Our Favorites: Movie Sword Fights!
The Last Jedi prompts us to explore all of the best sword fights in cinematic history.
Whatever your feelings about Star Wars, at least we can all come together about one thing: laser sword fights are bad-ass. The duel is one of the oldest dramatic moments in cinematic history, with The Viking in 1928 becoming the first movie to feature both sound and color. Whole genres sprouted up just to deliver amazing blade work. We break down the best action across many different styles, from traditional western swashbuckling to fantasy lightsaber duels, and give you our picks for the most exciting sword fights in movie history.
Best Sword Fight: European Style.
The Contenders: Errol Flynn Vs. Basil Rathbone – The Adventures of Robin Hood, Ingigo Montoya Vs. The Man in Black – The Princess Bride, Edmund Dante Vs. Mondego – The Count of Monte Cristo, Saber Duel – The Deluge, Achilles Manslaughters Hector – Troy.
This category covers so many distinct styles and time periods that it is hard to pick a favorite. The fencing sword duel dominated Hollywood for decades, producing Errol Flynn as its most famous protagonist. Stylish and dignified, it still provides thrills through quick footwork and intricate flourishes. Against this you have the modern movie sword fight with its full body physicality and ferocious styling. Any of the above fights more than delivers the goods when it comes to excitement…but my favorite is the obscure polish historical drama, The Deluge.
A historical epic that clocks in at a staggering 315 minutes, this sweeping drama chronicles the Swedish invasion of the Polish/Lithuanian commonwealth and was nominated for a best foreign film Oscar. At the heart of this drama is a bitter-sweet celebration of martial prowess, best exemplified by an iconic duel between a dignified colonel and a cocky nobleman. Blending traditional sabre fencing with a free-wheeling brawling style, The Deluge delivers a raw but beautiful fight that is as deadly as it is thrilling.
Best Sword Fight: Asian Style.
The Contenders: Sanjuro Vs. Hanbei – Sanjuro, Kenshin Vs. Sojiro – Rorouni Kenshin, Jet-Li Vs. Donny Yen – Hero, Zatoichi Vs. Samurai – Zatoichi Challenged, Jackie Chan Vs. Indian Swordsman – The Myth.
While this genre has been dominated by Japanese kendo for decades, a boom in Chinese epics has introduced other traditional styles to western audiences. Films such as Crouching Tiger and Hero present gloriously choreographed duels. Traditional styles from India, Thailand and the Philippines have also made spectacular appearances in modern cinema. While I salute them all, I have to give the nod to the legendary blind Japanese swordsman, Zatoichi.
The fictional sword master was featured in dozens of films and was played by several actors over decades of Japanese cinema, almost analogous to the silver age serials of Zorro in the west. Shintaro Katsu played the unlikely hero in his most famous iterations over the period of nearly 30 years, and Zatoichi Challenged was one of the best entries in the series, capped off by a sprawling duel between the blind swordsman and a duty-bound samurai.
Best Sword Fight: Lightsabers!
The Contenders: Darth Maul Vs. Obi-Wan and Qui Gon – The Phantom Menace, Anakin Vs. Obi-Wan – Revenge of the Sith, Luke Vs. Vader 1 – The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Vs. Vader 2 – Return of the Jedi, Kylo and Rey Vs. The Praetorian Guard – The Last Jedi.
The lightsaber duel has grown and changed over the course of 50 years and 9 movies. In the first film, A New Hope, it resembled the stately fencing duel of early cinema. As it progressed in the first trilogy, it became a more emotionally charged brawling style. 30 years later, the prequels showed a flashier and heavily stylized form of duel that resembled the highly choreographed moves of Chinese martial arts films. Now that a new generation has taken up the lightsaber, we have a modified blend of the two styles that is raw and desperate, resembling more closely 1980’s Japanese cinematic sword fighting.
As Nate said in his review of The Last Jedi, each style has its appeal. For my money, my favorite is the final fight from The Phantom Menace (and indeed, is one of the only elements of that film that has remained vibrant and memorable.) While it is highly choreographed it also has the emotional impact of the original films and the electric physicality of the new fights. I leapt out of my seat on my first viewing, and that feeling of exhilaration has not waned to this day.
Best Sword Fight: Vicious, One-Sided Drubbings.
The Contenders: Maximus Vs. Commodus – Gladiator, Li Mu Bai Doesn’t Care about Your Revenge – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Paris is a Lover, Not a Fighter – Troy, Over in A Snap – The Court Jester.
Some times the skill gap in a fight is apparent. This category celebrates such one-sided fights! Despite having many excellent fights, many of which very nearly made the list for best fights in other categories, my favorite is the comedic duel between Danny Kaye’s bumbling jester versus a villainous nobleman played by famed movie swordsman Basil Rathbone. The foolish jester is losing badly until he is enchanted with a spell that makes him a master swordsman whenever he hears a finger snap. He turns the tables and delivers a clinic on the villain until he foolishly snaps his own fingers. The fight then seesaws back and forth with each side schooling the other until another snap is heard. It’s a classic movie fight and a fantastic comedic sequence.
Best Sword Fight: Surprise Comeback.
No matter how skilled a fighter is, every sword fight is a gamble where losing is fatal. These fights celebrate the moment when the underdog bucks the odds and pulls off an upset. In some cases, the winner has a hand. In some, the hero has to overcome dirty tricks from a cowardly villain. In other, the hero pulls out some shady maneuvers of his own. In my favorite, the gallant Rob Roy has to sacrifice his body in order to win.
Rob Roy is a man on a mission of vengeance and justice. Liam Neeson plays a man whose wife is violated by an English lord who happens to be a master duelist. Despite being a fierce warrior, Roy is no match for the highly skilled opponent. As he suffers wound after wound, it looks like he will lose and fail in his quest…until he decides to level the playing field by capturing his opponents blade with his own body.
Best Sword Fight: Everything But the Kitchen Sink.
Sometimes just one sword won’t do. Sometimes you need to use every sharp object in the room to get the job done. In these fights, we look at sword fights that throw everything not nailed down at the combatants. In our winner, Michelle Yeoh literally empties a whole armory in order to teach her young opponent that its not the blade that makes the warrior, but the fighting spirit that will stop at nothing to win.
Best Sword Fight: Melee!
The Contenders: White Heaven in Hell Snow Fight – Lone Wolf and Cub, The Bride Vs. The Crazy 88 – Kill Bill Vol. 1, Just Another Day at the Office for Spartans – 300, Donnie Yen Vs. Everyone – An Empress and The Warriors.
Not all duels are one-on-one. In these classic sword fights, our protagonist must stand against impossible numbers of opponents. No fight exemplifies this work ethic better than Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to the pulp Samurai films of the 60’s and 70’s. Uma Thurman is looking for revenge against the assassin who betrayed her…but first she’s going to have to wade through every lunatic with a sword that her quarry can throw at her.