Thursday, December 9, 2010

My Favorite Sword Duels At The Movies

Swords. Let's not deny it, we all have a weird fascination with the bladed weapons--a romance, let's say--that you simply cannot get from kicks and punches, or even guns. Sword duels in particular capture our imaginations in the media like no other form of personalized combat. Unlike gun fights in Westerns, swords by their very design require the combatants to face off in close proximity to one another like real men (or women). You know that the victor of a sword fight will not make it out alive by sheer luck. Swords require real skill and years upon years of vigorous training to master. Yet, in Hollywood at least, the good sword duel is hard to come by these days. Back in the time of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks movies, sure, the swashbuckling tales were a dime a dozen. But that era has been long gone. While cowboy and pugilistic genres have risen and fallen only to rise again in Hollywood, the sword movie has never recovered its true heyday of old.

Which is why, when a film does come along and display not only a competent sword duel on the big screen, but one that's a true crowd pleaser at that, I for one take notice. You might not concern yourself with such matters, but rest assured I *live* for these types of films. Without fail, if you were to look at a list of movies that influenced me the most since childhood, more often that not you're seeing a list that contains movies where sword fighting plays, at the very least, a marginal role in society.

Highlander, Star Wars, The Hunted, Excalibur, Dune, Lord of the Rings, Gladiator, etc . . . . Need I go on? So what better way to celebrate the more subtle art form of good movie combat than for me to create yet another "Top 10" list? Below you'll find my list in descending order from best to BESTEST of my favorite sword moments in film. As with my other lists, these choices won't necessarily represent *your* favorite scenes. But then you can just write up your own list now, can't you? Yeah, that's what I thought.

Without further ado, I give you my Top 10 sword duels at the movies . . . after the jump.


10) Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
O-Ren Ishii vs. The Bride
Everyone loves a chick fight. Well, don't they? Okay, maybe not. Be that as it may, however, few can deny that when The Bride shows up on Okinawa to commission a samurai sword from the legendary Hattori Hanzo, you just knew it was going to pay dividends in a later scene. And, man, does it EVAR! While her trailblazing massacre through the entire Crazy 88's squad in the iconic "House of Blue Leaves" scene was one of the greatest use of sword combat seen on the big screen, it is the duel with the Yakuza boss, O-Ren Ishii (played flawlessly by Lucy Liu), which qualifies this movie for this list. O-Ren's icy efficiency and perfect form is matched against The Bride's raw emotion and overwhelming thirst to slake her vengeance. The fact that the intense battle between these two perfectly matched women takes place in a placid, snow-covered Japanese garden only lends to the awesomenest of the choreography. This is a duel to remember!

9) Star Wars: Ep. II - Attack of the Clones (2002)
Darth Tyranus vs. Yoda
Everyone wondered how George Lucas would top the awesome Darth Maul duel from the end of 1999's Episode I - The Phantom Menace, but few could have imagined it would be this . . . ludicrous! Still, seeing an ancient green midget go crackhead wild on the very tall and august presence of Christopher Lee was well worth the admission price alone. The Yoda vs. Darth Tyranus duel in the middle film of the Star Wars prequel trilogy was one of those rare occurrences where the actual fight turned out better than it was described on paper. And although the swords in this duel are lightsabers and not the metal blades of "true" swords -- let's be honest here, you can't have a "top movie duels" list and not include at least one Star Wars film in the mix. In my case, I included all 3 prequel films here. After all, probably the only thing they really have going for them are in fact the lightsaber duels. Lucas and Co. knew that much, at least. The duel below had everyone in the theater on their feet and clapping LOUD. I was one of them.

8) Highlander: Endgame (2000)
Connor MacLeod vs. Duncan MacLeod
This is a case where I wanted to include a duel from a different movie, but the company holding the rights to the footage in question was being a dick and refused to allow it to be embedded anywhere outside of YouTube. In this case, that movie was the original Highlander film from 1986. No biggie, because the 4th film in the series also had some decent fight choreography. While I could have pulled from several examples from this one movie alone, I chose to go with the Duncan vs. Connor rooftop duel. Although it pained me to see these two clansmen and centuries-long buddies go at it, one couldn't deny that it was a duel far better than many others which preceded it in the Highlander universe. It was so good, it even made Christoph Lambert look like a decent martial artist! Adrian Paul, of course, had this one locked. He's just *that* good! Although there's a lot of talking in this one scene (and you must please excuse the tail end inclusion of the awful Kell quickening at the start of the clip), once the blades start crossing the heat really turns up. The sword play on display here is quite superb, even if it's hard to believe the two would ever really go at it like this -- no matter the rationale behind the fight. If I was Duncan, I would have conked Connor over the head with his signature pipe and wait for him to grow some sense.

