Greatest Star Wars Lightsaber Duels
Get your pitchforks out – we’re ranking the 15 best Star Wars battles. At their best, lightsaber duels express the themes of an entire movie, trilogy, or even the franchise as a whole. They act as both action sequences and the culmination of a character’s entire objective.
In this feature I look only at the currently released canon films, qualifying any action between two or more “named’ characters where a lightsaber is drawn, including clashes like Obi-Wan vs. Jango Fett and Luke vs. Boba Fett. I then rank them on a 10-point scale according to three categories:
How cool was the fight to watch? Did it use a heavy amount of CGI that didn’t age very well? Did it look cramped and awkward?
2. Swordplay Technicality
Weirdly, I’m certified in Level 2 Rapier from Dueling Arts International, and a good fight contains a lot of elements. I was always taught that one of the most important elements to a good theatrical fight is the intention – the level that the fighters truly act as though they want to hurt each other and protect themselves from being killed. This are done using simple offensive cuts and defensive parries, but is mostly conveyed through believable acting. So, I look for that intention, as well as if technique was used, or if the fighters just sort of spun around with lightsabers.
3. Importance to the Plot
Was a fight integral to moving the plot forward, or was it simply fan service? Could you cut this fight out and the rest of the plot would still make sense? Fighting and action are always welcome in sci-fi, but in Star Wars, specifically the prequels, it can seriously put a damper on the plot, making you wonder why they even put the unnecessary action in there in the first place.
That said, let’s get to it:
Star Wars Lightsaber Battles Ranked
15. Yoda vs. Count Dooku – Episode II
Man, this fight sucks. Both Obi-Wan and Anakin are taken out quickly, and Yoda just sort of strolls in, absorbing lightning very slowly. There’s a bit of swordplay, but it’s painfully awkward, and I can’t tell if it’s just because I don’t like Dooku as a Sith in general, or if it’s all the CGI that hasn’t aged well at all. That swordplay between Yoda and Dooku is all flourish, and as tends to be the case in the prequels, the fighters frequently stand still, spinning their sabers aimlessly, really bogging down the fight and making me want to scream “cut the foreplay!” It happens so much in this particular fight that it seems less like a battle and more like a teenage EDM dance. Is it important to the plot? Fuck no. I don’t like to scream fan service at things too often, but this is clearly Yoda fan service. It does try to showcase that Yoda is a powerful Jedi, and clarify his relationship to Dooku, but I think a stronger move would have been to avoid this fight and save Yoda’s combat skills for the ultimate battle with the Emperor in Episode III.
14. Mace Windu vs. The Emperor – Episode III
This is actually higher on many other lists, but I disagree with elevating it for many reasons. First of all, it’s pretty awkward to watch. Mace Windu comes in with three Jedis from the council, and Palpatine just takes them all out in one hit each. I get that they’re trying to show that he’s that powerful, and maybe they just didn’t want to choreograph three other nobodies in a fight featuring Samuel L Jackson, but it feels weird to watch the Jedi get slaughtered without trying to fight back. Other than that, the whole fight feels lazy both in choreography and editing. There are points when Palpatine thrusts and Windu doesn’t parry, so there’s a lot of dead air, and if Palpatine actually just wanted to kill Windu, he could just thrust a few inches further and boom – the end. There’s no clear definition of how powerful everyone is supposed to be. The only thing that this fight has going for it is its plot importance, just for the sake of Anakin making his ultimate choice toward the Dark Side and his earning of the title of Darth Vader. Also, when Palpatine uses lightning and turns himself into a giant scrotum, I like that. Extra point.
13. Obi-wan Kenobi vs. Jango Fett – Episode II
This fight is almost cool, but not quite. It’s in the rain, and Ewan McGregor is always 100% invested in the pun/wit-laden Obi-Wan, but Jango Fett is the epitome of Star Wars trying too hard. This fight does need to be there, but it should be better. They did try, but it was just unsuccessful. It’s drawn out, and even though there is a lot of action, there’s not a lot of intention. It ultimately ends up falling flat and feeling pretty bland.
