En Garde! Five Great Movie Sword Fights


As a card-carrying nerd with pretty much zero interest in sports, and therefore zero interest in high school gym classes, I thought I could breathe a sigh of relief once I’d graduated and was on my way to college. Silly, silly me. I don’t know how it is today, but when I enrolled as a college freshman, I discovered that I still had a couple of “phys ed” requirements to fulfill. However, I was pleased to see that once you reached the halls of higher education, you got to specialize; there was no such generic thing as “gym” in the Schedule of Courses—only a series of specific athletic disciplines you could choose to pursue.

Being a longtime fan of Robin Hood and Zorro movies, I quickly signed up for the classes that would allow me to cultivate my skills as a swashbuckler. I used to shoot a bow and arrow a lot in my grandparents’ backyard, so archery wouldn’t be totally new to me. What I was really looking forward to was fencing, because I was (and am) a sucker for great movie sword fights.

Pretty quickly, I learned why making that connection was a folly. You see, the aim in a real sword fight is to actually try to stab the other person before you are stabbed (well, duh); in that way, it’s like any other sport, and therefore involves a lot of what can best be described as competitive aggression. As a lover and not a fighter, like the old saying goes, it just ain’t in me. In the movies, it only looks like people are trying to kill each other. I like the simplicity, I like the elegance…I like the moves. And crucially, what I should have probably recognized from the get-go, is that what I like is the illusion.

What actors are doing in great movie sword fights is, naturally, a lot more akin to dance than sport—and while you’re still technically learning fencing, the aim in stage combat is most decisively to not injure the other person. Even when it’s time to rig up the collapsible blade and the blood bag. So, needless to say, once I fulfilled my requirements in the class, I dropped the pursuit of competitive fencing like a hot potato and went back to more productive pursuits for me, like waving around a humorously crooked espada ropera as Don Quixote on the stage…and revisiting my favorite movie sword fights.


5. Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

No feint intended here; this is truly one of the finest movie sword fights ever filmed. While I was never one to buy into the “George Lucas raped my childhood” meme, I definitely count myself among the millions of Star Wars fans who cried out in disappointment after viewing each and every one of the prequel trilogy films—our agonies beginning with the many, many things we all found to be lacking in Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Rather than indulge in what SW fans still love to do, which is to have the exact same conversations with each other, over and over again, about all of the prequel trilogies’ shortcomings and horrors, beginning and ending with Jar-Jar Binks—oh no, don’t get me started!—let’s celebrate the greatest thing in all three of those films: the lightsaber duel Jedi knights Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi fight against Sith Lord Darth Maul.

One of George Lucas’s indisputable strokes of genius was to carry the sword fight into his “galaxy far, far away” by turning steel blades into laser beams; for all that might be “wrong” with The Phantom Menace, I submit that it boasts the best lightsaber battle of the entire six-film (to date) series. The villain’s twin-bladed weapon was one of the delights of the film’s early trailers that got fans talking, and actor/martial artist Ray Park executes his taunting, acrobatic moves with relish. Some may quibble that the “authenticity” of the fight is marred by routines that defy physics, but my verdict is that the sequence represents the best of what Lucas always aims for—the resurrection and repurposing of old-fashioned cinematic images.

With the special effects, costuming, and massive (if largely digital) sets delivering film fans the feverishly pleasing feeling of watching a Russian epic, samurai adventure, and space opera all at the same time—along with composer John Williams’ most inspired musical contribution to the prequel series—this “Duel of the Fates” marks a high point in the history of movie sword fights.

(Speaking of the famous Williams soundtrack composition: If you ever wondered exactly what words the choral ensemble are singing in that piece of music, go here to appreciate an awfully amusing interpretation)


4. The Princess Bride

One word you rarely associate with great movie sword fights is charming—but that’s the best way to describe the well-mannered thrusts and parries exchanged by Westley/The Dread Pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) in Rob Reiner’s delightful fairy-tale film The Princess Bride. Their combat is a perfect representation of the entire film’s delicate balance of tone, blending lighthearted adventure, comedy, and old-world romance with flourishes of sadness and authentic gravitas.

In his 2014 book As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, star Elwes shared the details of how he and co-star Patinkin exhaustively prepared for the scene by learning and rehearsing not only their own moves but their opponent’s moves as well, so that there would be “no room for error” in the graceful execution of what screenwriter William Goldman indicated in the script was to be “the greatest swordfight in modern times.”


