This is an early entry in the Star Wars Blog-A-Thon over at Eddie's Blog-a-Thon Board. Head over to the hub for some great writing on that greatest of Original Trilogies and not quite greatest of prequel trilogies.
It is the quintessential duel in Star Wars history. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. Two duels in two films that capture the essence of their respective trilogies. It's only fitting that Anakin must fight Obi-Wan at the end of Revenge of the Sith 28 years after Obi-Wan must fight Darth Vader in A New Hope. The duel is a bookend, in terms of the films' releases, though chronologically they stand next to each other. Each one is, at least in my mind, the best lightsaber duel its trilogy has to offer.
The battle between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader, which I still believe is the best scene in the entire series, attains greatness through its simplicity. Unlike the prequel trilogy, this fight features no acrobatics or spinning. It is simply a duel. Master vs. Student. Good vs. Evil. This is closer to the Medieval legend that the original Star Wars trilogy reached for.
The duel helps to develop the characters, showing both Vader and Obi-Wan as aggressors in the battle, and it foreshadows later developments in the series. It holds emotional weight, since we, like Luke, have come to love and respect Obi-Wan. Alec Guinness plays Obi-Wan as stoic, without any emotion. This can only make sense within the context of the Force and the previous duel. The first time around, Obi-Wan was emotional over the loss of his prodigy. He cries and he screams, but Anakin won't respond to his emotions. This kills a part of Obi-Wan, leaving only the calm center of the Force to guide him. Obi-Wan has risen above the use of emotions, but only because he learned, far too late, that his emotions could never help things. The transformation is shown all too clearly in Obi-Wan's cool reason.
The first duel is the culmination of the entire prequel trilogy. Everything has been building up to Anakin's turn to the Dark Side and the resulting duel. Like the lightsaber battles of this trilogy, it is designed to awe. We marvel at the wonderful visuals that George Lucas can create, giving us a molten volcanic world for the set of the climactic duel. The volcano is the perfect symbol of Anakin's turn to the Dark Side. Lava is merely liquid rock that has come to the surface. When it settles, it forms a whole new entity of land, like in the creation of a new island. Anakin's hatred is like the lava above which he fights Obi-Wan. He is finally letting his hatred come to the surface, and when it settles, he will become Darth Vader.
The visuals are spectacular, as is the choreography, but that was true of every duel in the prequel trilogy. From Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn against Darth Maul to Anakin and Obi-Wan against Count Dooku, this was a trilogy of lightsaber battles built on martial arts and spectacle. What makes this final duel so great is that it has emotional weight to it as well. When I saw Qui-Gon die at the hands of Darth Maul, I felt nothing, because I didn't feel for him as a character. Obi-Wan's vengeance may have been righteous, but I didn't care about Obi-Wan at that point. However, as he developed as a character through the trilogy, I came to care for him to the point that I felt his pain at the end of the duel with Anakin. This emotion, which is abundant in the lightsaber fights in the original trilogy, was lacking from anything before this duel. Everything else was just a visual wonder meant to stupefy me. This time it was meant to show the character development (and stupefy me).
Another element that elevates this duel is the color of the lightsabers. This may not seem like much, but it holds significant relevance in the meaning of this battle. In the original trilogy, every fight with lightsabers was red versus blue. Evil versus good. Everything was easily delineated, just like the earlier battles in the trilogy. This was the first time that a blue lightsaber was used by an evil character. This time is was blue versus blue. Brother versus brother. Emblematic of the civil war going on in the galaxy, though the outcome is very different. This duel combines the beauty of the prequel trilogy with the gravitas of the original trilogy. It may very well be the best lightsaber duel in Star Wars history. I still prefer Alec Guinness and the voice of James Earl Jones, though.