Star Wars has contributed countless indelible moments and images to our popular culture, but if there’s one artifact that is most intrinsic to the Galaxy Far, Far Away, it’s the fantastical weapon of the Jedi Knights, the lightsaber. From the very first time audiences saw Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader cross glowing, humming swords aboard the Death Star in 1977, we’ve been absolutely obsessed, and storytellers across multiple media and nearly half a century have been only too happy to indulge our craving for increasingly elaborate lightsaber duels.
- 10. The Ronin vs. the Bandit Leader (The Duel – Visions, season 1, episode 1)
- 9. Rey vs. Kylo Ren on Kef Bir (The Rise of Skywalker)
- 8. Pre Vizsla vs. Maul (Shades of Reason – The Clone Wars, season 5, episode 15)
- 7. Ahsoka Tano vs. Darth Vader (Twilight of the Apprentice – Rebels, season 2, episode 22)
- 6. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Maul on Tatooine (Twin Suns – Rebels, season 3, episode 20)
- 5. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader (Revenge of the Sith)
- 4. Ahsoka Tano vs. Maul on Mandalore (Phantom Apprentice – The Clone Wars, season 7, episode 10)
- 3. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader on Cloud City (The Empire Strikes Back)
- 2. Qui-Gon Jinn & Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Maul (The Phantom Menace)
- 1. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader on Death Star II (Return of the Jedi)
Lightsaber fights come in all shapes and sizes, from emotional one-on-one bouts in live-action to wild animated free-for-alls, and selecting our 10 favorites from the franchise to date was no easy task. There are a lot of metrics by which to judge — the excitement of the action itself, how it’s shot, the story behind it, the use of environment, even the music to which it’s set — but the cream of the crop are those duels that either dominate one category or harmoniously balance each one. Will your favorites make the list? You’ll find we’re full of surprises …
10. The Ronin vs. the Bandit Leader (The Duel – Visions, season 1, episode 1)
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By 2021, even a lot of loyal Star Wars fans were starting to get a little exhausted. The Sequel Trilogy had ended with a thud two years prior, and the novelty of live-action Star Wars on television was starting to wear off. The Clone Wars had returned for a triumphant and satisfying final season, and though sequel series The Bad Batch was on the horizon, we found ourselves ready for a break.
Or, at least a break from the routine, which is what Lucasfilm provided with the release of Star Wars: Visions, an anthology of animated short films with dramatically different styles and perspectives that were created by a variety of Japanese animation studios. (The second season would welcome storytellers from across the entire globe.) These stories were not bound by canon or by rigid visual guidelines, allowing each installment to feel fresh and new while also paying homage to the original Star Wars film’s many Japanese influences.
The first short released in the series was The Duel, directed by Takanobu Mizuno and produced by studio Kamikaze Douga. It borrows some of its aesthetic from the films of legendary director Akira Kurosawa, whose Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress were formative works for Star Wars creator George Lucas. Though rendered digitally, Mizuno aimed for a style that looks hand-drawn, but also mimics the grain and imperfections of old black-and-white film.
The only sources of color in the short are from fire, energy, blaster bolts, and of course, lightsabers. The battle itself, between a wandering Ronin (voiced by Masaki Terasoma in Japanese and Brian Tee in English) and the leader of a gang of raiders (Akeno Watanabe/Lucy Lawless) isn’t groundbreaking in its choreography, but it’s got style for days, and is a breath of fresh air amid the middling marathon of streaming-era Star Wars content.
9. Rey vs. Kylo Ren on Kef Bir (The Rise of Skywalker)
The Sequel Trilogy may not be our cup of tea overall, but we can’t deny that there are plenty of exciting action sequences along the way, including a few solid lightsaber battles. While our favorite sword-swinging sequences of the trilogy both come from The Last Jedi — Rey and Kylo Ren’s team-up against Snoke’s guards and Luke Skywalker’s last stand on Crait — we’re limiting our list to fights in which each combatant is wielding a lightsaber, and technically, neither of those qualify.
