With the upcoming release of Warcraft, sword fights have been on our mind. Sword fights have been a thrilling part of the cinematic experience ever since the age of silent film. No matter how much technology has advanced, there’s always been a visceral, thrilling experience to watching two (or more) swordsmen let their blades loose on each other. Earlier this year, we counted down the 15 Best Swordsmen of all time. This time, we’re focusing on the fights themselves, and picking 15 of our favorite steel clashing scenes.
These scenes vary wildly, ranging from sword fights in medieval fields to outer space and beyond. But what they all have in common is an inventiveness and originality. The camera work involved in a sword fight, when done well, can really make us feel like we’re in the match, ducking and dodging swipes of the blade. So let’s jump in. Here are The 15 Best Movie Sword Fights.
15. The Duellists (First Duel)
You may not have heard of this 1977 film, but after watching the scene above, we have a feeling you’ll want to seek it out immediately. Starring Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel, the film follows two feuding officers in the French Army during Napoleonic times. Directed by Ridley Scott, the film features a number of captivating and intense sword fights, but the scene above is maybe our favorite.
This sword fight is a wonderful achievement in cinematography. Watch how the camera shakily hovers over the shoulders of the two men, making the audience feel like a third participant in the fight. These handheld shots are interspersed with static wide shots. Cutting between these two different shots makes us feel off balance and on edge. The fight itself plays like a piece of music. There are long pauses as the duellists plan their next attack, then quick, staccato swipes as the two men try to disarm each other. It’s a thrilling fight, and beautifully shot.
14. The Matrix Reloaded (Chateau Fight)
It’s no secret that The Matrix sequels were never able to match the breathtaking originality of the first film. But while the plot and dialogue may have suffered in the sequels, the Wachowskis still showed us that they could put together a hell of a fight scene when given the opportunity. Look no further than the insane Chateau fight from The Matrix Reloaded.
The camera soars around Neo as he fends off a seemingly never-ending group of henchmen wielding various antique weaponry. This scene is a clear case of filmmakers having fun playing in their sandbox. There is an infectious, jubilant energy to the whole sequence. The movement is fluid like a ballet, zipping back and forth between elegant slow motion and kinetic, high speed attacks as Neo fends off the villains with his two swords. Characters float over the staircase, unrestrained by physics, and we as audience members are left with our mouths agape.
13. The Scorpion King (Memnon vs. The Scorpion King)
The Scorpion King is a dumb movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The only crime a dumb action movie can commit is not being fun, and even The Scorpion King’s most vocal detractors can’t argue that the movie isn’t fun. Buoyed by The Rock’s undeniable charisma, the ridiculous, over the top-sword and sandals adventure culminates in a rooftop sword fight that involves not one, but two flaming swords.
The scene is ridiculous in all the best ways. We’re not sure of the physics involved in lighting a metal sword on fire, but by the time Memnon (Stephen Brand) starts swinging, we’re too swept up in the fun to care much. The camera whips around the rooftop, lingering on The Rock’s sweaty, gleaming muscles, and teetering over the edge to show us the dizzying heights below. It’s dumb, and boy, it’s a good time.
12. Adventures of Robin Hood (Robin Hood vs. Sir Guy)
Watching sword fights from older films is particularly thrilling, because we know that no effects or CGI were used to enhance the excitement. The onus was entirely on the performers to draw us into the battle and make us believe their lives were truly in danger. Watching something like the sword fight between Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) and Sir Guy (Basil Rathbone) feels more akin to watching a stage play than a film. The camera is relatively unobtrusive. We’re merely spectators in a beautifully choreographed, detailed fight scene between two of the biggest adventure stars at the time. We know that one wrong step or mistake could lead to an actual injury. The artistry involved in these classic sword fights commands our attention and demands our respect.
11. Conan the Barbarian (Palace Battle)
Like with The Scorpion King, there’s just an inherent joy in watching a beefy macho man smash his way through a castle with a broadsword. Conan the Barbarian is a classic example of this. The palace battle pits a ripped Arnold Schwarzenegger against a few equally muscular henchmen and lets havoc ensue. This sword fight differs from others in this list, as it’s not at all about speed or dexterity with the blade. This is a weighty, heavy, lurching battle. Henchmen heave enormous hammers above Conan, and he lumbers out of the way just as they’re brought down with a deafening smash. Watching a few muscular barbarians smash a palace to rubble is absolutely delightful.
10. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (Rolling Wheel Fight)
When it comes to cinematic sword fights, location is key. In his Pirates of the Caribbean films, Jerry Bruckheimer continually found unusual and inventive locations for the swashbuckling sword clashing to take place in. Our favorite example is the sword fight near the end of Dead Man’s Chest, in which Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), and Norrington (Jack Davenport) find themselves sparring on a detached watermill rolling through the jungle.
The scene, like most of the series, follows a Bugs Bunny-esque logic as Turner and Norrington clash swords atop the spinning wheel while Sparrow gets caught up in the spokes. The Rube Goldbergian chain of events that leads the pirates into this ridiculous set-up is hilarious, and somehow feels authentic, albeit in a cartoon-logic way.
9. Kill Bill (The Bride vs. The Crazy 88’s)
Quentin Tarantino has made an entire career out of filtering his favorite cinematic influences through his own subversive lens. His adoration for kung fu films is never more apparent than in the iconic sword battle between The Bride (Uma Thurman) and the Crazy 88’s at the end of Kill Bill. Tarantino gleefully adopts all of the violent and outrageous tendencies of early kung fu films and exploits them for his own pleasure. The Bride fends off dozens of swordsmen in black suits and ties, plucking out eyeballs and esophaguses. Candy-red blood sprays out of disembodied limbs like water from a garden hose. The entire scene is joyously outrageous in its own ridiculousness. What began as a homage is now easily included in the pantheon of great kung fu sword fight scenes.
