The sword fight or duel is one of the more “civilized” approaches to Hollywood violence and conflict resolution in movies.
Naturally, most sword fight duels involve swords. However, many so-called sword fight scenes use other bladed weapons, like rapiers for more of a fencing style confrontation, broadswords for period piece type films (e.g., Excalibur), axes for wider, longer distance fights (Lord of the Rings), and knives/daggers for close-range style duels (John Wick: Chapter 3).
Moreover, in sci-fi movies, for example in the Star Wars franchise, matched sword-like weapons are used but they don’t involve steel. They famously use lightsabers, swords powered by a glowing blade supported by a laser-like technology.
Here are some of the best sword duels of cinema across all these types of duels. As always, this list is subjective and should be considered a launching pad for further research.
Scene: Freddy Krueger vs. Jason Voorhees
The 80s horror icons clashed in this memorable duel of claw-bladed glove vs. machete. Although not nearly as elegant as other confrontations on this list, it played into traditional executions of a duel. The larger, burly Jason swung his machete with powerful force, looking to land one solid kill shot on Freddy. Then the striped sweater ghoul used quick slashing strikes with his clawed glove to hack away at the Camp Crystal Lake killer. And as fitting for any duel, there was a decisive winner. Jason emerged from the lake with a decapitated Freddy’s head, although a winking Freddy suggested a rematch might have a different outcome.
Scene: Neo vs. The Merovingian’s henchmen
After tracking down the Keymaker, Neo must fight the Merovingian’s men to secure his safety. Initially using his elite-level martial arts programming to block and kick at the lackeys, who are armed with swords, staffs, spears, and shields, Neo decides he needs to match blades for blades.
Arming himself with a pair of sais, Neo glides through the air in his superhero fighting style before switching to a broadsword. With a full arsenal around him, Neo grabs some escrima sticks before stealing an adversary’s mace to end the battle. Easily one of the most stylistic duels on the list, thanks to Neo’s cape resembling a superhero’s cape flowing back and forth with every movement and the nu-metal score keeping the action lively.
Scene: Indiana Jones vs. The Swordsman
There’s no question “who shot first?” in this iconic, if not laughably imbalanced duel. Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones is exhausted after searching for his friend/love interest, Marion Ravenwood, and battling her kidnappers. The Swordsman shows off some fancy moves with his large scimitar in an attempt to intimidate his unarmed opponent. While this delights the crowd of onlookers, Indiana is not amused and he pulls out his gun to mark a quick and abrupt end to this duel. It’s the fastest face-off on this list, but it’s so memorable for holding true to the old adage of not bringing a knife to a gunfight.
Scene: Benjamin Martin vs. Col. William Tavington
This American Revolution film’s climactic battle features an elaborately staged duel in the midst of musket fire, cannons, and cavalry. Mel Gibson’s Benjamin Martin does whatever it takes to kill Jason Isaacs’ Col. William Tavington. The chaos surrounding this fight helps to make it memorable as Benjamin pits his hatchets, knives, and bayonets against Tavington’s swords. Tavington opens with the high ground while attacking on horseback only for Benjamin to forcibly dismount him. That’s when the real clash of steel begins. Isaacs makes for such a despicable villain here that his fate is very satisfying.
16. Highlander (1986)
Scene: Connor vs. Kurgan
There can be only one entry from the popular franchise. Christopher Lambert’s Connor battles Kurgan (Clancy Brown) in the intense last battle. Highlander’s final duel stands out as Director Russell Mulcahy shoots the action from a wide distance. This cuts down on the need for rapid-fire edits and allows for swordplay to be the focus. Mulcahy also has Connor and Kurgan battle against the backdrop of an empty warehouse with plenty of windows. For the majority of the fight, their silhouettes are more prominent than up-close details of either character.
Fun Fact: the sword sparks weren’t done with special effects. Instead, wires were attached to the swords connected to a car battery, which provided the visual sizzle.