7) Blind Fury (1989)
Nick Parker vs. The Assassin
In this Americanized re-telling of the famed Japanese cinema tradition of the blind swordsman, Zatoichi, we have a disabled Vietnam war vet returning to the States after learning how to fight with a cane sword by some helpful villagers living in the jungle (snark!). However, when you want to bring in a suitable challenger for the hero, and one who can fight like a great Japanese swordsman, Hollywood finally displayed some sense by . . . hiring a great Japanese swordsman! Although he's only credited as "The Assassin" on the roll sheet, anyone who knew anything about martial arts movies of the 70s and 80s knew that this man was none other than the legendary Shô Kosugi. I mean, you don't get more "street cred" than that! Although it's upsetting that he gets taken out so easily by this blind American (played by Dutch national, Rutger Hauer), I have to forgive this oversight since the movie as a whole is such a classic 80s B-movie treat.

6) Star Wars: Ep. I - The Phantom Menace (1999)
Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan vs. Darth Maul
When the first new Star Wars film in over 15 years came out, it was to great hype and huge fanfare. Hype that ultimately did not live up to the reality in many movie-goers minds. But for this particular movie goer, one scene and one scene alone saves it. This is that scene, a master stroke of sheer genius in fight choreography, helped immensely by the fact that the actor behind the villain in this scene (Ray Park) just happened to be a real life, kick-ass martial artist-turned-actor. See Hollywood, this is what you get when you hire for combat scenes actors who actually, you know, have trained for decades to be able to pull them off competently. Compared to the laughable, clumsy and ultimately dated duels of the first three Star Wars films (Kenobi vs Vader duel, anyone?), this one was light years ahead. Honestly, at the time I saw this in theaters, I kept going back for this one scene alone. I could not get enough. Darth Maul became my favorite villain ever -- fuck Darth Vader!!! The fact that he "gets it" in the end, of course, just ruined the movie for me. But, hey, at its purest this was one of the greatest on-screen duels ever, despite the fact that it involves more than two people. Speaking of which, I would've thought there'd be a rule against that sort of behavior in the Jedi handbook. They're supposed to be fair and just, right?

5) Fearless (2006)
Huo Yuanjia vs. Qin Lei
I consider Fearless to be the finest Jet Li movie ever made. It's the movie I'd been waiting years for, in terms of a film properly showcasing Jet's true martial arts prowess in a respectful manner. The fact that he plays the role of one of China's real-life legendary martial arts heroes, Huo Yuanjia, is rather fitting considering that Jet Li is one of China's national martial arts treasures today. Although, like all heroes, Mr. Huo was not without imperfection. One such scene which adequately illustrates this--taken from the historical account--also just happens to be one of the finest sword duels ever put to film. Even by kung-fu movie standards, which is a pretty tall accolade. In this retelling of the account, Huo confronts a popular and well-respected martial arts master named Qin Lei after one of Huo's students is allegedly injured by the latter for apparently no reason. In reality, however, the student had slept with the man's wife and thus deserved the beat down he had received. But Huo didn't know this. He recklessly and arrogantly attacks Qin Lei while the latter is enjoying a birthday party in his honor at a local restaurant. The ensuing duel with heavy Chinese Dao swords is both spectacular and technically brilliant, as choreographed by the legendary Yuen Woo Ping. I wish Hollywood would finally take a clue from Asia and learn how to stage awesome sword duels like these on the big screen.

