Tier 1 – The Great Duels of Star Wars
We’ve now arrived at the very best Star Wars has had to offer to date, the four best duels in Star Warshistory. These fights are not only visually entertaining, but are significant to the growth of the characters and the advancement of the narrative, and tell us so much about the people taking part in them. These aren’t hokey religions and ancient weapons…well, maybe they are ancient weapons, but the Force is with these duels.
#4 – Luke v Darth Vader, The Empire Strikes Back
Luke’s first showdown with Vader is epic, in large part because he’s overeager and has no idea what kind of s*** he’s gotten himself into. But he’s so damn cocky! Pulling out his lightsaber first, backing Vader down…until he suddenly realized this has all been a trap and he’s in serious trouble.
But the best part of this duel is the multiple evolutions it goes through. After Vader thinks he’s dispatched Luke without breaking a sweat, Luke actually puts him on the defensive. And then Vader goes into angry badass mode, until a desperate Luke pushes him beyond control, and the power of the Dark Side takes over.
The whole duel is just super cool, it puts a great cap on Empire. And, you know, I guess there’s a little bit of a major reveal at the end of it.
#3 – Luke v Darth Vader, Return of the Jedi
Purely in terms of choreography, the first Luke/Vader duel might be better that this one. This one is more intense throughout, but it’s also about big movements more than skilled swordsmanship. But that’s ok, because this duel has SO MUCH character building in it.
The Emperor is always watching, never forgot. Vader is locked in his slavish devotion, unable to break free even when he wants to – Luke sees the depth of his depravity when Vader throws his lightsaber at him. And of course, Luke’s transition from angry Jedi to beacon of peace to desperate brother is pure gold, as is the presentation of the two roads in front of him at the end of the duel and his strong choice down the path his father should have taken.
This duel is a summary and the culmination of the entire original trilogy in one brilliant scene, full of emotion and full appreciation of the mystery of the Force that was a calling card of the series before those pesky midichlorians got in the way.
#2 – Obi-Wan v Anakin, Revenge of the Sith
Without a doubt, the duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin has the most impressive fight choreography of any lightsaber duel in the Star Wars saga. Two Jedi at the height of their powers going toe to toe is a spectacle, indeed, particularly when they’re fighting in the midst of a volcanic planet that threatens to kill them both at any moment.
And emotion? It’s got emotion. It may suffer some of the same ills as the other prequel duels, but that’s more the fault of the action that comes before it than the duel itself. As Obi-Wan says, this was a fight between brothers who at one time loved one another. The tragedy of a fallen Anakin becomes real in this battle, and the callous Obi-Wan has towards him in the original Star Wars forms before our eyes here.
If not for the bad dialogue littered through the fight, this might have been the unequivocal top duel on the list. As it is, that honor belongs to…
#1 – Qui-Gon & Obi-Wan v Darth Maul, The Phantom Menace
There is one fault to be found in this duel, and it’s problematic in part due to just how great the rest of the duel is: the ending. If there is one single thing I could change in The Phantom Menace, it would be to keep Darth Maul alive and not kill him in such a lame way. Have Obi-Wan be forced to chance it down this pit as a nice little call back to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. Theed palace had fallen. Maul could have run off and lived to be a threat another day.
But oh man, this duel is so good. There’s the obvious bits: Maul igniting his double bladed lightsaber (we didn’t know it did that before this moment), the whole notion of one Sith fighting two Jedi, the calm determination that makes Qui-Gon such a badass, the gorgeous choreography that has flourishes but isn’t too stylized. It’s great.
The quality goes well beyond that, though. Remember, this is the Sith threat arisen for the first time in a thousand years. The Jedi are facing off against their ancient enemy, and Maul is the perfect avatar for the Sith approach. Angry. Aggressive. Confident.
It’s also spot on for Qui-Gon, a bit of an outsider at the Jedi temple, but the duel shows just how committed he is to the Jedi cause. AND it shows what an exemplary master he is – he meditates in the middle of the fight! For Obi-Wan, we see the beginning of a personal struggle with anger that he should have had to deal with through the other prequels before arriving as the sage master in Star Wars. Maul is his perfect foil, and the portion of the duel featuring just the two of them gets us so excited for what’s to come (ignoring the ending).
Of course, the prequels didn’t deliver on nearly any of the promise this duel had, but that doesn’t make the duel any less. It’s one of the most effective pieces of visual storytelling in the entire saga, and the best lightsaber duel in Star Wars history.