When “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” opened in theaters May 19, 1999 the anticipation for the continuation of the saga was palpable. Fans would finally get the first three installments leading up to “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.” All those hours of discussing what led Obi-Wan Kenobi to live in seclusion on Tatooine or why Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side to become Darth Vader would finally be revealed.
Though the film earned over $1 billion dollars worldwide in its theatrical run, many critics and loyal fans weren’t that impressed by George Lucas’ return to his galaxy far, far away. From the strange sexual connection between 9-year-old Anakin (Jake Lloyd) and 14-year-old Queen Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) to Jar Jar Binks, there was a lot to pick on Lucas about.
But one exception — and watching it 16 years later still gives me goosebumps — is the fight at the end of the movie between Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) versus the Sith Lord Darth Maul (Ray Park) during the Battle of Naboo.
Doing a deep-dive of the scene, it's shocking to see what George Lucas and his team needed to use to pull off one of the pinnacle shots in the duel.
But first, let's get ourselves familiar again with the scene.
Accompanied by a new piece of music from John Williams, who has been responsible for all of the iconic scores in the “Star Wars” saga, the scene shows that Lucas was prepared to elevate the lightsaber battles from episodes IV-VI. Faster, more complex moves and the inclusion of a new-style lightsaber sported by Maul, which had double blades, the scene gives the movie the jolt it needed following a drawn out podrace on Tatooine earlier and heavy dialogue-driven diplomatic scenes.
Lucas pushed his stunt team to create a fighting style different from the previous films as this is the era of Jedi in their prime. And in casting Maul he turned to Park, who was already doing stunts on the film. When Lucas saw a tape of him doing moves with the double-bladed lightsaber he gave him the role.
As per Lucas’ style, the Jinn/Kenobi/Maul fight is one of four battles going on simultaneously. There’s also Queen Padmé and her guard detail trying to retake the palace from Federation Viceroy Gunray; Jar Jar Binks and the rest of the Gungan army going up against the Federation’s droid army; and Anakin has found himself in space battling the Federation’s droid control ship after accidentally starting the starfighter he was hiding in. Lucas uses this method to keep the action from getting stale and extending the battles in running time.
Specifically focusing on the lightsaber battle, you have the intimidating figure of Maul — which up to this moment we had only seen mostly standing around looking sinister and for a brief moment battling Jinn on Tatooine — holding his own against two Jedi.
During the fighting, Kenobi is kicked by Maul and falls down a lower level of the room and finds himself hanging from one of the catwalks in the generator room.
With Jinn fighting Maul one-on-one, Maul leads him towards a narrow hall with laser fields.
Kenobi finds the strength to force-jump back on the catwalk. He jumps once more to the level Jinn and Maul are on and races back to the action. But is held up when the laser fields turns on. Jinn and Maul are also separated by the fields, leading to a pause in the action.
When we return after checking in on Anakin, Jar Jar and Padmé’s progress, we find Jinn, Kenobi and Maul preparing for the fields to open.
Using The Force they are prepared before the fields are opened with Jinn and Maul instantly going back at it. Kenobi is still racing to assist his Master.
The fields close just before Kenobi can enter the fray and he is forced to watch as Maul kills Jinn.
Once you get over the shock of seeing a lightsaber go through someone, you can't help but find the reaction of Kenobi eerily similar to Luke Skywalker watching Kenobi’s death by the hand of Darth Vader in “A New Hope.”
In the commentary track of “The Phantom Menace” Blu-ray, Lucas explained the challenges of this portion of the scene.
“One of the most difficult parts of this sequence was figuring out a way to separate Obi-Wan from Qui-Gon,” he said. “I had to have a situation where Qui-Gon could get trapped and Obi-Wan would have to look and watch him get killed and not be able to do anything about it.”
Kenobi finally gets his chance to avenge Jinn’s death as the final laser field opens.
Lucas remarked on McGregor and Park’s intensity in this duel.
“This was a fun sword fight between Ewan and Ray because they were really into it and they were very much out to prove who was the better swordsman,” he said in the commentary. “They were very much challenging each other, which made for a challenging shoot but very exciting. They finished this and their swords were almost bent in half they were hitting each other so hard.”
But things don’t go well when Maul force-pushes Kenobi into a pit, leaving him hanging for his life as Maul kicks his lightsaber into the dark void.
Lucas notes that this moment is a theme in the saga.
“[Obi-Wan] falls over the ridge earlier [in the battle], falls over here. Copying kind of what happens in ‘Empire Strikes Back’ with Luke in the same kind of sword fight with a Sith and falling over the edge.”
But in a move that surprises Maul, Kenobi force-jumps out of the pit while using The Force to get Jinn’s lightsaber, flips over Maul, and slices him in half.
Lucas says the four battles were switched around in the way they ended numerous times in post production. But he finally settled on the Kenobi/Maul battle to conclude them all.
“When you have four endings basically you have to figure out which is the most important and save it for last and the most shocking,” he said. “Which is Darth Maul being cut in half, and you make it the last one.”
In looking back on "The Beginning" documentary we also get a glimpse into the making of the Jinn/Kenobi/Maul duel.
Here's Park getting his Darth Maul makeup applied.
Though the generator room looks like a giant section of Padmé’s palace, it actually was a portion of a soundstage the first three films were all shot on in London. Most of the vast space created in post production.
"The Beginning" shows the section of filming where Kenobi pulls himself from the catwalk to get back into the fight. Here McGregor is shown a model of the generator room and where the catwalk he's hanging from is located.
A challenge making that sequence was finding a way for McGregor to leap back onto the catwalk in a "graceful, Jedi-like move."
First they tried a trampoline.
That didn't work.
After the shot, Lucas came over to say that from his monitor "you can see that he's bouncing on something."
This leads to a practical solution, but one that's surprising to see on the set of a "Star Wars" film. The stunt team decided to lift McGregor up while he's standing on a wooden plank.
That turned out to be successful.
Pretty incredible that even on a $115 million budgeted movie sometimes what works best is some basic DIY ingenuity.
Though it's hard to justify many things in “The Phantom Menace,” the Jinn/Kenobi/Maul duel shows the strength of the "Star Wars" saga. Unique battles with a thrilling score is the hallmark of “Star Wars” and this one especially stands out as it highlights the beauty of the lightsaber duels and its ferocity.
It brings us some hope that all those years of waiting for the prequel wasn’t all in vain.
Watch a portion of the fight below.