and she is shown using it to good effect against (for instance) the robbers sent by Unkar Plutt to steal the BB-8 droid. She is clearly experienced at fighting with a staff, and has survived without help for a long time. Also, and more critically, when Ren tried to use the Force to open up her mind to him, she beat him back, which was clearly a surprise to them both. In the fight scene then, Ren has been beaten by her once already, and then been shot, so it is not quite so unrealistic to think that she could beat him again.
But still: trained knight v gifted amateur? It should be no contest at all.
Now, about Ren’s lightsaber with the mini-sabers crossguard. It is very silly. He is far more likely to hurt himself than anyone else, because when you swing a longsword, the crossguard always gets very close to your forearm; indeed, beginners usually develop the “beginners’ bruise”, in the middle of the forearm of their dominant hand. Ok, he’s not a beginner, but really, it’s a silly design. Some kind of lightsaber-proof crossguard would be a good idea, but not one that you can’t touch.
But that’s all I really have to say on the subject. There is no such thing as authentic, historically accurate, lightsaber technique. IT'S FICTION! Would I fight with a lightsaber the way they do in the movies? Hell no. But that’s not the point, now, is it? [I have threatened before to write a book on how to fight with a lightsaber. Should I do it? Let me know…]
The point is that this movie delivers the heart and soul of the Star Wars universe, and does it without trampling too hard on logic, plot, or realism.
Am I over-thinking this? Possibly. But you must understand, as the last surviving Jedi knight, I have to take this seriously.