By now, fans know the story of Star Wars beat-for-beat, but it’s also always been a franchise equally built on its iconography. The names, the images, the sounds. And as far back as I can remember, nothing has defined Star Wars more than the whooshing, whirring hum of a lightsaber. “The weapon of a Jedi Knight,” Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) says in A New Hope. “Not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon from a more civilized age.”
Boy, have those weapons been featured in many scenes both elegant and clumsy. Lightsaber duels are often the centerpiece of a Star Wars film, and that means iconic, classic moments mixed in with a few swing-and-a-miss duds. So, naturally, we’ve ranked them all.
Three quick things before we begin:
- To be included, a scene had to feature participants fighting each other with lightsabers, not just using a lightsaber in a fight. I extend my deepest regrets to Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Jango Fett. (Of course, I also threw this rule out the window several times on this list. I regret nothing.)
- I didn’t include any scenes from Clone Wars or Rebels. Dave Filoni‘s animated universe is wonderful, but this list does not need to be 150 entries long.
- I also did not include Darth Vader’s appearance from Rogue One. That scene objectively whips an indescribable amount of ass, but calling it a “fight” is like saying the Death Star had an intellectual debate with Alderaan. Apologies if this offends.
With all that out of the way, let’s get into it.
20) Palpatine vs. Mace Windu, Kit Fisto, Agen Kolar, and Saesee Tiin
This fight scene is, by a wide margin, the funniest bit of unintentional humor in all of Star Wars. Never has the Jedi looked more like a crew of absolute doofuses. Sheev Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), moving at roughly the same pace that Jabba the Hutt would run a 5K, just straight-up slaughters Jedi masters Agen Kolar (Tux Akindoyeni) and Saesee Tiin (Khan Bonfils) right out of the gate. They just sort of watch him do it, flailing wildly. Kit Fisto (Ben Cooke) gets got like 30 seconds later, to the sound of McDiarmid making acting choices that can only be described as “questionable”. Mace Windu and Palpatine then proceed to have the most lifeless lightsaber duel of the franchise, in which Samuel L. Jackson does the absolute least humanly possible across from McDiarmid doing the most. Pure comedy.
19) Qui-Gon Jinn vs. Darth Maul
Really, the only knock on this bite-sized battle in the desert of Tatooine is that it isn’t longer. Darth Maul (Ray Park) parkouring off a speeder-bike and briefly throwing down with Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) is basically just a teaser for the double-sided badassery to come later in the movie. But it’s still a quick jolt of electricity to a largely flat film, because the second Maul stepped on to screen you wanted to know what the cool-lookin’ horn guy could do. Plus, lightsabers just photograph kind of gorgeously against brightly-lit outdoor backdrops, something the franchise really only did once before in Return of the Jedi.
18) Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Count Dooku (Round 2)
There isn’t really much weight to the actual lightsaber’ing in the opening duel in Revenge of the Sith, other than that whole-ass platform dropped on Obi-Wan that 1000% should’ve shattered both his legs. But you can’t go wrong with Christopher Lee as Count Dooku—arguably the most underutilized character of the entire franchise—making an operatic meal out of lines like “gooood, twice the pride, double the fall.” While Hayden Christensen often said his lines like they were being forced out of him at gunpoint, he also had moments of brilliant physicality, this scene being one of the best examples. Once Ob-Wan gets knocked out of the fight, Anakin just wails on Dooku. My dude is swinging away like he’s freaking Joaquin Phoenix in Signs and his lightsaber is a wooden baseball bat. It’s sloppy but, ultimately, effective, a great piece of foreshadowing of the recklessness that will later lead Anakin to the dark side.
17) Rey and Kylo Ren vs. The Knights of Ren and the Emperor’s Royal Guard
The first entry on this list that isn’t technically a lightsaber fight, but it is a pretty big piece of the franchise’s puzzle: Rey (Daisy Ridley) and a recently-reformed Ben Solo (Adam Driver) simultaneously take on The Knights of Ren and Emperor Palpatine’s Imperial Guard underneath Exegol. Unfortunately, there’s a laundry list of reasons I wasn’t into any of this. It’s the conclusion to the wildly unnecessary reveal that Rey is Palpatine’s grandaughter, it’s taking place beneath a space battle that barely makes sense, and it’s a dimly-lit, poorly-staged rehash of the immensely more enjoyable throne room team-up in The Last Jedi.
However, I am also a simple man who enjoys simple pleasures, and Adam Driver’s little shoulder shrug—the one that screams “…gentlemen”—right before he slices his way through the Knights of Ren? Pure bliss. It might not feel completely earned, but Kylo Ren’s brief transformation into a classic, thermal-wearing Star Wars Good Guy is very effective.
16) Yoda vs. Count Dooku
Search your feelings, you know this ranking to be true. Full disclosure: The moment immediately preceding the fight itself, when Yoda pulls his lightsaber from his belt like an absolute boss, is one of the hypest moments in movie history. I’ll never forget the reaction in my first screening of Attack of the Clones; it was like a bomb went off when the crowd realized what was about to go down. To this day, it’s still goosebumps worthy, and might be even better remembered if it wasn’t directly followed by the exact type of embarrassing CGI calisthenics routine that made the prequels so frustrating. Every time I rewatch Attack of the Clones I’m waiting with anticipating for the lightsaber-pull moment, forgetting every time that Yoda’s lil Jedi flips look, sound, and just generally are extremely bad. The argument in its favor is usually that Yoda is using a legit Jedi technique (Form IV), which, fair, but also an Olympic athlete using a legit gymnastic technique in a swordfight would still look really, really funny.
15) Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Count Dooku (Round 1)
Any lightsaber fight featuring Count Dooku is kind of fascinating because it had to contend with the fact Christopher Lee was 80 freaking years old but also playing one of the most formidable fencers in the galaxy. (The man is a stone-cold legend, but there’s only so much 2002 VFX can accomplish.) Attack of the Clones features one of George Lucas‘ most clever visual workarounds, a pair of extreme close-ups on Anakin and Dooku where their faces are just lit by lightsaber flashes. It’s kind of weird, honestly, but a rare, refreshing break from your standard lightsaber duel framing.
14) Rey vs. Kylo Ren (Round 2)
With three rounds between them—plus two in which they’re on the same side—Kylo Ren and Rey (Daisy Ridley) have the unique distinction of trying to kill each other with laser swords the most out of anyone in the Star Wars franchise. Their first Rise of Skywalker tango is the weakest, but it’s at least unique in the sense that it takes place in two places at once. Do the Force projection “rules” established by J.J. Abrams make total sense? Not entirely, no. But the smooth transitions between Rey and Kylo’s two locations at least keep things visually comprehensive, and accidentally smashing Darth Vader’s helmet is about as clear a symbol as you’ll ever get.
13) Kylo Ren vs. Finn
This short woodland duel earns a few major points because the two-second tease of it in the first Force Awakens trailer was the most childlike excitement I’d felt towards a Star Wars anything in a decade. The finished product, of course, wasn’t much to write home about—the real main event would come right afterward—but there is an underrated MVP of this fight that deserves attention: the sound design. Thanks to the prequel films, we’d gotten used to the idea of lightsaber fights as these light, airy things, closer to dances than brawls. But J.J. Abrams cranked up the sound of deep hums and crashing blows. It really sounded like Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Finn (John Boyega) were throwing desperate bombs at each other. It’s the heaviest a lightsaber fight has ever felt, which makes Kylo’s fight-ending backslash blow all the more devastating.
12) Geonosis Free-for-All
Okay, so this is also a cheat since it’s technically not a “lightsaber fight” but like, come on! This is the first time we ever got to see the Jedi in their prime, being Jedi, and not A) Dumb idiots sitting in a circle while the Sith take over the galaxy or B) Hermits living in a tent somewhere. It’s also just stuffed with memorable moments, ranging from the terrible (Jango Fett’s hilariously abrupt death, C-3PO’s awful punnery) to the terrific (that rousing initial charge, Kit Fisto dropping a droid on C-3PO and stopping his awful punnery). It’s pure Star Wars chaos and inarguably a shining bright spot of the prequel movies.
11) Yoda vs. Palpatine
This one suffers just a little bit because it happens side-by-side with the much better Anakin vs. Obi-Wan fight on Mustafar. (More on that bad boy in a bit.) But I also think, for better or worse, the climactic showdown between Yoda and a fully-effed-up-looking Palpatine is Pure Prequels. It’s got lightsaber flips. It’s got CGI fuckery as far as the eye can see. It’s got Ian McDiarmid not just chewing scenery, but devouring it like a Sarlacc Pit. Aesthetically, it’s an entire mess, but George Lucas has established such an over-the-top, operatic tone at this point that you sort of flow with it. With that mindset, this is one gosh-dang entertaining battle of sabers, insults, and lightning fingers, the Force’s three most powerful weapons.
(Sidenote: Yoda just casually tossing two guards into the wall right before this fight is the funniest bit of intentional humor in all of Star Wars.)
10) Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. General Grievous
I really like the idea of General Grievous, Commander of the Droid Army, especially after learning he’s a human who was modified with droid parts and not—as I mistakenly believed as a kid—a droid who willingly gave himself human lungs like a giant dumbass. The concept of a “Jedi killer” who collects lightsabers off fallen opponents like trophies results in one of the more terrifying antagonists in the franchise. And you know what? I just think Obi-Wan’s effects-heavy fight with the many-armed Droid Commander is just really cool, nothing more, nothing less. (It’s also one of the rare times we actually got to see a notable Clone War engagement instead of hearing about it in a throwaway comment.) The fight loses points for ending with a blaster shot, of course, but Ewan McGregor‘s “so uncivilized” is an all-time great line delivery.
9) Rey vs. Kylo Ren (Round 3)
Like a lot of The Rise of Skywalker, this centerpiece tussle between Rey and Kylo comes with the same type of pure joy provided by fanfiction or smashing your Star Wars toys together. Think about this sentence: The son of Princess Leia and Han Solo having a vicious lightsaber fight with the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine on top of the ruins of the Death Star. What a genuinely insane thing that is. If you had a time machine you could straight-up break the brains of a lot of people in 1977. But while J.J. Abrams’ ability to tell a coherent, consistent story is as hit-or-miss as they come, the man has an undeniable eye for spectacle, and it doesn’t get grander than this. In terms of sheer awe factor, this works perfectly as the final one-on-one lightsaber duel of the entire Skywalker saga.
8) Kylo Ren vs. Rey (Round 1)
If you’re carving a Mount Rushmore of Star Wars “moments” across all three trilogies, Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber flying right past Kylo Ren’s fingers and into the hands of Rey should be a first-ballot choice. The fight that follows catches some flack from fans—would it even be Star Wars if it didn’t?—because newcomer Rey essentially beats a trained Sith. My thoughts on that are A) Kylo Ren just got shot in the goddamned stomach by a gun that does this to people and should probably be dead, much less participating in a fight, and B) This scene is one of the franchise’s most beautiful visualizations of putting your faith in The Force. Even punching his internal organs back into his body, Kylo has Rey on the ropes, and it isn’t until she finally gives in to the undercurrent she’s felt her entire life does she turn the tide. Gorgeous stuff, made all the more eye-popping by the way those lightsaber reds and blues reflect off the falling snow.
7) Kylo Ren vs. Luke Skywalker
Look, we all have thoughts on The Last Jedi, and if you wanted to see Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) slicing his way through entire armies as the Ultimate Jedi Badass, ya probably didn’t love how this played out. And that’s okay! To me, the confrontation between Luke—Force-projecting himself across the galaxy—and the former pupil he once failed deeply, Kylo Ren, is a moving conclusion to the most relatable arc of the franchise. After the events of Return of the Jedi, Luke fell. Luke failed, and Luke thought those failures made him worthless until a look at the next generation taught him to pick his ass back up. This “fight” is pure brains over brawn, tactic over brute force, a master letting his student know that he’ll always have one more lesson to learn. “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack,” Yoda once told a young Luke, and decades later he pulled the proverb off to perfection, sacrificing himself to save his friends and revive a rebellion without taking a single life.
6) Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader
Obviously, compared to every other lightsaber fight, uh, ever, the very first between an aged Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and his long-lost padawan lacks physicality and grandeur. (A less charitable person might say it’s mostly two old men pokin’ at each other with light-up sticks. Not me though.) But you simply cannot beat it when it comes to storytelling. You learn everything you’d ever need to know about both sides of The Force from watching Obi-Wan offer himself up to Vader, who immediately goes for the kill shot. The idea behind the words “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine” weaves through every decision made in all the Star Wars to come after it. Future fights would have far more acrobatics, but few would so successfully stick the landing.
5) Anakin Skywalker vs. Obi-Wan Kenobi
I rewatched all these scenes before writing this list, and by far the fight that surprised me the most was Anakin Skywalker vs. Obi-Wan Kenobi on Mustafar. For years, I had moments like “from my point of view the Jedi are evil” stuck in my head because that stuff is…well it’s very, very bad. But it almost doesn’t matter next to the drama of it all. George Lucas knew if he was going to create Darth Vader in front of our eyes he had to swing big, and there isn’t a more theatrical, tragic confrontation than this one. Ewan McGregor, a miracle worker of the highest order through all three films, sells the crap out of this scene’s sadness, like a tortured pet owner forced to put down a rabid dog. This entire thing is over the top as hell—lava! roundhouse kicks! windmilling!—but it never feels anything less like two emotionally tormented men trying their best to kill a brother.
4) Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader (Round 2)
The decidedly fuzzy battle going down on Endor is a bit of a mixed bag, but the duel for Anakin Skywalker’s soul happening up in the fully operational Death Star 2.0 is an emotional masterpiece. The fight is basically the struggle at the center of Luke’s character arc condensed into one intense showdown; wearing the Jedi equivalent of a tactical turtleneck, Luke just recklessly batters away at his father, clinging on to the light side of the Force by a fingernail. My dude boots Dark Vader in the chest so hard the strongest Sith in the galaxy does a full dang backflip down a flight of stairs. Underneath the blows is some of Mark Hamill’s best work. You can spot the exact moment Luke realizes he is perilously close to leaping over the line his own flesh and blood was seduced into crossing. “I am a Jedi, like my father before me,” is guaranteed chills every time, but blaster to my head, I still say the most beautifully-composed moment in all of Star Wars is this tracking shot of Luke and Vader’s silhouettes doing a deadly dance as John Williams‘ most haunting theme hums away.
3) Rey and Kylo Ren vs. The Elite Praetorian Guard
Once again, a bit of a cheat because this isn’t technically lightsaber-on-lightsaber action, but leaving this ass-kicking feast for the eyes off this list would’ve been a Laura Dern lightspeed maneuver right to my very soul. I love this scene, from Rey and Kylo Ren’s brief, low-key sensual pre-slaughter eye contact to the moment Kylo quick-flashes a lightsaber blade straight through a guard’s goddamn eyeball. No matter your thoughts on The Last Jedi, it’s undoubtedly one of, if not the most aesthetically pleasing Star Wars movie there is, and this scene—gorgeous and so very, very red—is its burning high-point. Physically, I’ve always enjoyed how there’s a bit of every era’s lightsaber style in there: the deliberate plodding of the Original Trilogy, the ninja-flipping theatrics of the Prequels, and the wild sloppiness of Rey and Kylo’s own brief tussle in The Force Awakens. Together, it’s a whooshing, whirling team-up between the light side and the dark to provide the most unique lightsaber scene of the entire franchise.
2) Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader (Round 1)
Any scene that ends with arguably the most iconic plot twist of all time is obviously going to rank pretty high, but that also means it’s easy to forget how much story is being told through choreography before “I am your father”. (Including that image above, arguably the most iconic still frame across all nine movies.) Yoda told Luke’s hotheaded ass not to confront Vader quite yet, and it’s immediately apparent why. Vader straight-up toys with the kid, dueling one-handed and shoving Luke to the ground like the overeager novice he is. It’s not as hectic or crazy as a lot of these fights, because it doesn’t need to be. Director Irvin Kershner mines so much tension by taking the music out of the beginning and setting the scene to the lightsaber hums, wrapping the entire thing in Cloud City’s smoke. And the scene so effectively builds on itself, too; once Luke impresses with spirit, if not talent, the fight literally opens up to an impossibly wider space and Vader shows him what the Dark side can really do. (I’d say he “gives him a hand” but Star Wars is serious business.) Iconic for a reason, Empire Strikes Back‘s centerpiece fight remains the hinge that the entire franchise swings on.
1) Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Maul
The Force works in mysterious ways, filling this galaxy far, far away with strange, wonderful contradictions. And perhaps there is no better example than The Phantom Menace, a genuinely unenjoyable mess about trade taxation and underwater annoyances that also happens to contain the single best lightsaber battle ever filmed. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn’s two-on-one skirmish with Sith apprentice Darth Maul is downright thrilling for its entire 15-minute runtime, aided greatly by John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates”—easily a top-five Star Wars piece and one of Williams’ finest, overall—and the fact that Park is the only person to play a major Star Wars character who is also basically a Jedi IRL. Sure, it’s a bit of a bummer that Maul’s double-sided lightsaber reveal was given away in the trailer, but give this one a rewatch and you’ll notice that moment is still not robbed of its ability to elicit a potent “oh, fuck yeah.”
According to many an interview, the prequel’s stunt coordinator Nick Gillard was essentially given carte blanche here—which meant he directed most of this scene—and pretty much ended up inventing a new kind of sword-play to answer George Lucas’ call for a faster form of lightsaber fights. Gillard once described that style as a chess match where every move is a check, and you see that plain as day here. It’s the most you’ll ever believe one fighter is holding off two opponents at the same time.
But man, there’s also so much story being told here it’s darn near its own short film within a larger piece. This fight contains the best, most simple visualization there is of the Light Side vs. The Dark Side: Separated by a crackling red barrier, Qui-Gon powers down his weapon and kneels to the floor in repose, while Darth Maul paces his section like a captured tiger waiting for feeding time, all coiled, dangerous energy. It’s wonderful work, and the stakes added by Obi-Wan desperately trying to reach his master only amps the scene to its highest level. (Ewan McGregor, as always, sells it like a Shakespeare tragedy.) Emotional, kinetic, and action-packed, this is Star Wars‘ best lightsaber fight.
The made-for-TV movies from the 1980s are gems in their own way.
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