Tier 2 – The Good Fights
These aren’t the peak of what Star Wars has to offer, but each was a worthwhile inclusion to its movie. Two of the three are more plot points than events in their own right, but that’s ok – they’re still very cool, and that’s part of why they work.
#7 – Yoda v Darth Sidious, Revenge of the Sith
Yes, yes, yes I know this duel breaks every rule and standard I’ve set up to this point. They don’t use lightsabers for a lot of the time and if it were up to me neither Yoda nor Sidious would be fighting.
But come on. If you’re going to do it, then you should do it up good. And they did. The fact that it’s the two of them hacking at each other with Force powers half the time kind of only makes it better. So shut up. This was fun, and I still remember the theater I was in when I first saw the movie cheering through the whole thing.
#6 – Obi-Wan v Darth Vader, Star Wars
This is, without question, the least flashy lightsaber duel in all of Star Wars, but unlike many similar lists, I don’t mark it down because of that. The choreography is good enough to be believable and there is so much going on during this duel! These two old men haven’t seen each other in years, and they spend most of the fight trying to figure the other one out. Think about what Obi-Wan says. “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” The head games! THE HEAD GAMES!
And of course, there’s the ending of the fight, one of the most iconic moments in all of Star Wars. There’s some sort of limit I have to make on how much credit to give based on its impact on the rest of the series or else it would automatically be #1 on this list. As it is, this is a visually compelling and thematically rich duel that tells us oh-so-much about the nature of the Force and the fearful wrath of Darth Vader.
#5 – Qui-Gon v Darth Maul, The Phantom Menace
No, I’m not talking about that little portion of the duel at the end of the movie where Obi-Wan gets stuck and Qui-Gon has to fight Darth Maul alone. I’m talking about earlier in the movie when Maul chases Qui-Gon and Anakin off Tatooine. It’s an oft-forgotten fight, and short, but it’s still among the better ones in the entire series.
The fight is well choreographed – not too much flash, lots of substance, and the stark feeling that this is absolutely a matter of life and death. I particularly like how Maul’s (at the time, strangely) long hilt changes the way he fights. It helps drive home visually the idea that Qui-Gon is facing an unfamiliar threat. Plus, the juxtaposition of Maul’s acrobatic style with Qui-Gon’s direct defense make the duel visually compelling and easy to keep track of.
Side note: one of the redeeming factors about Phantom Menace as a whole is that, unlike the other prequels, it still necessarily has a foot in a more physical, less digitally rendered world. In this case, that shows up in the way the lightsabers are colored. They look a lot more like the mysterious weapons seen in the original trilogy here and not like the glowsticks found in Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith.