Who doesn’t love a good sword fight? An essential element of classic swashbuckling adventures, this type of action set-piece lives on as a way to liven up any film by pushing two or more characters (usually a “goodie” and a “baddie”) into passionate, personal, and violent conflict. When these sequences are well choreographed, they become things of beauty; art in the form of flashing blades and fancy footwork. I’m avoiding big battle scenes here, trying to limit my selection to duels and smaller affairs of the blade. Here’s my top ten favourite sword fights on film. The list is based on the quality of the swordplay, how memorable the fight is, and perhaps most importantly of all, how cool it looks. And before you ask, yes lightsabers count as swords!
10. Blade (Wesley Snipes) vs. Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) – BLADE (1998)
At number 10 it’s the final showdown from BLADE. It always helps when your actors are in great shape, and Snipes and Dorff certainly know how to convincingly swing a sword at each other. After giving off an air of subdued menace throughout the film, it’s rewarding to finally see how deadly an adversary Frost is as he engages the Daywalker. The stakes of the fight – revenge and salvation for the human race – couldn’t really be higher, and it’s pretty remarkable the fight came out so well, as it was a last-minute addition to the film.
9. Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) vs. The Man in Black (Cary Elwes) – THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987)
This one’s popular with audiences and critics alike, and it’s only this far down my list because I saw THE PRINCESS BRIDE for the first time earlier this year. I enjoyed it, and the fight is great, but I’m not particularly attached to it yet. One man made this and countless other filmed sword fights happen – the legendary swordmaster Bob Anderson. Inigo and his masked opponent play an entertaining game of cat-and-mouse in their duel, along with leaping about and showing off their fencing tricks, and it’s all an extended build-up to a truly brilliant gag that I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen the film.
8. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) vs. Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) – PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003)
I don’t know why the Pirates series doesn’t get more recognition for the quality of its swordplay. CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL is the highlight of the series on these terms (as well as most others), before the extensive training in fencing the lead actors went through was overshadowed by unnecessarily elaborate special effects and Johnny Depp acting silly. The Jack vs. Barbosa fight is a great pay-off to the mutual hatred the characters have for each other, and it balances impressively quick swordplay with some clever quips.
7. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) & Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) vs. Darth Maul (Ray Park) – STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)
A visually stunning, staggeringly complex two-on-one lightsaber fight since dubbed “Duel of the Fates” after that operatic segment of John Williams’ score for THE PHANTOM MENACE. Great effort was put into developing the fighting style of a Jedi/Sith in their prime for the STAR WARS prequels, rather than the slightly clumsy and sluggish previous duels between old men, amputees and boys in the original trilogy. This scene is one of the only reasons most people still watch The Phantom Menace. Though the fight loses impact as it drags on, Darth Maul’s double-bladed lightsaber, wielded with dizzying proficiency by the Kendo-practicing Ray Park has quite rightly become iconic.
6. Jason (Todd Armstrong) vs. Skeleton Warriors (Ray Harryhausen) – JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963)
This one is something special. The final battle in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS involves Armstrong’s Jason and two of his cohorts locked in battle with a squad of supernaturally resurrected skeletons, brought to vivid and terrifying life by the absurdly talented hands of Ray Harryhausen. The man-hours involved to convincingly portray a man fighting a stop-motion animated skeleton is almost incomprehensible – Harryhausen had to essentially become an actor and make his skeleton characters’ movements react appropriately to the actions of the real actors, and both elements of the sequence had to be blended seamlessly. Mostly, it still holds up as an imaginative, thrilling and unique fight scene.
5. Rob Roy (Liam Neeson) vs. Cunningham (Tim Roth) – ROB ROY (1995)
The end fight in ROB ROY pits Neeson’s proud Scotsman against a foul, foppish gent (Roth), who represents everything he and his countryman hate about the English nobility. The contrasting fighting styles of the diminutive, agile and controlled Cunningham versus the towering, angry and brute-force-driven Rob Roy makes for a fascinating duel pumped full of class-war passion. Rob wants nothing more than to cut Cunningham’s snooty head off and reclaim personal, and national dignity, but Cunningham toys with Rob before he lands a lethal strike. The fight is painstakingly constructed in every detail, and glues you to the screen.
4. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) vs. Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) – STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)
I know Yoda and Palpatine are scrapping simultaneously with this one, but their fight is silly and mostly CGI, so doesn’t make the cut. McGregor and Christensen, on the other hand really are that fast. It’s the fight we’ve been dreaming of for 30 years, ever since it was hinted at in the original trilogy, and miraculously George Lucas and co. delivered the goods. Anakin is driven by hatred of his old master, and by pride, Obi-Wan by a sense of duty, and anger at himself for failing to guide his pupil. The clash between them is appropriately apocalyptic, with fire and brimstone raining down around them, their pained expressions exaggerated and lit up by the flashes of their lightsabers. This one was worth waiting for.
3. Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang) vs. Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) – CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000)
A brilliant expression of control from Zhang and Yeoh, Ang Lee’s action flows like poetry, with blindingly fast sword flashes mixed with slow-motion segments and floaty wire-work. Who cares if Yeoh’s character cheats by grabbing an assortment of increasingly ridiculous weaponry throughout, and Zhang treated the scene like a dance routine (due to a lack of martial arts experience), it’s still a stunning duel. Feminine, deadly and beautiful, this fight sequence leaves a lasting impression.
2. Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) vs. Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) – THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938)
Probably the best example of fencing skills on the list, Flynn and Rathbone move like lightning in this equally ferocious and playful fight. Robin and Gisbourne are out to kill each other, certainly, but not before they humiliate their opponent and assert their superiority. It’s a test of endurance and dexterity as the actors move around the massive castle set, under, over, and around obstacles, their eyes and their blades never leaving their opposite number. As the fight wears on, and the flashing swords move faster and faster, it becomes about one thing only: survival. The technical limitations of THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD also means you’re never in doubt it’s really the actors moving that quickly.
1. The Bride (Uma Thurman) vs. O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) – KILL BILL: VOL. 1 (2003)
Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL films have been called many things, but rarely are they considered beautiful. The katana duel in the snow between The Bride and O-Ren Ishii really is an achingly beautiful, perfectly paced sequence. It’s the build-up that makes it work so well – first there’s silence, then Tarantino’s incongruous music kicks in as the combatants prepare themselves, then finally they cross swords. The fight is broken up into movements, more like a musical symphony or a ballet than a duel, and after each stage, the camera takes in their expressions, the emotion and the drive behind each of these powerful, dangerous women. The balance of power shifts several times in the fight, and the characters’ hatred for each other develops into grudging respect. We have a final pause, then an abrupt and powerful conclusion. It may not be the finest screen fight ever in terms of pure choreography, but artistically, and dramatically speaking, it’s my absolute favourite. Watch it below:
Honourable mention: D’Hubert (Keith Carradine) vs. Feraud (Harvey Keitel) – THE DUELLISTS (1977)
I couldn’t neglect to mention Ridley Scott’s feature debut THE DUELLISTS (see above image), a film built almost entirely around the rivalry, honour and series of duels between two Napoleonic French soldiers. It’s a great representation of 19th-century duelling, and one of the best films ever about flawed masculinity. Why didn’t it make the cut? Taken individually, the fights aren’t particularly exciting or memorable – the final duel in the film is fought with pistols rather than swords for crying out loud! Far more interesting than any of the swordplay is the character development between the action.
Agree with my list, or have I missed off your favourite screen sword fight? Feel free to comment. SSP