12. Qui-Gon Jinn vs. Darth Maul on Tatooine – Episode I
Darth Maul – cool. Qui-Gon Jinn – cool. Tatooine – always cool. Fight – kinda lame. It’s basic cuts and parries for a few seconds, then Qui-Gon force-jumps into a ship and well, there you go. It doesn’t contain a lot of importance, and like the Yoda vs. Dooku fight, all of the action could have been saved for a more powerful clash at the end. Darth Maul is already pretty evil-looking, so doing a normal-looking fight takes away from that power. However, he does fight with only one side of his double-sided saber, which acts as red herring thing for when he goes all two-bladed later. Another aspect that draws away from the fight is the bad camera angles. It’s shot at some weird perspectives, and in a lot of dust and filament and such takes away from the power of the duel. This fight feels more classic Star Wars than anything else in the Prequels, but you could still cut it and nothing would happen to the plot. It’s a pretty alright fight comparatively, but just falls short of cool and more into plain.
11. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker vs. Count Dooku – Episode II
This fight is relatively important; it’s one of the first times we see Anakin step up, stop talking about how much he hates sand, and be the great fighter that we, as the audience, have heard about (or will hear about) from Obi-Wan in Episode IV. He wields two lightsabers, which is pretty rad, and then gets his hand chopped off. The lightning is pretty unique to this fight, and adds a lot to an otherwise dull and very quick encounter. One big problem though is with the lack of intention. If Dooku and Anakin truly want to hurt each other, there would be many more cuts, and not a petty use of the force. Still, it’s hard to tell if this is because of the fight choreography or Hayden Christensen.
10. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. General Grievous – Episode III
Okay, there’s a lot going on here. As a kid, I really loved this fight and General Grievous, but now that I’m watching this objectively, this is a good example of Star Wars jumping the shark in fight form. A battle between Obi-Wan and Grievous is already pretty awesome, but the fight’s actual problem lies in its overabundance of something already good, thereby turning it into something bad. My suspension of disbelief is already pretty high for Star Wars, but when Obi-Wan and Grievous start chasing each other on lizard monsters, and weird circle motorbike contraptions with a million cut-and-paste clones are firing lasers every which way, it becomes sensory overkill. Still, what I do really enjoy about this fight is that Kenobi and Grievous have some serious intention. With all the crazy shit going on around them, they are heavily focused on killing one another, and I love that. I also never get tired of Grievous spinning four lightsabers around and it tearin’ up the ground.
9. Yoda vs. The Emperor – Episode III
If Obi-Wan vs. Anakin is light vs. dark on a small and personal scale, this is thematically the same fight, but on a large and impactful scale – and the Dark side wins. This is a battle of power; Yoda and the Emperor both inhabited the senate floor, and now they’re each tearing it apart. Democracy is finally gone, and Yoda, after hanging onto the clutches of what’s left, gives up and concedes to the power that has overthrown everything. If anything, this fight is symbolic and integral to detailing the plot of the overarching Star Wars mythos; it’s interlaced with the Anakin and Obi-Wan fight, and is hugely impactful for that reason. For technicality, again, it’s a lot of spinning, and it’s hard to tell what’s going on other than “they’re fighting with lightsabers really fast.” In the end, even though this fight is heavily symbolic, it does fall a just little short because of the technology limitations making it feel just a tad corny – but the feels are all there.
8. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker vs. Count Dooku – Episode III
One of the more important scenes in the prequels, this one is great because it has a different tone than the duels. It’s quiet and concentrated, with two very good Jedis versus one Sith Lord. It begins to show Anakin’s emotions as dangerous, both for the Light and Dark. The technicality of this fight is on point, with actual sword fighting technique in its cuts, parries, and footwork, but also in its intention. Anakin and Dooku are going for blood in this fight, and with absolutely no mercy on either side. It’s refreshing to see a solid fight with no unnecessary embellishments that ends with elements integral to Anakin’s character, both in his justice to do right at any cost, and ultimate failure due to his fear of loss. This is one where a short fight makes sense, as it displays the growth and power of Anakin, but even though it’s a solid fight, it’s not overly exciting.
7. Luke Skywalker vs. Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt Party Ship – Episode VI
This sequence is short, sweet, and fun. Mark Hamill has got some serious skills with a lightsaber, and after being on Luke’s journey through Episodes IV and V, it’s actually really rad to see Luke flourish into this awesome Jedi that has no fear while taking down an entire ship of bad guys. The fight with Boba Fett is nonchalant, and actually pretty comical. It feels very action movie-esque, where the taking down of an institution feels almost seamless, and it finally paints Luke as the action hero to confront the Empire. It marks an excellent beginning to the Return of the Jedi.
6. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader – Episode IV
Time has passed between the last time Obi-Wan and Darth Vader saw one another, and time has not been kind to either of them. This fight is simple and basic, but for all the right reasons. I think what I notice most about this fight is how much Obi-Wan and Vader look like they don’t want to be around each other, and it’s only enhanced by the previous fight on Episode III. Still, they hardly move. There are some basics in there, but because of how simple it is, it comes off as more boring, since it looks like all they’re doing is touching tips. The memorable slash Vader does to Obi-wan at the end is pretty goofy today, and takes away from the importance of that scene. This fight is all-important, memorable, and historical, but just falls flat by today’s standards.
5. Rey vs. Kylo Ren – Episode VII
The fight between Rey and Kylo Ren closely mirrors the final showdown between Luke and Vader in Episode VI. By taking place in a colorless void, it uses highlighting and swordplay to tell the story. It also continues a trend from the end of Episode VI by blurring the lines between light and dark and showing the animalistic nature of the fighting. It strays away from the prissy-ness that we’ve seen in the prequels, and shows two people who want to fucking murder each other. My only complaint is that Rey does seem a little too powerful, especially in overtaking Kylo Ren at the end.
4. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Maul – Episode I
On the coolness scale, this is a rad fight. I remember this as being seared into my memory from my childhood, as I gasped in the theater when I saw that Darth Maul had a two-headed lightsaber. As much of a piece of shit Episode I is, this fight makes the film. It contains excellent representations of the Light and Dark sides as presented in Qui-Gon and Darth Maul – the patience and mindfulness of the Jedi coupled with the fiery resistance and anger of the Sith. The moment when Qui-Gon dies is done really well – not with a slash, but with just one slip up. Darth Maul got the upper hand once, and it cost Qui-Gon Jinn his life. It’s one of the defining moments for Obi-Wan and his story going forward.
3. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Anakin Skywalker – Episode III
Obi-Wan has the extremely complicated objective of both trying to save himself as well as Anakin, and that is truly what makes this fight amazing. It’s a base, instinct-driven duel, championed by Ewan McGregor’s outstanding commitment to such a complicated objective. Despite some of Hayden Christensen’s laughable moments in this fight (“to me, the Jedi are evil!”), McGregor’s performance is what makes this absolutely tragic, in a good way. This moment defines the franchise going forward, and is essential to the development of two major characters.
2: Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader vs. The Emperor – Episode VI
What I absolutely love about this fight is its use of hate to drive the plot forward. Luke’s not really a classically-trained Jedi, and in this final battle with Darth Vader, he does allow the hate to flow through him in order to win. This is seen when Luke just wails on Vader repeatedly at the end, in the same positioning, over and over again, until anger and vengeance take him over. The cutting off of hands is, up to this point, only done by current or future Sith; you actually think Luke is going to kill Vader. It’s not a very Jedi thing to do, and I love it. This is another epic battle between Light and Dark side; not a fight resulting from external stimuli, but one from a more personal place – the internal struggle of both Luke and Vader. Vader does eventually fulfill his ultimate purpose in this fight as well – in a way both brutal and without a lightsaber – by tossing Palpatine into an endless void. It’s base, animalistic, and unexpected – a battle of passion, a battle of hate, a battle that blurs the lines between Light and Dark.
1. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader – Episode V
This scene is represented well by Vader’s line stating that Luke “has only begun to discover [his] power.” This fight is one of the most iconic scenes in film history, and for good reason. Everything about it, from the lighting to the sound design to the fight choreography is amazing, telling the story with full intent. As an audience member, you’ve been on this journey with Luke, watching him train and rooting for him; once he enters the room with Darth Vader, however, it’s scary, and you question whether or not Luke is actually ready for this, which is a brilliant use of storytelling. This fight has perfect flow, and each action with the sword has an equally compelling reaction. An excellent example of this is when Luke cuts Vader’s shoulder and Vader just cuts off Luke’s hand in retaliation, to disarm him. If there’s one word to describe this fight, it’s beautiful. Everything from the set, lighting, sound design, and technical fight choreography is perfect, making this scene poetic.
There you have it. You can watch nearly all of the major lightsaber duels here with Youtube User NexGen’s chronological video, and decide for yourself which battle belongs where.