Martial Arts of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Part One)

Now that the furor has subsided, I thought it would be a good time to talk about Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and the martial arts it contains. Before I begin, however, allow me to share the fact that I’ve been an avid fan of the franchise since it debuted in 1977. In 1980 I was actually mistaken for Mark Hamill at the Taiwan premiere of The Empire Strikes Back. As such, I was among the millions around the world who were dying to see and, hopefully, enjoy The Force Awakens.

The film has already earned $1.95 billion worldwide and is on its way to becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time. Even better, the next installment boasts Donnie Yen as part of the cast! Considering that, how could I not blog about Star Wars? As you read on, please keep in mind that it’s not my intention to malign The Force Awakens; rather, I want to examine the film’s action from a martial arts perspective.

Photo Courtesy of Disney/Lucasfilm

In a nutshell, the weapons choreography in The Force Awakens is inferior to that of the first six movies. Translation into Star Wars parlance: The latest film’s fights are weaker than a womp rat on muscle relaxants.

Disagree? Envision the movie’s lightsaber scenes without the glow and without the sound effects that are unleashed whenever one blade makes contact with another. The action wouldn’t be quite so captivating.

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Film buffs know that George Lucas is a fan of early Japanese chanbara sword-fighting movies, with Seven Samurai (1954) being one of his first loves. They’ll also tell you that Star Wars was heavily influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress (1958). And they’ll occasionally explain how lightsaber skills, the force and the Jedi knights’ superhuman fighting abilities are based, at least in part, on kendo techniques, the concept of ki in Japan (chi in China) and samurai cinema, respectively.

Let’s see just how much of this is true by looking at the evolution of lightsaber combat.

Poster Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

Star Wars (1977) was the only one of the seven films that tried to cling to its kendo roots by making sure each shot was overflowing with basic strikes, parries and blocks from the Japanese martial art. Stunt coordinator Peter Diamond, a graduate of London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, was in charge of the fight choreography. If you rewatch the first lightsaber duel ever filmed — Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader, played by Alec Guinness and David Prowse — you’ll notice that the body posturing and fencing mimic the minimalistic samurai duels that Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune was famous for.

However, the technique exchanges are closer to the encounters that Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone had in The Adventures of Robin Hood. That 1938 release featured crusader-style single-handed sword work. Before Star Wars was filmed, Guinness had gained his skill in that type of swordsmanship onstage, so all he needed to do to sell the kendo look was hold the lightsaber with two hands. Yet because lightsabers are tubular — and, therefore, don’t have an edge — they resemble shinai, the bamboo training weapons used by kendo stylists, more than they resemble swords.

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For the Luke-vs.-Vader lightsaber battles in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) [aka Episode V] and Return of the Jedi (1983) [aka Episode VI], Lucas wanted stunt coordinator Diamond to add acrobatics and more detailed choreography. When Hamill was learning moves from kendo and other martial arts for his first Empire fight with Vader, it reportedly took him weeks to polish and even longer to shoot. Hamill would often ad-lib during rehearsals and use a one-handed grip. When Lucas came on set to review the choreography, he told Hamill to keep both hands on the lightsaber at all times.

Photo Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

Also in The Empire Strikes Back, Luke’s telekinetic ability is introduced. Was that really a component of the force? Yes and no.

Lucas’ force is strikingly similar to a concept presented in Carlos Castaneda‘s book The Teachings of Don Juan (1968). In it, Castaneda meets a Yaqui Toltec named Don Juan Matus, who teaches him shamanism. The Yaqui are a real native people based in Mexico and the Southwestern United States. The Toltecs in the book are members of a 10,000-year-old sorcerers guild. In the text, Don Juan Matus often speaks about a life force, insisting that humans are luminous beings. He also teaches Castaneda that some humans are able to use their powers for good or evil according to their personality.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. Remember when Yoda told Luke, “Luminous beings we are.” You can probably guess what the saying “May the Lord be with you” inspired in the Star Wars universe.

(In Part Two, I’ll continue to investigate the force, as well as examine the evolution of the fights in the three prequels. Then I’ll explain how the duels in The Force Awakens fell short.)

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