There are noticeable differences in swordfighting scenes in the Prequel Trilogy and the Original Trilogy. In the prequels, fights are relatively slow, with no fancy moves. In the sequels, they are fast and flashy – but also shit. Reason for this was that the Original Trilogy coreography was done guided by actual swordsman, a champion fencer Bob Anderson. Prequel Triloy was done by coreographers, and George Lucas wanted flashy moves to match up with Matrix.
First appearance of a lightsaber is when Ben Kenobi shows Luke his father’s saber. The scene itself shows how light the lightsaber is, and how its centre of gravity is directly at user’s hand. This is different from actual swords. In European longsword, centre of gravity is near the bottom third of the blade, or sometimes even nearer to the crossguard. In Katana, centre of gravity is at close to half the blade, which is why katanas have longer handle for the same blade length when compared to longswords. This along with far lighter weight of a lightsaber means that lightsaber would be a far lighter and more maneuverable sword when wielded. On the downside, all the force of a cut would have to come from a person himself (albeit withdrawing from a cut would be easier), and keeping track of a blade might be harder, making mistakes more likely.
First fight in the Star Wars was one between Darth Vader and Ben Kenobi. It mostly consists of cuts, and relatively slow ones, but realistic. At one point, Ben doeas a completely unnecessary 360* pivot, which would spell death against a competent swordfighter. Other than slashes, fight includes a lot of footwork, parries and standoff. At several points Vader and Ben lock blades; while it is something that was avoided if possible in real-life swordfighting, it could happen – there is even a term for it (tsuba zeriai in kendo, or anbinden in German swordifghting – bind in English). It also never lasts long, and both opponents retreat soon after it happens. It should be noted that unlike common misconception, even in historic swordfighting parries were done with the edge of the blade, aimed at opponent’s flat side if possible. If not, parry was edge against the edge, even though it could ruin the blade for two reasons: parrying with a flat makes person weaker in a bind, and swords are design to take stresses along the long axis of the crossection. Parrying with a flat ran a risk of a sword breaking, or in later times bending, and thus failing to parry in time or at all. Also, the aim of a parry was not to block the opponent’s strike but to redirect it. Thus, the parry was typically a quick strike with one’s sword against the side of a blade of the opponent in attack, so as to redirect the attack and leave the opponent open for one’s own attack. Only if that was not possible would the opponent’s attack be blocked edge-on-edge, which then could develop in a bind; but a typical response to such a situation was to pull back out of the range as soon as possible. Since lightsaber has no flat side, fight can overall be considered realistic.
In The Empire Strikes Back there is a fight scene between Luke and Vader. They start very close, but again in a classical kendo starting stance, just like Vader and Kenobi did in the ANH. Luke does a lot of unnecessarily wide cuts which are easily blocked by Vader. Here, Vader is using his superior physical strength to literally push Luke away; normally, blocking a cut would not be a good idea. During the fight, cuts predominate, and Luke takes to both blocking and avoiding them. In the continuation of a fight, Luke makes cuts again, but gets easily disarmed, which ends the fight for a time. However, he blasts Vader with smoke or steam, and regains his lightsaber. They continue exchanging cuts. At one point, Luke does an overhead flip; it is likely only the fact that Vader does not want to kill him that saves him from death. He pushes Vader back, and latter fals into the chasm, where he uses Force-controlled machinery to attack Luke and push him out of the window after first exchanging some blows. Soon after, the fight resumes. Vader uses strong cuts, counting on his superior physical strength to exhaust already tired Luke. Luke loses his cool and after a strike and a bind, gets his arm cut off, which ends the fight. Move with which Vader cuts off his arm would only work with a lightsaber, which is good as it shows that moves were adapted for weapons decipted. Fight was very good in that it shows importance of improvisation. In a real sword duel, fighters would use whatever advantage they could get (sword fights in Pirates of the Carribean also showcase this). However, like many other fights in the movies, there are too many cuts as opposed to stabs. That being said, Vader’s objective in the fight was to tire out or disarm Luke, not to kill him, so due to his superior endurance and strength, reliance on cuts may be excusable. However, the fight does show danger of strong cuts in swordfighting, as Vader leaves himself open; it is likely only Luke’s exhaustion and lack of experience that save him from anything worse than a shallow cut on the arm. When Luke makes a similar mistake, it costs him his arm and his weapon, ending the fight and forcing him to run away. Unlike “A New Hope”, whose coreography was based on Japanese Kendo, TESB coreography was based on European swordfighting, and Bob Anderson actually stood in for Prowse in some scenes. Bob’s training was in European sabre, which shows in a predominance of cutting moves, which would otherwise not fit the straight-blade lightsabres.
