The acclaimed author discusses why The Phantom Menace's most quiet moment speaks volumes.
In My Favorite Scene, StarWars.com invites special guest writers to discuss which one scene or moment in the saga most resonates with them.
Like many fans, when I saw The Phantom Menace on opening night in 1999 my favorite sequence was the three-way duel pitting Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn against Darth Maul.
I thrilled to the sight of Jedi and Sith spinning like acrobats, their choreography accompanied by the snap-hiss and thrum of lightsabers in blue, green, and red. But my favorite moment of the duel was the quietest one: separated from Maul by a series of energy gates, Qui-Gon sinks to his knees and simply waits.
The entire duel is George Lucas at his best as a visual storyteller, using images, colors, and movement to craft a narrative. Once the Jedi and Sith square off, there’s just one word in the entire sequence: Obi-Wan’s anguished “NO!” The acting is largely physical -- and unlike some action-movie fight sequences, it’s perfectly matched to the characters.
I love the little bit at the beginning, where Maul uses the Force to flip a battle droid’s head behind him at the controls for a door -- a bit of confident athleticism akin to a basketball star’s no-look pass. Obi-Wan, a Padawan determined to prove himself, fights with wide-eyed, almost desperate intensity. But Qui-Gon moves deliberately, and his expression remains impassive even when he’s nose to nose with Maul.
Qui-Gon’s my favorite character in The Phantom Menace and one of the most interesting figures in the entire saga -- a stubbornly independent Jedi maverick. He doesn’t care about the Jedi hierarchy, Queen Amidala’s orders, or much else -- his only obedience is to the will of the Force. That leads him to do things that seem a little questionable: he gambles with other people’s vehicles, cheats Watto on a chance-cube roll, and interprets his orders…let’s say, creatively, because of an ancient prophecy no one else seems to believe.
The Jedi Council can barely conceal its impatience with him. The same’s true of Obi-Wan, a solidly conventional Jedi-in-training. Having endured Qui-Gon’s attachment to pathetic lifeforms, Obi-Wan begs his master to at least stop butting heads with their superiors, appending an exasperated “not again.” Qui-Gon ignores him: when the Jedi deny his request to train Anakin Skywalker because he already has a Padawan, he blithely claims Obi-Wan is ready to become a Jedi Knight. Everyone knows that isn’t true: Obi-Wan looks astonished, Yoda’s face is weary, and Mace Windu seems about ready to strangle his fellow Jedi.
If you were a member of the Jedi Council, you’d be annoyed with Qui-Gon, too. Despite being above him in the Order’s hierarchy, they have no real power over him: Qui-Gon takes orders only from the Force itself, and is serenely unbothered by what anyone else thinks about that. Yoda and the others convince him to put off the question of Anakin’s training, but it’s clear he’s only momentarily conceded defeat. Indeed, his dying wish is for Obi-Wan to defy the Council as he has.
You wouldn’t think there’s a way to capture all that during a lightsaber fight. But you’d be wrong: it’s all there in that brief moment where we watch Qui-Gon wait.
From a storytelling standpoint, the energy gates at the heart of Theed are a device to separate Obi-Wan from the other combatants, letting Lucas use Maul as the antagonist for two different dramatic fights.
The pause in the duel shows us the length of the energy-gate cycle, but it’s a potentially awkward bit of staging -- one Lucas turns into a great, wordless character moment for all three duellists. Maul tests the energy field and then prowls around like a caged beast. Obi-Wan, powerless to intervene, bounces on his tiptoes in frustration. And Qui-Gon? He switches off his saber, regards Maul for a moment, then sinks to his knees and shuts his eyes.
He’s tired, yes -- he learned on Tatooine that Maul is young, strong, and well-trained. But he’s not just resting. He’s centering himself, staying in the moment and opening himself to the living Force. Don’t focus on your anxiety, Qui-Gon tells Obi-Wan at the beginning of Episode I; in his last minutes of life we watch him take his own advice.
And then the gates retract and he’s on his feet, saber blazing back to life. Whatever awaits him is the will of the Force, and Qui-Gon accepts that, as he always has.
Jason Fry is the author of more than 30 Star Wars books and short stories, including The Weapon of a Jedi, Rogue One: Rebel Dossier, The Essential Atlas, and the Servants of the Empire quadrology.