4) Star Wars: Ep. III - Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Obi-Wan vs. Anakin
Let's get it out of the way first -- people love to shit on this movie. By this time in the prequels cycle, it had become obvious to fans and critics alike that George Lucas was only paying lip service to movie goers now. Yet, as with The Phantom Menace, this film is saved only by the most incredible and awesomenest of all the light saber duels out of any Star Wars movie EVAR! No, seriously, if this was going to be the last Star Wars movie ever made, then this was the duel that would send it out with a bang. From watching Episode IV, we of course all knew the day would come when one of the prequel movies had to show the fateful first confrontation between Obi-Wan Kenobi and his wayward former-student, Anakin Skywalker. But even I was taken by surprise at just how vicious and emotional this on-screen duel turned out. Previously I posited the reason why the one big duel in The Phantom Menace worked so well was that one of the actors involved in the scene (Ray Park) was an established martial artist in his own right. Well, the duel here in this movie is even better than that one -- and it was done by two actors who are not martial artists. So what do I know? I think this duel gets overlooked by fans who trash the third and final prequel movie for all its other faults (and there are indeed many), but this is a shame. When you watch the duel in all its glory below, you can't help but see its true brilliance.

3) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Yu Jen vs. Yu Shu Lien
I remember this movie blowing Westerners away when it debuted in the States back at the turn of the millennia. We have this film to credit, after all, for the slew of Asian martial arts movies transported over to our shores since. And for that, the director Ang Lee will always have my thanks. Making these movies "cool" for wider audiences in the West to finally enjoy is a big deal, no more so because audiences got to see just how far Eastern filmmakers have come in depicting truly amazing combat scenes. Better than what most Hollywood movies can produce. And in terms of epic duels, the scene that sticks out the most in my mind with this particular film is the amazing confrontation between Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Yu Jen (Zhang Ziyi). When Jen shows up at Shu Lien's dojo, you really have no sense that the two will fight. But when Jen attempts to leave with the legendary Green Destiny sword -- this is when all hell breaks loose! The choreography in this fight is simply breathtaking. But combined with the luscious cinematography and direction, this duel transforms into a true masterpiece! The Kill Bill duel mentioned at the top of this list was a fantastic "chick fight" for sure, but this one felt more respectable -- like a dance between two skilled and disciplined women. A dance with a tempo that escalates throughout, until you're simply overwhelmed by the spectacle. This is why this duel is my No. 3 -- you just can't improve that much on perfection!

2) Rob Roy (1995)
Rob Roy vs. Archibald Cunningham
At the time this movie came out, I was already a big fan of Tim Roth and had never heard of Liam Neeson before. But I had never seen Roth play such a ruthless villain as he did with this film's Archie Cunningham (Richie's long lost brother?). Nor did I expect Neeson to have such gravitas as the titular character. Both actors surprised the hell out of me with their amazing performances, although Roth's one pivotal scene disgusts me to no end to this day. I won't even mention here, it's just enough to know that his character, Archibald, does something so heinous that Rob Roy simply cannot let it go unpunished. The result is a duel at the climax of the film that is noteworthy for how brutal and honest it is. I mean, seriously, this was one of the most raw, brutal, and utterly without pretension sword fights I'd ever seen at the time, and even since. This scene had to be near the top of my list -- it just had to! I also loved the foley work here -- I think this is the most realistic sounding sword duel I've heard in movies. The brutality of the clanging metal certainly does match the raw emotion behind Neeson's actions, and the calm calculating routine behind Roth's. I also like that the hero gets his ass handed to him until nearly the very last second. This is why I liked this movie, this moment right there. It's completely out of character for most Hollywood revenge fantasy flicks, and is why after all these years I still remember this duel so vividly.

1) The Princess Bride (1987)
Westley vs. Inigo Montoya
No surprise that this is No. 1. This is the big daddy of all sword duels on film. A scene that is almost always everyone's favorite, hands down. How do you get better than this? No, seriously. What always amazed me was that, for a comedy with romantic overtones, this film has one of the most brilliant and totally fun swordplay scenes ever depicted. Even watching it now, it's still hard to believe that these guys are actors. I know a lot of people who took up fencing because of this movie, me being one of them. Of course, all these years later, it's obvious to see how choreographed the routine is . . . but so what? I still watch this and feel that same sense of breathless wonder as I did the first time I saw the film on HBO in 1988. Not only that, but the dialogue is hilarious! It's no wonder after all these years, and with each new generation of movie watchers, that this flick is still being quoted by young and old(er) alike.


  1. I am not a sword fight fiend. However, I did love the Obi-Wan one, and of course Yoda. Seeing such an old guy make those moves...

