Welcome to the third edition of “Enter the Reel World.” I am your host, Michael Thomas. Read more of my thoughts on film/television here. (I recently ranked the first ten films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and had Seven Questions After Watching Season 1 of Daredevil. I also watched The Punisher and was completely baffled by its awfulness.) You can send me feedback on things that I write here.
Much like last week, this article should be fairly simple to understand. I take a brief look at every lightsaber duel in the first six Star Wars films and discuss what I like and/or dislike about each one. After looking at each duel, I rank them all. Please share your rankings in the comments if you so desire.
A New Hope
Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader
While this does not feature very much in the way of impressive fight choreography, this duel does so much with what little action there actually is. You can tell that the older Kenobi and slow Vader could possibly be outmatched by a younger and more powerful Jedi. They are a perfect match for each other though.
Neither man can get the upper-hand. They know all of each other’s tricks and moves. It certainly seems like that if they fought a hundred times, each of them would win half the time. The duel concludes on a beautiful moment, as Obi-Wan lets Vader finish him because he recognizes he can accomplish much more in death than in life. While the next two lightsaber duels would accomplish much more in terms of storytelling and action, I cannot deny that I have a soft spot for watching this one.
The Empire Strikes Back
Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader
This battle is brilliant and completely based in character. The overconfident Luke is eager for the fight and is the first to turn on his lightsaber. Vader uses only one hand while Luke attacks him in the early stages of the battle. He’s less interested in fighting Luke and more interested in testing his son’s skills before he’s delivered to the Emperor. As Luke begins to impress Vader more and more, Vader starts to take this battle a little bit more seriously; he realizes that it will not be so easy to subdue his son. Luke not only survives this onslaught from Vader, but he actually manages to wound Vader in the arm (looked like the shoulder). A bit fed up, Vader chops off Luke’s hand to end the fight.
Just brilliant storytelling. Much like the lightsaber fight from the first film, this was not about complicated choreography. The character’s motivations and desires informed the action. It was compelling from beginning to end.
Return of the Jedi
Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader
Unlike in The Empire Strikes Back, Vader knows he cannot afford to waste any time with Luke here. Luke has become too skilled by this point, and he has the advantage in terms of athleticism and speed. On top of that, Luke’s rage was building and building before the duel even started, as The Emperor had been taunting him to goad Luke into battle in the first place.
The tone of duel shifts as Luke comes to his senses and realizes he wants to turn his father back to the good side rather than kill the Emperor. It seems like Luke will no longer fight until Vader threatens to pursue Leia if Luke will not turn to the Dark Side. Luke’s hatred and anger flare up again, and he is now able to completely over-match his father in combat. He chops of Vader’s sword hand but then declines to finish him off. Luke wins the duel in more ways than one.
This was the perfect follow-up to the duel in The Empire Strikes Back. These two wonderful characters have changed in so many ways since then, and they changed some more throughout their final meeting. Luke wins the duel not just because he is able out out skill Vader in the ways of the sword, but because he is willing to not finish him off. He is the better man in every way. It is a truly satisfying conclusion.
The Phantom Menace
Qui-Gon Jinn vs. Darth Maul
This is a short and rather inconsequential duel in the grand scheme of things. It still serves a purpose from a storytelling perspective though, as it establishes how skilled Darth Maul is when the Jedi wouldn’t expect to run in to anyone nearly as skilled. Qui-Gon is noticeably worn out by the battle, and it’s not clear he would have escaped with his life if the Naboobian cruiser didn’t fly in to save him.
Qui-Gon Jinn & Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Maul
Unlike the lightsaber duels in the original films, this duel is largely about choreography instead of character. With that being said, this is still a lot of fun to watch all these years later. There were still some limits to technology at this point, and the duel clearly took place between three humans (as opposed to CGI characters) and on a set (instead of in front of a green screen). Both of those factors ground the duel in a reality where it is clear that there are stakes and consequences.