15. Gladiator (2000)
Scene: Maximus vs. Tigris of Gaul
Gladiator battles often make for great duels and this showcase scene is no different. Russell Crowe’s Maximus is becoming a featured player in the gladiator. Emperor Commodus attempts to stack the deck by bringing back a former general, Tigris of Gaul to put an end to the impudent combatant. To make things even more interesting, Commodus plays up on Tigris’ name and throws some tigers into the mix as well. Maximus is forced to be on the defensive from both the formidable Tigris of Gaul and the tigers. Tigris sports some intimidating armor including a full face mask, but ultimately Maximus’ cunning wins the contest and further admiration from the arena.
14. Mandy (2018)
Scene: Red Miller vs. Brother Hanker
Nicholas Cage’s Red Miller is after the crazed religious cult that slaughtered his girlfriend. On his quest for vengeance, he encounters one of the cult members, Brother Hanker (Alexis Julemont). The two have a legit block and parry duel with chainsaws. Red has a standard-size chainsaw while his towering opponent has a deluxe version. The bright stadium-style lights at the lumberyard cast this duel in an intensely harsh light, the better to show the blood against Red’s face. This is one of the more inspired fight scenes in Mandy with the kick and roar of the chainsaws along with a gruesome death to make it even more memorable.
Scene: Alatriste vs. Malatesta
Alatriste (Viggo Mortensen) tangles with Malatesta (Enrico Lo Verso) in this encounter. Director Agustín Díaz Yanes sets the fight in a rainy alley with warm blue lighting. After quickly disarming two assailants, Alatriste casually slings the blood off his rapier and proceeds to walk off when Malatesta challenges him.
There’s both elegance — note how Alatriste slings his hat and the attack style of using his cape as a distraction technique — and grittiness. Alatriste fumbles in pulling out his dagger to better defend himself. Both duelists lock blades seeking the advantage and after a seeming killing strike, Alatriste still wildly swings hoping to achieve a desperate victory. It’s not a lengthy duel but is one of the more stylish and visually impressive.
Scene: Edmond Dantes vs. Fernand Mondego
Edmond vs. Fernand’s friendly rivalry erupts over petty jealousy. After letting his rage fester for years after being betrayed, Edmond faces off with his former friend only to be swayed from seeking vengeance from his family. Fernand forces the issue reigniting Edmond’s need to settle the score once and for all. Dismounting Fernand leads to both men losing their swords in the tall grass. A frantic scramble and a desperate rock throw later and the two engage in a sweeping battle — the wind blowing through the grass almost in response to their movements. It’s not a lengthy duel, but there are some nice blocks and parries to give the fight plenty of excitement.
Scene: Inigo Montoya vs. The Dread Pirate Roberts
Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) is a duelist on both of the film’s strongest sword fights. The battle with Count Rugen (Christopher Guest) is the most emotionally satisfying, but the clash with The Dread Pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) is more fun. It’s the one duel on the list not fueled by hatred or revenge.
Set on a clifftop surrounded by rocky steps, Inigo Montoya and DPR have a pleasant conversation before starting their duel. It’s a lively encounter as they share strategies and tactics for defeating each other. Midway through, there’s another fun twist as both admit they were not using their dominant prompting a more intense, but still friendly duel. Director Rob Reiner keeps the fun going accompanied by a lighthearted theme from composer Mark Knopfler. It’s nowhere near as bloody or as violent, but it pulls off the trick of showing that duels with two experts can just be pure fun.
10. Rob Roy (1995)
Scene: Rob Roy vs. Cunningham
Rob Roy’s final duel is an incredibly brutal showdown and succeeds by subverting expectations. Just from a quick glance, Liam Neeson’s Rob Roy has the Goliath style advantage to Tim Roth’s Cunningham standing in for David.
Roth is 5’7” compared to Neeson, who stands at a towering 6’4”. Yet there’s rarely a moment where the smaller Roth feels like the underdog.
Cunningham uses his rapier for lightning-quick strikes fully relishing tearing into his larger, less graceful opponent. Roth gives Cunningham an added sense of overconfidence with smug expressions and quickly switching his stance while carving up Roy with painful-looking slashes.