Instead, we’ve selected this emotionally charged bout that might be the most effective sequence from what’s definitely our least favorite Star Wars feature, The Rise of Skywalker. Here, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her nemesis, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), meet in the ruins of the second Death Star, where they each seek a Sith wayfinder that points the way to Palpatine’s new throne on Exegol. At this point, each of the combatants’ psyches is balanced on a knife’s edge. Rey believes that she has killed one of her friends, and teeters on the precipice of the Dark Side. Kylo’s just learned that he’s been manipulated his entire life by a maniacal dictator who died years before he was born. Rey wants to take her fury out on someone who deserves it, while Kylo still hopes to corrupt Rey onto his side.
The battle begins in the Emperor’s throne room, where the finale of Return of the Jedi took place, but quickly makes its way to the surface of the wreckage, which is buffeted by towering ocean waves. The environment reflects Rey’s emotional turmoil, as she rages against an opponent who parries and deflects, but does not return her aggression. She is the crashing waves; he is the shattered weapon of mass destruction. But when General Leia Organa — Kylo’s mother and Rey’s mentor — passes away halfway across the galaxy, it’s Kylo who feels it first, causing him to lower his guard and allowing Rey to strike him down with his own red blade. Moments later, when Rey feels the reverberations of Leia’s death, she comes to her senses and sees what she’s done. The waves calm, and so does she.
The rest of the movie around it is all nonsense, but dang, this works.
8. Pre Vizsla vs. Maul (Shades of Reason – The Clone Wars, season 5, episode 15)
The CGI-animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars may have begun as a brainless toy commercial, but as its audience grew up, so did its storytelling. By its fifth season in 2013, The Clone Wars incorporated high drama and political intrigue into its flashy toyetic action, proving by some measures to be superior to the Prequel Trilogy from which it sprung. Shockingly, one of the symbols of the show’s evolution is also, on paper, one of its worst ideas — the return of Darth Maul, the secondary villain who gets cut in half at the end of The Phantom Menace.
Showrunner Dave Filoni, new voice actor Sam Witwer, and company successfully reimagine Maul (and it’s just “Maul” now, by the way) as a sinister mastermind who has spent the years since his presumed death plotting his revenge against not only the Jedi who slew him, but the Sith who used him. Maul’s quest to build his own empire brings him to the planet Mandalore, where he challenges its military leader, Pre Vizsla (voice of Jon Favreau), in ritual combat. The winner gets the ceremonial Darksaber, and with it, the title of Mand’alor.
Though it begins as a simple sword fight — Vizsla’s Darksaber against Maul’s red blade — Vizsla soon realizes that he’s outmatched and begins employing the tools built into his Mandalorian armor, which were originally designed to imitate and counter the powers of a Jedi. This escalates the drama, as Vizsla pulls out more and more tricks in an attempt to level the playing field, but Maul proves himself equal to each of them.
However, what really cements this duel as one of the standouts of the series is the way it devolves into a hand-to-hand brawl. Vizsla believes that the strong should rule, and if his weapons will not prove him the strongest, he has no compunction against throwing knees and elbows. Of course, neither does Maul, and things get dirty very quickly. For a bloodless animated bout, this fight hurts to watch. The story is told almost entirely through physicality, with no dialogue necessary — that is, until Vizsla has been defeated and, true to his code, declares that “only the strongest shall rule” just before Maul decapitates him with the Darksaber.
7. Ahsoka Tano vs. Darth Vader (Twilight of the Apprentice – Rebels, season 2, episode 22)
When she was first introduced in the nigh-unwatchable animated movie Star Wars: The Clone Wars in 2008, no one could have guessed that kid sidekick Ahsoka Tano would eventually become one of the most complicated and beloved characters in the Star Wars canon? After growing from unfunny fan proxy to perhaps the only sane Jedi over the course of The Clone Wars series, the adult Ahsoka would eventually resurface in Star Wars Rebels, set during the run-up to A New Hope.
Like most of the survivors of the Jedi Purge, Ahsoka has spent much of the Empire’s reign in hiding, but now emerges as a secret agent within the nascent Rebel Alliance. No longer considering herself a Jedi, Ahsoka is still haunted by the slaughter of her friends and the rumored betrayal by her friend and mentor, Anakin Skywalker. Ahsoka’s reunion with the man now called Darth Vader is teased throughout the second season, but in a sense, the buildup for this fight began the moment Ahsoka first appeared, as fans knew that something would have to happen to explain her absence from the already-released Revenge of the Sith.