Return of the Jedi fight also consists mostly of cuts. However, there is also a fair measure of improvisation, such as when Luke kicks Vader down the stairs, and when Vader throws his lightsaber (normally not a good idea, but excusable with a Force user). In latter part of the fight, Luke uses agressive, wide cuts, and only the fact that Vader does not want to kill him prevents Vader from exploiting them. In the end, Vader is physically overwhelmed.
First thing in The Phantom Menace that is noticeable is Darth Maul’s two-bladed sword. Next are the actual moves. Lucas wanted more intensive battle scenes to rival Matrix, and he also used CGI way too much, sacrificing realism. Fighters were told to attack the thin air, which could never work good. Next is the actual fight against Maul, which is ridiculous. All three combatants make the mistake of attacking the opponent’s blade instead the opponent; without that, even Maul’s double-bladed sword would not save him from being overwhelmed in a two-on-one combat. First thing Obi-wan does is leap right over Maul’s head; against a competent swordsman, that move would have gotten him cut in the half. There are several times when either Obi-Wan or Qui-Gon have an opportunity to stab Maul in the back while he is distracted by another, but it never happens, nor do they actively try to create such opportunities. Maul does show some brain in that he kicks the opponents away when there are opportunities, and tries to engage them one-on-one, but he also does some completely unnecessary and ridiculous leaps. When jumping over the chasm, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon do it so close to Maul that he could have cut at least one of them in half had he not been a “good sport” (read: complete moron). On their part, his opponents continue attackin only Maul’s blade, and only one at a time. Finally, Kenobi gets kicked away for his chivalry, and nearly dies, while Qui-Gon finally finds a brain and pushes Maul away while their blades are locked. Maul lands on a platform, and Qui-Gon jumps right next to Maul; only latter’s stupidity saves Qui-Gon from having his legs cut off. The fight continues and Qui-Gon is lured into a ridiculously obvious trap, which he falls for anyway, and so separated from Obi-Wan; it never occurs him to back away and wait for the Obi-Wan to rejoin him. Forcefields separate the combatants, but soon after Maul releases Qui-Gon and the fight moves into a narrow area around a chasm, while Obi-Wan can only watch. Naturally, as both combatants attack the opponent’s sword, they are locked in a stalemate. Maul uses a behind-the-back block which would have gotten him killed normally but survives, and a moment later pushes away Qui-Gon’s blade and stabs him. This is followed up by some quick lightsaber work between Obi-Wan and Maul, in which Obi-Wan moves dodges Maul’s cuts as much as parrying them. Both combatants use behind-the-back block a lot, as well as jumps, and miss a lot of opportunities to kill each other. Fight ends when Maul makes a mistake of dropping his guard, and Kenobi does a should-be-lethal pirouette over his head and cuts Maul in half. Acrobatics done by characters during the fights should have been suicidal, as Jedi should be faster than normal people, and lightsabers are nearly weightless; yet they never are, because opponents simply freeze gawking at them and do not counter them (which an actual swordsman would do by reflex), or completely miss and screw up any opportunity to cut off opponent’s legs. Many actual strikes done by Qui-Gon and Kenoby completely miss, as pointed out here. Even when Maul is on the ground and vulnerable, Kenobi fails to attack him.
In Attack of the Clones, during a big fight with the droids, some Jedi do acrobatics that would leave them incapable of blocking blaster bolts, and thus vulnerable. Thankfully, droids seem to have attended Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy, but still win through the weight of numbers. Anakin gets himself out of the fight for the time being, and in the following duel, both Kenobi and Dooku leave themselves open in multiple occasions. Kenobi also does few useless pirouettes that would have gotten him killed against a competent opponent. Dooku disables Kenobi with few shallow cuts, but Anakin saves him from being killed. Anakin is given a second blade by Kenobi, but it does not last long and gives him no advantage against Dooku (reason why two swords were never used in real life). His second blade soon gets destroyed anyway. Dooku-Anakin fight is better than most in prequel trilogy as there are no acrobatics, but soon after the light goes out, both of them spend few moments swinging swords uselessly around their heads. Fight resumes, Dooku does a suicide pirouette that Anakin does not exploit, and Anakin somehow gets his hand cut off. But Yoda appeares, and following a Force show-off, a saber fight commences and Yoda does his best impersonation of a lightsaber-totting ping-pong ball. There is a lot of cutting of air involved from the both sides, and few strikes that actually come close to threatening the opponent all seem to be aimed at opponent’s lightsaber.