It’s a calculated, rope-a-dope approach where Cunningham is clearly enjoying toying with Roy, who’s tired himself out swinging his hefty broadsword through the air. Neeson sells Roy’s exhaustion beautifully to make this amazingly one-sided duel seem set for its all but inevitable conclusion.
Scene: Robin Hood vs. Sir Guy of Gisborne
Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbon put together their own fight choreography for this two-minute duel that packs double the level of excitement and creativity. It feels longer than it is — in a good way — wihle still managing to feel too short. Beginning on a flight of stairs, Flynn’s Robin Hood battles Rathbon’s Sir Guy of Gisborne descend before dueling through the castle ballroom.
Both swordsmen take an aggressive approach to the fight, constantly charging and vying for the upper hand. Robin Hood has a more flamboyant style with his long taunting sweeps of his sword while Sir Guy tries to keep the fight close to utilize his additional dagger. Aided by Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s lively score, this is a spirited duel that best embodies the classic vintage Hollywood swashbuckler.
Scene: Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gonn Jinn vs. Darth Maul
The Phantom Menace is a tough entry for most Star Wars fans. It’s the least regarded entry in the prequels, but it features the most intricate and stylized battle in the series. While the Original Trilogy films focused on one-on-one duels, the Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn, team up to battle the vicious Sith Lord. Set to John Williams’ instantly iconic Duel of the Fates score, this became one of Star Wars’ most memorable themes.
According to The Force Unleashed novel, Darth Maul utilized the Juyo form of lightsaber duels characterized for its fury and “malignant grace.” Director George Lucas utilized Darth Maul actor Ray Park’s martial art background including Wushu, Kickboxing and Shaolin Kung Fu to make the Sith a whirling dervish of a fighter.
Despite his fury, Maul was a strategic fighter and continually worked to separate the two Jedi. After creating enough space between the older and younger Jedi, Maul lured Qui-Gonn to an enclosed space. Qui-Gonn (Liam Neeson) used the Form IV style of Ataru, described as fast-paced and effective against single opponents though weaker in prolonged combat and confined spaces. His younger apprentice, Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor), was able to more effectively use the technique after recovering his stamina and facing Maul in a wide open space.
As smartly staged as the Qui-Gonn/Obi-Wan vs. Maul battle is, it’s the final showdown with Obi-Wan and Maul that makes this an all-time duel. This is a Jedi and Sith approaching their primes facing off and the mix of flips and somersaults make this unlike any other duel in the series. The final sequence is a nice callback to a moment in Return of the Jedi with far deadlier results.
7. Hero (2002)
Scene: Nameless vs. Sky
Jet Li’s Nameless battles Donnie Yen’s Sky in this sensational battle played out among two legends. Nameless uses his sword while Sky’s main weapon is his staff. This fight is fascinating as the encounter plays out in the characters’ minds like a game of chess. That analogy is furthered by the backdrop of a temple where strategy games are played. A sudden rainstorm further sets the mood while adding a deeper visual flair with raindrops splashing off the sword and spear.
The two combatants battle through the air while defying gravity as their clash is serenaded by an old man strumming his instrument. Sky’s thrusting attack style keeps Nameless on the defensive until he finally gets the measure of his opponent. Director Yimou Zhang stages this beautifully as Nameless pierces through the raindrops for his final move on Sky.
Scene: Achilles vs. Hector
Director Wolfgang Petersen’s take on Hoer’s The Illiad features a number of quality duels, but none match the emotional intensity and skill of Achilles (Brad Pitt) vs. Hector (Eric Bana). Following the death of his cousin at Hector’s hands, Achilles heads to Troy’s gates demanding a showdown with the only Trojan capable of defeating him.
Petersen gives this an epic treatment with a clear battlefield and only Troy’s walls as the backdrop. The Trojans watch as helpless onlookers as Achilles and Hector settle their score. This fight is cleanly shot without an abundance of distracting editing so viewers can take everything in.
The fight starts off with spears and shields before advancing to swords. This gives the duel a sense of stages playing out within the same conflict. Petersen even offers a tease with a near slice of Achilles’ heel. When great sword fights in movie conversations come up, Troy isn’t mentioned nearly enough.