Their story comes to a head in the two-part Rebels episode Twilight of the Apprentice. Ahsoka (voice of Ashley Epstein) and Vader (voice of James Earl Jones) finally cross blades in the depths of a Sith temple, where Ahsoka still clings to the hope that Vader isn’t Anakin after all. That hope dies fast, as does any dream of her being able to retrieve her fallen friend from the abyss. They fight, and Ahsoka is barely able to keep up with the dark lord, eventually managing to cut a gash through his helmet and look her nemesis right in the eye. (If that sounds familiar, it’s because the live-action miniseries Obi-Wan Kenobi would repeat this same beat six years later.)
Knowing that she cannot save Anakin, Ahsoka chooses to avenge him by bringing the temple down on both of their heads, saving her new friends Ezra Bridger and Kanan Jarrus in the process. Vader, of course, survives, rendering her sacrifice moot, but it isn’t until two seasons later that we learn what became of Ahsoka, leading to her return in future stories during the live-action Mandalorian era. For most of the series, however, Ahsoka’s fate seems final, lending a sense of gravity to the intervening years and giving this long-awaited battle an extra emotional kick.
6. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Maul on Tatooine (Twin Suns – Rebels, season 3, episode 20)
Like Ahsoka Tano, Maul also got the opportunity to complete his story on Rebels after the abrupt cancellation of The Clone Wars. Rebels finds Maul (voice of Sam Witwer) brought low, trapped in an ancient Sith stronghold for years until a chance encounter with Jedi apprentice Ezra Bridger sets him free. Maul haunts Ezra and his friends throughout the third season of Rebels, all the while seeking his revenge against the Jedi he blames for his downfall, Obi-Wan Kenobi (voice of James Arnold Taylor).
Eventually, Maul tracks Kenobi to his hiding place on Tatooine and confronts him in the barren desert. Beside a campfire and beneath the planet’s two moons, these two aged warriors face off for the climax of their decades-long feud and, to the surprise of most viewers, it’s over in mere seconds. And yet, it’s one of the most emotionally resonant moments in the series.
The buildup, of course, is doing a lot of the work, as the rivalry between Kenobi and Maul had been going on for 18 years for the audience and nearly twice that long for the characters. However, the choreography of the fight itself is also remarkable in its simplicity. Once both their weapons are drawn, Kenobi enters his Clone Wars-era fighting stance, with saber drawn back in one hand and his free hand pointed forward, but then slowly pulls back into the less dramatic defensive pose he employs in A New Hope — feet planted, with two hands on the hilt of his saber, held upward at eye level.
He’s a different man than when Maul first saw him. There will be no flips or flashy Force powers this time. Kenobi steadily parries Maul’s first two strikes, and then when Maul tries to butt Kenobi’s face with the hilt of his saber, the very move that stunned Kenobi’s master Qui-Gon Jinn before his death, Kenobi is ready, slashing the hilt — and Maul’s chest — down the middle. Maul falls into Kenobi’s arms, and their final exchange is strangely tender. Kenobi confirms to Maul that he is on Tatooine to protect the Chosen One who will bring balance to the Force. Maul’s final words are, “He will avenge us.”
5. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader (Revenge of the Sith)
On the subject of lightsaber duels with long, long buildups, the climactic confrontation of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith was presaged long before the Prequel Trilogy even began. The texts of the Star Wars expanded universe had long established that Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into the cyborg Darth Vader occurred after a duel to the death with his former master Obi-Wan Kenobi over an active volcano, and from the moment young Obi-Wan shook hands with the child Anakin in The Phantom Menace, we knew this would end in fiery torment.
In this respect, Revenge of the Sith did not disappoint, delivering an absolutely insane lightsaber battle on a mining outpost that’s gradually sinking into the molten rivers of Mustafar. The fight continues across multiple changes of setting, from the open space of a docking port to the narrow confines of a hallway, to a craggy mountainside. Along the way, they ride droids carrying buckets of lava, climb hundred-foot pillars, and swing from cables like Tarzan. It’s a lot.
In fact, it might be a little too much, as the level of flash and spectacle peaks with a few moments of accidental comedy, such as the aforementioned vine swinging and a beat in which both combatants spin their blades around their bodies over and over for no reason other than it looks impressive. In an intense grudge match like this one, that can only take away from the sense of drama. Still, no amount of cartoon silliness can totally dissolve the impact of Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) and Vader’s (Hayden Christensen) long-awaited exchange, as the fallen Vader attempts to crawl away from the edge of the inferno with his last remaining limb. If the rest of the performances in the Prequel Trilogy had been more in tune with McGregor’s “You were my brother Anakin, I loved you!” then there’s a chance that it could have been rescued from “so bad, it’s good” infamy.