    Plus what about Underworld - Evolution?

    And my son, Luke, and his gfriend both maybe I'll become a swordy type

  2. Kim, the Underworld one was pretty good -- from what I remember. Wasn't such a big fan of those movies, so I've only seen it once in the theaters.

  3. I was reading down your list almost yelling "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" at the screen! I was so glad to scroll down and see that you included something from that movie.

    BTW I can only watch it with subtitles, and hearing the musicality of the original voices. It just ruins it for me to hear it dubbed into English!

  4. Ian, I never watch foreign movies dubbed. I can only watch them with the original voice tracks preserved and with subtitles. I get an extra treat, though, from watching Chinese movies in Mandarin since I actually can understand what's being said. However, if the original language is Cantonese instead, I still keep the original track going and just turn on the subtitles -- even if a Mandarin dub is available for the same movie.

  5. Excellent list!
    Oren vs. The Bride: Wasn't the most sensational fight but that is what was so great about it. The bullshit flair was taken out for a more straightforward, and truer to life, sword duel. Yoda vs. Dooku: Plain and simple awesome! We get to see THE Jedi Master battle! Just about the entire EARTH was waiting to see that! Yoda doesn't even DRAW his saber, he force floats that shit to his hand! AWESOME!
    Duncan vs. Connor: Just wasn't supposed to happen but I forgot how good that fight actually was! Duncan is so nice!
    Blind Swordsman vs. Sho Kosugi: Come on son! I was SO stoked when I first saw this! Sho was the SHIT! Hadn't seen him in a minute then he showed up in this. They had to kill him in that cheesy way 'cause as good as Rutger's Blind Swordsman was he wasn't gonna beat Sho blade to blade ! NO ONE could suspend their belief THAT much! Still love it!
    Qui Gon, Obi Wan vs. Darth Maul: Say word! This was the SHIT when it came out! I wished they had put an unedited copy of this scene on the damn dvd. None of that incut bullshit with Amidala and her security team, just the Jedi fight! Darth Maul dies the dumbest freaking death possible after that awesomest of awesome fights though. I still don't get that bullshit! It's like Greedo firing first, just plain stupid!
    Laoshi Huo vs. Laoshi Qin: One word (in my Keeanu voice): Whoa. Spectacular brutality! Damn son! The chinese know how to do a damn sword fight for real! And yeah, Jet is just beyond awesome.
    Obi Wan vs. Darth Vader: Another fight I forgot the awesomeness of, especially from the beginning to just before they go outside. Yeah, they weren't martial artists but you can tell they trained their asses off for this shit! And they did pull it off. Yeah, the prequels were worth it for the fights alone. I think even George knows that.
    Yu Shu Lien vs. Yu Jen: Man, my jaw was hanging open the whole time the first time I saw this! And it's still awesome! Once again, the chinese showing how it's done and this time with their women! Westerners are such pussies! ;-)
    Rob Roy vs. Archibald Cunningham: Except Rob Roy. He was gangsta (if I may use such a low brow yet so fitting colloquialism)! He went into that fight knowing Cunningham was a better swordsman yet knew he could beat him. And he did in the most real straightforward way possible. Fearless was spectacular brutality and this was realistic brutality. No bullshit here. Oh yeah, Tim Roth IS an excellent damn actor! Shit!
    Masked Man vs. Inigo: Quintessential movie swordfight. Choreographed? Yes. Obviously? Yes Still awesome? YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! "I'm not left handed either." Pure awesomeness.

  6. Thanks, Tarrell! I knew of all the people, you would appreciate this the most. Of course, I wanted to include a few different titles than the ones I eventually picked (less SW picks, for example) . . . but YouTube can be a pain in the ass when it comes to finding the exact clips one needs.

  7. Excellent list! Every choice was awesome! Can't really think of anything I'd add. Maybe I'd slide in a scene from Last Samurai as a serious honorable mention but that might be one of the one's you couldn't find a video for, like By The Sword. I'd forgotten how good some of those really were. Great job!(I did a more detailed comment but something happened and it all disappeared so explains my quick little blurb above.)

  8. No, I see your detailed comment above just fine. I was going to say I think it qualifies for the longest comment anyone has ever left on this blog. :)


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