If you search on Google for the answer to what the lightsaber combat in the Star Wars movies is based on you’ll be presented with the answer of ‘Kendo’ but this is not correct. Lightsaber combat in the Star Wars films is actually based on a number of different martial art traditions, and the particular martial arts vary depending on the movie you are watching.
In this article we will discuss the different martial art styles that influenced lightsaber combat in each individual Star Wars movie, in chronological order of the film releases in addition to explaining why Star Wars lightsaber combat is not based on Kendo.
Why Lightsaber Combat Isn’t Based On Kendo
ESPN produced a special that claimed lightsaber combat in the Star Wars universe is largely based on Kendo.
This is simply inaccurate. I’m not sure why ESPN produced, or why Mark Hamill went along with it. I can only assume Mark Hamill knows enough to realize most of his techniques were not pulled from Kendo.
Take for example this technique from Luke’s final battle against Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi,
This is not a move you will ever see in a Kendo match. This is because such a move could never be utilized with a katana sword; blocking with the soft backside of a katana would result in the blade getting broken.
This technique is actually a guard position from historical European sword styles. Take for example this scene from Joachim Meyer’s manuscript on swordsmanship,
The sword guard utilized by the swordsman on the left is identical to the guard Luke Skywalker adopts in the Star Wars: ROTJ film. This guard is known as Ochs (Ox). It is one of the Master Guards in Meyer’s sword system.
Another reason why lightsaber combat isn’t based on Kendo is because Kendo does not sport any of the kinds of acrobatic moves that are depicted in the prequel Star Wars films, nor things such as ‘lightsaber blade spins’ and other types of tricking. These tricking techniques actually come from Filipino martial arts such as Escrima and Chinese wushu straight sword (jian) styles.
So in truth, different Star Wars movies have different martial art styles they are based on, with only one of these films actually based on Kendo.
Which Martial Arts Influenced Individual Star Wars Film Lightsaber Combat Choreography Scenes?
To answer the question of which martial arts influenced each individual Star Wars movie then we need to examine each movie
Lightsaber Combat in Star Wars: A New Hope
Episode IV of Star Wars is known as Star Wars: A New Hope. This was originally simply known as Star Wars, and is the first film released in the franchise.
In this particular film the only lightsaber fight scene is that between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader. The fight choreography was developed by Bob Anderson and based on Kendo. Episode IV is the only Star Wars film where Kendo was the sole source of inspiration for techniques used in the lightsaber duels.
Lightsaber Combat in Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi
The next two films, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi were also choregraphed by Bob Anderson but were not rooted in Kendo. Instead Anderson developed the fight choreography based on historical European medieval swordsmanship, in particular using the writings of . In fact during the scenes where Darth Vader battles against Luke Skywalker it is Bob Anderson himself that is wearing the Darth Vader costume.
As mentioned earlier in this article, Bob Anderson based much of the fight choreography on historical European martial arts swordsmanship, in particular referencing material from manuals written by Joachim Meyer, Achille Marozzo and Fiore de Liberi. While Bob Anderson never studied these historical sword martial arts the same way that people in the present day Historical European martial arts (HEMA) community do, he did read books such as Old Sword-Play: The Systems of Fence in Vogue During the XVI, XVII, and XVIII Centuries, which was written by Alfred Hutton in 1892 and that presented a compilation of these techniques. Anderson used this material to develop his own system of stage swordfighting choreography which he used to develop the lightsaber combat fights seen in the movies he choregraphed.
Lightsaber Combat in the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy Films: Episode I to III
The lightsaber combat depicted in the Star Wars prequel movies of Episode I, II and III was choregraphed by Nick Gillard. Gillard was tasked with presenting the style of lightsaber combat when the Jedi were at their strongest, and so he developed the concept of different Jedi studying different “lightsaber forms”. This is where the origin of “lightsaber forms” comes from in the Star Wars mythos and I talk about these forms in my article, Introduction to Lightsaber Fighting Styles.
However it must be noted that Nick Gillard did not actually create a complete, functional system of lightsaber combat for each “form”. Each “form” is really just a set of choregraphed moves used for particular fight scenes in the films. Later writers of Star Wars media, in particular comic books and novels, have built upon these ideas to say that certain forms are better at certain things like deflecting blaster bolts, but no system has actually been created that allows such traits to truly exist in a functional way.
When developing the fight choreography for the prequel Star Wars trilogy movies, Gillard incorporated a wide variety of martial arts techniques. The choreography was deeply influenced by the wuxia-inspired acrobatics depicted in Chinese kung fu movies, which rely heavily on Wushu and wire work to perform techniques that are physically impossible for a real human to perform without the use of these wires to assist.
An example of this is demonstrated in the fight scene in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones where Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker confront Count Dooku.
There are many techniques using spinning strikes, which come predominantly from Chinese Wushu methods of using the Chinese straight sword (jian). The part where Anakin dual wields lightsabers is influenced by Wushu twin sword forms, and explains why he relies so heavily on spinning techniques. These martial art techniques are actually primarily a modern day acrobatic used for demonstrations, and not meant for actual fighting.
Later in the fight, however, both Anakin and Count Dooku adopt a high guard position, which is adopted from the Kendo guard of jōdan. So there is some minor influence from Kendo in certain parts of the fight choreography, but it is predominantly Chinese Wushu that is depicted in these movies.
Lightsaber Combat in Star Wars Episode VIII to IX: The New Trilogy Movies
The lightsaber fight choreography for the newest trilogy of Star Wars movies produced by Disney, Episodes VIII to IX, were developed by Rob Inch. Inch had worked as a stunt double on the Star Wars prequel films and used the same style of heavily Wushu influenced choreography that Nick Gillard had developed.
While many people like to claim Kendo is the martial art style used for lightsaber combat in the Star Wars films, the reality is that very little of Kendo is actually used in the movies. The martial arts used are primarily Wushu straight sword in the prequels and the new Disney trilogy, and the original trilogy primarily uses historical European swordsmanship, with a little bit of Kendo in the first film.