3. The Adventures of Robin Hood

Here, we’ve arrived at what many movie lovers might say is their own personal choice for the greatest movie swordfight of all times. One thing few fans would argue over is that The Adventures of Robin Hood’s climactic duel includes the man still regarded as the greatest swordsman in movie history—and he loses the fight! Basil Rathbone, whose deliciously evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne colorfully meets his end at the hands of Errol Flynn’s dashing Robin Hood, was known to have had not much regard for his onscreen foil’s stage combat skills.

Maybe that contributes to the extra element of zest we perceive in their showdown here; you can see Sir Guy practically boiling over with rage and contempt as their fight takes them around the massive castle columns—with a particularly famous piece of shadow-play casting the duel as something larger-than-life, something mythic.  Also supplying considerable majesty to the scene is the richly thrilling score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold; one of the subtler virtues of Korngold’s music might be that it does an exceptional job of covering over how the film reveals its vintage a bit today, what with the sound effects of the swords clanking together a bit too thin to register as powerful to today’s ears.


2. Sanjuro

A great movie sword fight doesn’t have to be long or elaborate to be great, as Akira Kurosawa’s samurai thriller Sanjuro proves so well. In this sequel to Kurosawa’s rightly worshiped classic Yojimbo, the climactic sparring between Toshiro Mifune’s Samurai with No Name (well, he has a name, it’s just an improvised one) and Tatsuya Nakadai’s glowering henchman might qualify as the shortest sword fight in movie history but for the daringly extended, silent stare-down the enemies exchange before unleashing their swords from their scabbards.

While it may be brief, this battle is undeniably memorable—and by that I mean, once you’ve seen it, you will never forget it. I will say absolutely no more so as not to spoil the scene’s utterly unique payoff…except maybe to say that any respectable fan of film swordplay will most certainly gush at the scene’s thrilling (and, to me, darn funny) novelty.

An unconventional selection to rank so highly, but this is my list and I’m sticking to it.


1. The Mark of Zorro

For this viewer, no movie sword fight tops the Tyrone Power-Basil Rathbone duel in The Mark of Zorro. Not only do we have the aforementioned finest film swordsman in history (Rathbone) essaying another of his wonderfully snide, sharply dangerous bad guy roles in Captain Esteban Pasquale, we have an equally agile opponent in Tyrone Power’s Don Diego Vega; Rathbone confirmed the truth of Power’s skills with the blade when he said, “Power was the most agile man with a sword I’ve ever faced before a camera. Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat.”

(It feels almost churlish now to point out that we’re not always looking at Tyrone Power actually doing the fencing with Rathbone during the fight. On some shots, a double was used.)

The fight is set up with one of the most famously amusing bits ever in the cinema swordfighting tradition, when Rathbone’s Esteban flamboyantly swipes his blade across a burning candle, sending its top flying off; Diego’s response never fails to provoke a laugh and a cheer. The fencing itself is accomplished with extraordinary speed, precision, and intensity. Great movie sword fights frequently feature witty repartee between the combatants; the showdown in The Mark of Zorro is no exception, including these finely traded barbs:


Diego: It’s a good effort, Capitan!
Esteban: My next will be better, my fancy clown!

Diego: Ah, the capitan’s blade is not so firm.
Esteban: Still firm enough to run you through!

With the duel’s final maneuvers goosed by Diego’s memorable line, “I needed that scratch to awaken me,” The Mark of Zorro swashbuckles its way into greatness as Rathbone’s Esteban defeats himself, essentially, by losing his cool and giving his enemy a crucial opening to deliver the surprisingly graphic, fatal wound.

Whereas in Robin Hood Korngold’s music added to the effectiveness of the swordplay, in The Mark of Zorro, the thoroughly brilliant score by Alfred Newman dares to dial itself completely away by the time we hear the first clash of blades. Instead, the scene here is elevated by the total absence of music; there are only the nerve-jangling sounds of sabers slicing through air, the hard and crisp collisions of steel on steel, boots thumping against wooden floors, glass smashing from errant lunges and attacks, and the excellently timed inclusion of verbal humor that creates a brilliantly orchestrated sense of tension-release. There is absolutely nothing fancy about the camera placement or cutting, nothing extraneous to the magnificent choreography on display.

Readers are encouraged now to add their mark and celebrate some of the other great movie sword fights not mentioned here. Those who feel the urge to disparage these fine choices with some sort of counter-attack, though, should be advised that in this arena at least, you will find yourselves matched against a fancy clown well-practiced in the art of the parry and riposte.

En garde!