There’s still a certain coldness to the final moments though. Maul manages to kill Qui-Gon is a fairly nondescript manner that makes it seem like it was not that much trouble. Obi-Wan is obviously angered by that, but he’s still out maneuvered in the end. He’s hanging from this weird tunnel. His anger seems to give him power though, and he springs himself up and cuts Maul in half (literally) in one motion.
While I still find this to be very enjoyable, there’s really not much going on here at all. Darth Maul wasn’t a character. He was just a great swordsman. Watching this right after watching the original films really makes clear how much more substantive the lightsaber duels were then.
Attack of the Clones
Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, & Yoda vs. Count Dooku
This was a monumental moment at the time, as it was the first time we saw Yoda fight at all (let alone with a lightsaber). However, it is striking to watch this back and to discover just how little was going on in it. There was not a ton of interesting character work (Anakin being reckless is about it), and the choreography was not too special.
I am largely okay with Yoda using a lightsaber, but I understand the concerns fans/critics have about this very spiritual character being put in a position where he fights in such a manner. It’s much more concerning how little his fighting meant to anything. Once it’s no longer a surprise that Yoda uses a lightsaber, this duel is very underwhelming.
Revenge of the Sith
Obi-Wan Kenobi & Anakin Skywalker vs. Count Dooku
This was a brief contest that was used to quickly establish that Anakin is now a more skilled at the lightsaber than the last time we saw him, and that he can be easily manipulated by the Emperor. Dooku is disposed of in such a casual manner that this duel feels quite anti-climatic. Much like the last Dooku fight, there was also much in the way of impressive choreography to compensate for the lack of substance. This was a wasted opportunity.
Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. General Grievous
This fight is only briefly contested with lightsabers, and I will only discuss that aspect as there’s not much going on in the ways of the Force afterwards. Grievous always seemed like a huge miscalculation for the prequels. He was not a character; he was just a thing that could make some of the fights have a bit more variety to them. I guess that goal was accomplished here. There’s nothing to sink your teeth into here, but it provides a unique /colorful (literally!) to Obi-Wan in a film that desperately needed a bit of fun. This duel does not bother me in the way the last few duels of the prequels have. It’s mostly harmless once you realize the prequels are not going to provide the memories the original films did.
The Emperor vs. Mace Windu, Kit Fisto, Agen Kolar, & Saesee Tiin
I have always been disappointed in this duel because we never got to properly see the Emperor take on all four Jedi masters. I have no idea what that would look like or how that would work, and it has always seemed like a missed opportunity.
One thing that I have always wondered about this one is whether or not the Emperor was genuinely outfought by Mace Windu? If Mace Windu got the upper-hand in the duel before Anakin shows up, then it is kind of odd for the Emperor to be so easily defeated by just a single Jedi. In the far more likely scenario of Emperor manipulating the situation from the start, this fight it all about setting up Anakin to save the Emperor. I do not find the latter scenario to be all that appealing as it takes away a lot of the agency of Windu’s character and makes it all about Anakin becoming Darth Vader. I know that was the story of the prequels, but that is just not as interesting to me. Either way, I did not get much in the way of satisfaction or enjoyment from watching this one back.
Yoda vs. The Emperor
While it’s obviously a bit crude for two beings so powerful with the Force to battle like this, I did appreciate how this fight served as a contrast to the battle going on between Vader and Obi-Wan at the same time. Vader and Obi-Wan are powerful and skilled Jedis, but they are simply not at the level of Yoda and the Emperor.
I also appreciate how they got creative with the duel and did not spend too much time on lightsaber combat. It made the battle stand out a bit more in a film that ended up having way too many lightsaber-on-lightsaber duels. By this point in the prequels, there’s no way a reasonable person could expect something truly meaningful or emotional to happen here, but I still find it to be a fine piece of brainless entertainment.
Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader
This duel represents everything that is right (ambition) and wrong (just about everything else) with the prequel films. The duel starts off fine if way too over-choreographed. It is quickly established how evenly matched these two are (and that serves as a nice reminder of how evenly matched they would still be all those years later as old men). The film drags that out far too long though and ruins the mood with terrible green screen settings and CGI that take you out of the story.
It was at least fitting for Anakin’s character that he remains way too immature still and his ego caused him to fail yet again. Some of the action here remains genuinely compelling to me, and the effort put it to make this fight as epic as possible is certainly notable. The film fails that effort though.
Conclusion: One of the advantages of creating a world where one-on-one combat is so prevalent is that it opens up countless opportunities to tell stories within the confines of said combat. You can see that potential fully realized at points in the original Star Wars films. That was largely sacrificed in the prequels sadly. I hope the next set of Star Wars films do not make the same mistake.
1. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader – The Empire Strikes Back
2. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader – Return of the JediA New HopeThe Phantom MenaceAttack of the ClonesRevenge of The Sith
3. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader – A New Hope
4. Obi-Wan Kenobi & Qui-Gon Jinn vs. Darth Maul – The Phantom Menace
5. Yoda vs. The Emperor – Revenge of the Sith
6. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader – Revenge of the Sith
7. Qui-Gon Jinn vs. Darth Maul – The Phantom Menace
8. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. General Grievous – Revenge of the Sith
9. Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, & Yoda vs. Count Dooku – Attack of the Clones
10. Obi-Wan Kenobi & Anakin Skywalker vs. Count Dooku – Revenge of the Sith
11. The Emperor vs. Mace Windu, Kit Fisto, Agen Kolar, & Saesee Tiin – Revenge of the Sith
Give us your rankings in the comments!
2 thoughts on “Ranking the Lightsaber Duels in the Star Wars Films”
The two Luke/Vader duels are indisputably the highlights of the Star Wars series; nothing else can touch them. They definitely deserve the #1 (“Empire”) and #2 (“Jedi”) slots. No arguments there.
However, “New Hope’s” Kenobi/Vader duel is really a poor show on all counts. Set nostalgia aside: The dialogue is incredibly clunky and trite, there’s little effort to give the combatants any emotional stakes, and the fight choreography is frankly pathetic. Yes, Kenobi’s death scene is powerful, but one powerful moment can’t redeem the rest.
Kenobi/Jinn vs. Maul and Yoda vs. the Emperor are the two best fights of the prequels. I might flip the order, or I might not, depending on how I feel that day. I admit to having a soft spot for the Emperor, he just has so much fun being bad.
I think the first Dooku battle deserves a higher ranking, mostly because Christopher Lee is such an incredible actor–for my money, the best in all of Star Wars. It was a travesty to give him such crappy material, but he makes the best of it. If Lee had had a director, writer, and co-stars worthy of him, this would have been the prequels’ answer to Luke/Vader in “Empire.”
The second Dooku battle is much less memorable, mostly because Dooku gets a lot less screen time. The other fights are entirely forgettable… including, sadly, “Sith’s” Vader/Kenobi battle, which was supposed to be the climax of the prequels.
1. Luke/Vader (Empire)
2. Luke/Vader/Emperor (Jedi)
3. Kenobi+Jinn/Darth Maul (Phantom Menace)
4. Yoda/Emperor (Sith)
5. Kenobi/Vader (New Hope)
6. Anakin+Kenobi+Yoda/Dooku (Clones)
7. Anakin+Kenobi/Dooku (Sith)
8. All the others, don’t much care
Addendum: Since we now have another duel to add to the list, I’ll put Rey/Finn vs. Kylo Ren in the #3 slot, below the Luke/Vader duels but ahead of everything else. It doesn’t have the emotional stakes of Luke/Vader, but it still does a decent amount of character development, and the fight choreography is the best to date. It’s faster and more dynamic than the original trilogy, but without the over-the-top, flashy, flippy moves of the prequels.