Unlimited Power

The Worst Star Wars Prequel Produced One of the Franchise's Greatest Moments

One incredible scene rewarded everyone who sat through Jar Jar Binks’ antics.

Written by Jon O'Brien
Lais Borges/Inverse; Lucasfilm
Celebrating the Prequels

The cast of Disney’s latest addition to the Star Wars universe, The Acolyte, recently said they’re hoping to emulate one particular aspect of the franchise’s most-maligned entry. Unsurprisingly, they weren’t referring to a certain Mr. Binks, but the spellbinding lightsaber duel that ensured The Phantom Menace at least finished on a high.

The climactic battle between the demonic Darth Maul (Ray Park) and the master and apprentice team of Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) took three weeks of exhausting rehearsals to master, with regular George Lucas stunt coordinator Nick Gillard developing a punishing “amalgamation of all sword fighting” including samurai, kendo and rapier. But despite a few obstacles along the way — like the 7-inch disparity between Neeson and McGregor’s frames — their hard work paid off in style.

The fight begins.

20th Century Fox

Soundtracked by John Williams’ operatic all-timer “Duel of the Fates,” the confrontation begins as Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), the Gungans, and Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) are engaged in their own separate tussles. Luckily, director Lucas soon realizes where the attention needs to be focused as Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Maul move into the Theed Palace’s multi-level metallic facility, which is perfectly designed for a dramatic fight-to-the-death.

Qui-Gon and Darth had already gone head-to-head against the striking backdrop of the Tattooine desert, but as the film’s centerpiece, their two-versus-one rematch takes things to new heights, figuratively and literally. The trio spends much of their duel leaping balletically up and down the imposing chamber, which has no vertical end in sight.

Adding to the stunning visuals are the tri-colored lightsabers, particularly the reveal of Darth’s double-bladed red, and the shimmering timed force fields that temporarily stop the players in their tracks, a device used twice to brilliant effect. The first pause says more about each character’s traits than any dialog could: the calm, collected Qui-Gon uses the opportunity to meditate, his more eager mentee poises himself for the moment action resumes, and their adversary paces and paws like an animal on the prowl.

Qui-Gon meets his end.

20th Century Fox

This masterclass in stoking the tension is followed by a moment of pure devastation. Briefly restrained once more, Obi-Wan is forced to watch Qui-Gon take on the big baddie single-handedly, and can therefore only howl in agony when his mentor is fatally pierced through the chest. The Phantom Menace is often accused of lacking any emotional heft, and while Qui-Gon is something of a blank canvas (one not helped by the fact Neeson constantly looks like he’s worried about his future career prospects), his tragic death still packs a punch.

It’s also a pivotal moment in Star Wars lore. Shortly before gasping his last breath, Qui-Gon implores Obi-Wan to train Anakin as the “Chosen One,” a final request the apprentice fulfills to unimaginable consequences. But in the moment, it’s a breathtaking six minutes of pure cinema that immediately eclipsed Luke Skywalker’s battles with Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi as Star Wars’ most illuminating duel.

This article is part of the “Celebrating the Prequels” series, a two week-long series of articles about the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy leading up to the 25th anniversary of The Phantom Menace.

Related Tags