Revenge of the Sith almost immediately kicks off with a saber fight between Anakin, Obi-Wan and Dooku. Anakin and Kenobi are unable to overwhelm Dooku two-on-one, largerly because they attack his lightsaber, and each of them politely waits until Dooku’s lightsaber is pointed towards him to attack it. Dooku pushes Kenobi away, and Anakin politely aims above Dooku’s head; Dooku still mostly unnecessarily ducks. Soon, Dooku takes out Kenobi by using Force, and Anakin kicks him over the fence. After a quick exchange of overaccentuated slashes, Anakin and Dooku get in a bind. Soon after, following an exchange of uselessly overblown slashes, Anakin slides his saber down Dooku’s blade and cuts off his hands.
In a fight against general Greivous, Kenobi shows a good grip initially, using surroundings to take out General’s guards. Grievous decides to personally fight Kenobi, by using four lightsabers. By using his robotic body, Grievous turns blades into propellers. Kenobi gets in close, and both start slashing at each other. As Grievous is mostly either slashing at Kenobi’s blades or uselessly cutting the air, Kenobi has no trouble in disarming him blade by blade, taking out two blades. Kenobi pushes Grievous away, and the latter escapes as the clone army arrives, with Kenobi in hot pursuit, during which he loses his lightsaber. In the end, Kenobi kills Grievous with a less elegant weapon from a less civilized age.
When Jedi confront the Chancellor, first thing that happens is a banter, followed by Chancellors over-the-top pirouette leap. Two Jedi masters simply stand frozen and wait for Palpatine to kill them, third one reacts but gets quickly killed and only Windu is left to duke it out. There is a lot of useless pirouetting and slashing at the air. Palpatine also does some jumps that Windu does not take advantage of, albeit those at least are not right over Windu’s head. In the end, Palpatine loses his marbles and earns a kick in the face, losing sword in the process (likely a ploy to appear helpless in front of Anakin, who soon arrives). Anakin comes to the scene, loses his own marbles, and cuts off Windu’s sword hand. Windu then gets roasted by Chancellor’s lightning.
Fight between Obi-Wan and Anakin begins with later making a leap to reach Kenobi. It continues with a lot of lightsaber slashing, pirouetting and turning back on the opponent, with both apparently aiming at opponent’s blade. Only good thing are a few kicks delivered, and Anakin straggling Kenobi who delivers a kick. It degenerates into kicking, and then back to lightsaber combat with Kenobi trying to deliver an ovehead blow instead of a quick stab. This idiocy gives time for Anakin to recover his lightsaber and block the blow. In the next scene, Anakin abd Obi-Wan are standing two feet apart, madly swinging lightsabers around and getting in one blow every five or ten swings; all of them naturally inconclusive. Soon after, they push each other apart. Anakin leaps back and delivers a “powerful” overhead blow; being easy to see miles in advance, Obi-Wan easily avoids it and instead Anakin destroys the console controlling stations protective fields. There is some more kicking and mad swinging. Kenobi and Anakin ultimately do tarzan impressions and end up on droid platforms. Droid platforms may be new, but their “swordplay” stays the same old useless swinging. In the end, Kenoby gains the solid ground. Anakin does a leap over his head, and finally someone gets their legs cut off for their stupidity.
At the same time, Yoda goes to confront Palpatine. Yoda repeats his lightsaber totting ping-pong ball impression from his fight with Count Dooku, with a lot of lightsaber slashing and jumping. Overall, it is visually impressive but painfully idiotic. In the end, Yoda gets disarmed by Palpatine’s force lightning, and has to run away after a brief Force exchange.
Overall, Prequel Trilogy’s lightsaber combat has none of the purposefulness, elegance and beauty that Original Trilogy’s combat delivers. It is devoid of substance, a flashy show with no purpose (“Make it flashy”, Clown Buggy would say). Or as Ben Kenobi put it more bluntly: “I have failed you!”.