Any martial artist who watches the films of the Star Wars franchise will spot the references: Japanese swordsmanship, gi tops, chi energy in the form of the force, and so on. Find out where these components came from and how they all fit together.

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.

“Billy Jack Flashback: How Tom Laughlin and Hapkido Techniques Master Bong Soo Han Made a Martial Arts Cult Classic” — download this free guide now!

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.

Download a free guide titled “Michael Jai White Flashback: The Kyokushin Karate Expert’s Early Days in Hollywood” today! Go here to get started.

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 continue to investigate the force, as well as examine the evolution of the fights in the three prequels. Then I explain how the duels in The Force Awakens fell short. Read it here.) Go here to order Dr. Craig D. Reid’s book The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors.
SUBSCRIBE TO BLACKBELT MAGAZINE TODAY!
Don't miss a single issue of the world largest magazine of martial arts.

Do you want to maximize your self defense skills? Learn the game of combat chess and most importantly the queen of all moves.

Allow me to intercept those who would object to the title of this article. I'm not claiming that there's a secret move, shortcut or hack that will give you the edge in any fight. Even if there was an ultimate weapon or strategy, you likely would avoid it because you
Keep Reading Show less

Looking to buy some weights to gain some strength?

Looking at Dumbbell, Kettlebells or Weighted bar? How about an all in one that won't just save you some good amount of money but also space? Look no further, we bring you the GRIPBELL!

Let's face it, when we do want to work on some strength building, we don't want to go around shopping for 20 different weight equipment things. That would just not want us to even do any sort of strength training. But what if we only needed a few, a few that can do the things we want without having 20 things lay around? That's where the GRIPBELL comes in. Let me clarify with you first, these are not some heavy duty, muscle exploding weights, they are for building the level of strength we as martial artists want without going crazy and insane in bulk sizing!

Keep Reading Show less

Many different types of "blocks" are taught in most martial arts school. We are taught high blocks, low blocks, middle blocks, knife hand blocks, etc. Some schools will also teach how to use the legs to block an attack, as well.

The purpose of this writing is to possibly open some minds to the possibilities of going outside the box and considering alternatives to the basics.

Blocking is taught as a way of protecting oneself from harm. Truly, we don't "block" anything, as a non-martial artist would think of it. What we call "blocking" is more of a redirection of an opponent's attack, or even a counterstrike against the opponent's attacking limb.

To block something would mean to put something, like your arm, leg or other body part directly in front of the attack. That would certainly hurt and possibly cause some damage. The goal should be to move the attack out of the way in order to prevent injury and provide a way to fight back. For example, many schools teach blocks as a limb moving toward the strike such as a circular high block.

The movement required for a block might have other uses, if you keep an open mind. The blocking techniques can also be used as attack techniques. For example, your "low block" may be used as a striking technique against the outer thigh of the attacker. Your high block might be used as a strike to the jaw. The set up for a block can be used as a deflection, as well as the actual block.

Doing a block or a series of blocks will most likely not end an attack. A block needs to be followed by a counterattack. While the block is usually taught as a separate technique in order to learn it correctly, it should also be used in combination with a counter.

The more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know. Intensive books can and have be written about basic techniques. With this writing, I am hoping to create interest in exploring the additional possibilities for what we have been taught and what we teach others.

About Grand Master Stevens

GM Stevens has been training in taekwondo for 47 years under the tutelage of the late legendary Grand Master Richard Chun. He holds an 8th degree black belt and is certified in the USA and in Korea. Grand Master Stevens is a member of the Board of Directors of the prestigious Richard Chun TaeKwonDo World Headquarters organization. He has been very active in his community and has been a volunteer with the Glen Rock Volunteer Ambulance Corps for over 11 years. He is a certified member of C.E.R.T. (Community Emergency Response Team).

Gary Stevens Taekwondo is located at 175 Rock Road in Glen Rock, New Jersey.

For more information: call (201) 670-7263, email: StevensTKD@aol.com or go to www.StevensTaeKwonDo.com

Having partners at or above your skill level is important for improving in your martial arts training. At some point, however, you will probably find yourself with a shortage of skilled partners, especially if you are an instructor.

This can happen for any number of reasons: students can move away, change their work schedules, start a family, etc., and just like that, you find that you're the highest-ranked student, or sole instructor, in your gym or dojo. This doesn't have to be a bad thing. In fact, if you take advantage of it, even working exclusively with lower-ranking classmates or students can improve your skills.

I used to host a twice-a-week training session at my dojo where I invited mostly black belts from other schools (as well as a few of my advanced students) to come and run drills. It was a blast. These were tough two- to three-hour sessions where I got to work with fighters of all different sizes, speeds, and technique preferences. My sparring improved dramatically over the next few months, and I don't think I've ever been in better shape. But unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way. And as the old saying goes, "You gotta work with what ya got." So, make it hard on yourself.

I like to set handicaps when fighting my students. Specifically, I focus on forcing myself to work on improving my weak areas. Is you right leg weaker than the left? Then only kick with the right leg when sparring your students. Not much of an inside fighter? Don't kick at all. Training with partners of lesser skill not only helps you improve your weak points but gives them an opportunity to improve as well by working on strategy. It's also great for building their confidence. It can also be a low-cost opportunity to test new techniques and combinations, which benefits you as well.

In grappling, just like sparring, there is little benefit to wrapping lower ranking classmates into pretzels over and over, for them or you. Instead, let your partner put you in a bad situation. Let them get the mount; help them sink in that choke or armbar. If you start standing, such as in judo, allow your partner to get the superior grip before attempting a throw. This way you will get comfortable working out of a weaker position and your less-experienced partner can perfect their technique (and get experience using multiple techniques, if you get out of their first one).

You might think that giving advantages like these to students who may be far beneath your skill level is much of a challenge. Trust me, you'll reconsider that sentiment when you wind up sparring a 6'5" novice with zero control over his strength after deciding to only use your weak leg, or have a 250-pound green belt lying across your diaphragm trying to get an armlock after you let them get the pin. Remember, this is exactly what you signed up for: a challenge.

If you find yourself at the top of the heap without partners who are sufficiently challenging, there is no need to despair. Use it as a low-stress opportunity to improve your weaknesses and develop avenues to help your less experienced classmates and students to grow. You may even be surprised. One day they might present more of a challenge than you ever imagined!
Don’t miss a thing Subscribe to Our Newsletter