8. The Count of Monte Cristo (Edmond Dantes vs. Fernand Mondego)
While there’s a great joy in sword fights taking place in complicated, extravagant surroundings, there’s something equally exciting about a sword fight that takes place in a simple setting. The climactic battle in The Count of Monte Cristo takes place outside a crumbling castle in a grassy field. This peaceful setting becomes a thrilling location as the camera speeds through the tall grass, keeping low, watching the enraged swordsmen have at each other. Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel) and Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce) thrash wildly at each other, hurling rocks and fists as much as swinging their swords. The tall grass becomes a danger, as dropping a sword means the man is defenseless until he can find it again. The scene provides an explosive catharsis to the emotional journey of the two men.
7. The Mask of Zorro (Zorro vs. Elena)
Sword fights can be extremely adaptable, eliciting a different emotional response in the audience depending on the context of the fight. They can be suspenseful, comical, dramatic, or, in the case of The Mask of Zorro, sexy. The movie itself may be only so-so, but the sword fight in the stable between Zorro (Antonio Banderas) and Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is memorable particularly for its joyful flirtatiousness. Elena and Zorro take elegant swipes at each other, snipping clothing and trading flirtatious insults. At one point, Zorro even steals a kiss. The scene ends with Zorro removing Elena’s nightdress with a few well-aimed swings of his blade. That’s some impressive swordsmanship.
6. Troy (Hector vs. Achilles)
By the time Hector (Eric Bana) and Achilles (Brad Pitt) take their fight to the desert outside the castle, tensions are already high. We’ve already seen Achilles take down one of the toughest soldiers in the country with minimal effort. Hector is our ostensible hero, but based on skill, it would seem as if he doesn’t have a chance against the legendary fighter.
This fight is scored with a brilliant, minimal drum beat, pitter pattering against the clang and clash of the men’s spears and shields. Hector struggles from the outset, continually being knocked back by Achilles’ superior strength. When the final blow comes, the pitter patter of drums is replaced by a woman singing and wailing. The entire shot is a pulse-pounding experience, with a tragic finale.
5. The Princess Bride (Westley vs. Inigo)
According to movies, nothing brings people together like a good sword fight. For every battle that ends in death, another seems to end in a newfound friendship. Such is the case with Westley (Cary Elwes) and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) in Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride. The two men enjoy a playful swordfight atop a high cliff, trading witty remarks and complementing each other’s skill. The scene, like the rest of the film, is comical and pleasant. When Westley finally disarms Inigo Montoya, he compares the thought of killing such a skilled artist as Inigo to destroying a stained glass window. He settles for knocking him out and running away. A beautiful friendship is born.
4. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Aragorn at the Black Gate)
It would be close to impossible to choose a favorite sword fight from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but we’ve chosen to go with the final, climactic battle at the Black Gate in Return of the King. This fight carries with it the entire emotional weight of the series. As Frodo and Sam struggle with Gollum inside Mt. Doom, Aragorn and company trade blows with an army of Orcs outside the Black Gate. Aragorn is pitted against an enormous, monstrous troll that lays into him with terrifying strength. The fight is suitably epic, with that famous, angelic hymn scoring the scene. As Aragorn is knocked to the earth, the ring is destroyed, and this incredible series finds its apex.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Indy vs. The Swordsman)
Maybe we’re stretching the definition of “sword fight” with this entry, but this may be our favorite confrontation on the list. The story behind this wonderful scene is famous at this point. Harrison Ford was supposedly deathly sick with food poisoning, so he suggested to Steven Spielberg they forgo the planned battle between Indy and the Arab Swordsman, and just have Indy shoot the guy instead. Whether this story is true or not, we can’t argue with the wonderful simplicity of the scene. The crowd parts, and we’re exposed to a deadly threat. The villain brandishes and waves his sword, and Indy does the only thing that makes sense; he tiredly shoots the guy and carries on with his day. It’s a classic moment in a classic film, and we have diarrhea to thank for it.
2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Yu Shu Lien vs. Jen Yu)
In 2000, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon took the world by storm, thanks to it’s incredible action and brilliantly staged fight scenes. This was a kung fu film that took old tropes and made them feel so fresh and new, audiences couldn’t help but take notice. This is on full display here in this incredible fight scene between Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang). The choreography on display here is unmatched among other films. The two woman fly through the battle, switching weapons, running up walls, and soaring over each other. There is also a healthy dose of comedy running through the scene, such as when Lien overestimates her own strength and can’t pick up a new weapon. This is the sword fight that all other sword fights aspire to be.
1. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader)
It’s difficult to choose a favorite sword fight in the Star Wars series. The Duel of the Fates scene from The Phantom Menace is awe-inspiring with its choreography. Yoda vs. Count Dooku is ridiculously entertaining. But for this list, we’ve got to go with Luke vs. Darth Vader at the end of Empire Strikes Back. This scene is infused with such poignant emotional weight. Through the fight, we see Luke shed his training and effectively start wailing on Vader. He’s thrashing at him, and letting his anger take over. The fight, though relatively simply staged, carries such complex emotions it is entirely engrossing to watch. Luke fights through his sweat and tears, just trying to bring pain to someone he hates. This makes the famous reveal at the end of the battle all the more wrenching. It’s superb filmmaking, and sword fighting at it’s absolute best.
What are some of your favorite sword fights in film history? Let us know in the comments!