Scene: Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader
The Phantom Menace duel is the more elaborate and intricate clash of swordsmen in the series, but this is the most emotional and shocking. Luke Skywalker cut his Jedi training short in order to save his friends from the clutches of Darth Vader. This is one of the best examples of a layered fight with beautiful cinematography to frame each of the three battles.
Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky bathes Vader and Luke in the smoky orange haze of the carbon freezing chamber with only the red and blue of their lightsabers piercing through the darker setting. This duel shows the clash of styles with Luke using his youth and acrobatics to keep Vader off guard. The big reveal of Vader’s identity makes for a fitting period to this conflict, but this three-stage battle makes for one of the strongest duels in movie history.
Scene: Master Huo Yuanjia vs. Master Chin
Jet Li stars in this biopic of Master Huo Yuanjia, the founder of the Jin Wu Sports Federation. It’s the swordfight between Li as Yuanjia and Master Chin (Zhihui Chen) that makes for easy inclusion on any great duellist. Director Ronny Yu makes use of the entire landscape in this multi-level battle that includes fighting along with balconies into a lower-level pool. Fans of spectacular-looking swords will also appreciate the intricate sword designs. This duel also incorporates broken sword techniques as the weapons get splintered and shattered.
Scene: Yu Shu Lien vs. Jen Yu
After tracking down the thief who stole Master Li Mu Bai’s famed sword, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) seeks to retrieve it from Jen Long (Ziyi Zhang). Yu Shu Lien assumes Jen Long won’t be able to match her expertise, but The Green Destiny helps the younger fighter even the odds. As The Green Destiny destroys more of Yu Shu Lien’s weapons, Jen arrogantly considers the battle won — until Yu Shu Lien brings out her own master sword. Yuen Woo-ping’s direction puts the focus on the swordplay while Yeoh and Zhang play their roles as the skilled fighter vs. the upstart masterfully.
Scene: Rama vs. The Assassin
Rama (Iko Uwaos) has one final obstacle to complete his mission — The Assassin (Cecep Arif Rhaman). This is one of the more unique duel locations as it plays out in a hotel kitchen. Initially, the combatants match their martial arts skills against each other before The Assassin brings out his small karambit blades to gain an advantage.
This elevates the conflict as Director/Screenwriter Gareth Evans switches the emphasis of the fight with Rama desperately trying to avoid getting slashed and landing his strikes. When Rama finally gains possession of one of the blades it plays out like a major triumph as he’s finally evened the odds. The last act of the fight is one of the bloodiest and brutally staged duels on the big screen.
Scene: The Bride vs. The Crazy 88s/O-Ren Ishii
After acquiring a sword capable of aiding her quest for vengeance, The Bride (Uma Thurman) sets her sights on the first of her former friends O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). Getting to O-Ren won’t be easy as she’s the crime lord of the ruthless Crazy 88 gang, a skilled group of killers and assassins armed with swords, axes, maces and various other weapons.
By far the bloodies inclusion on this list as Director Quentin Tarantino tends to overuse blood sprays for unintentionally comedic payoffs. Tarantino pays homage to one of his favorite performers, Bruce Lee, by donning The Bride in a yellow jumpsuit similar to Lee’s Enter the Dragon attire. Additionally, the Crazy 88s wear Kato-style masks like Lee’s Kato character in The Green Hornet.
The Bride proves to be an expert with her one of a kind Hattori Hanzō katana as she quickly disarms —and dismembers — the Crazy 88. Thurman moves like a whirling dervish as The Bride slices and dices her way through a near army that didn’t exaggerate its name. O-Ren’s bodyguard, Gogo presents a far tougher challenge with her spiked Meteor Hammer.
Surviving the Crazy 88 was one thing, but battling O-Ren Ishii is another. Tarantino takes this battle to the House of Blue Leaves’ exterior where snow continues to fall. This makes for a fitting final backdrop to the two former friends. Liu and Thurman have a more restrained fight with less flair than the interior battle. In the end, one loses their head and Tarantino crafts the most masterful duel sequence on film.