4. Ahsoka Tano vs. Maul on Mandalore (Phantom Apprentice – The Clone Wars, season 7, episode 10)
When The Clone Wars returned from cancellation for one last season on Disney+, it did so with the benefit of advancements in animation technology and the new parent company’s deep pockets. The four-part series finale was treated like a feature film, a companion piece to Revenge of the Sith that takes place over the same stretch of time, but focuses on all of the key Clone Wars characters who don’t play a part in that story. At long last, fans got to watch the Siege of Mandalore, the battle between Ahsoka Tano, Maul, and the divided Mandalorian forces that was intended as the climax of the series, but was relegated to novels and comics after its cancellation.
To give this long-awaited event an extra kick, Lucasfilm augmented the usual fight animation with motion capture, endowing Ahsoka and Maul’s final bout with a fluidity and gravity lacking in most of the show’s other battles. Original Maul actor/stunt fighter Ray Park returned to record his mocap, with stunt actor Lauren Mary Kim portraying Ahsoka. (Sam Witwer and Ashley Epstein still provided their voices, of course.)
This duel, held in the Mandalorian throne room before spilling out onto the precarious heights of the war-torn capitol, has a big fight feel usually reserved for the live-action features as the fate of an entire planet hangs in the balance. But there’s also the sense of tragic futility that permeates the best Clone Wars stories. By this point, the war is basically over, and even though the “good guys” have ostensibly won, Maul knows that the Sith are the real victors, and that a greater doom is coming. Deep down, Ahsoka knows it too, but she doesn’t want to believe it. Within a few hours’ time, her entire world will come crashing down, and she’ll need to depend on Maul, of all people, to survive it.
3. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader on Cloud City (The Empire Strikes Back)
There are few fight sequences — let alone lightsaber duels — that set a mood like Luke (Mark Hamill) versus Vader (David Prowse, voice of James Earl Jones) on Cloud City. There’s a pervasive sense of doom throughout all of The Empire Strikes Back, the famously dark middle chapter of the Original Trilogy, but this is where it reaches its peak. The crew of the Millennium Falcon has been betrayed and captured. Master Yoda has warned Luke that any attempt to rescue them will carry a terrible price, but he’s chosen to go anyway.
And when he arrives, Darth Vader is waiting for him, not to kill him, but to test him and to deliver him to the Emperor to be transformed into a servant of the Dark Side. When Luke arrives, a desperate Leia warns him that it’s a trap. Again, Luke pushes forward, and when he finally comes face-to-masked-face with Lord Vader, it’s not in the gleaming white corridors of Cloud City but in its dark industrial levels, where red and amber light hits the steam and smoke of the carbon freezing chamber. Luke Skywalker has willingly plunged himself into Hell, and he will not be escaping intact.
The fight itself is far less acrobatic than viewers would become accustomed to in the prequel era, but no less thrilling. This is not a duel between two masters of the Force. This is an inexperienced twentysomething out for revenge and a hardened warrior psychologically torturing his estranged son. Luke never stands a chance, and it doesn’t take him long to figure that out. He lashes out desperately, flailing against Vader’s sword strikes and thrown objects, but he’d might as well be fighting the wind.
He does just well enough to impress Vader, who offers him a seat in his Empire, as well as the cold truth of his parentage. Vader revealing that he is not Anakin’s killer, but Anakin himself, is one of the most famous moments in cinema history for a reason. It’s a well-earned moment of total despair, and for Luke, a final push off of a very literal ledge.
2. Qui-Gon Jinn & Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Maul (The Phantom Menace)
During the 16 years between the release of Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, action cinema had evolved significantly. Hong Kong martial arts films had raised the bar for fight choreography and stuntwork, and Hollywood was finally beginning to catch up. The Matrix was released only months before The Phantom Menace, representing a quantum leap forward in Hollywood action. As compelling as the lightsaber duels of Empire or Return of the Jedi had been, George Lucas was going to have to show us something new. For this, he turned to fight coordinator Nick Gillard, who significantly ramped up the pace and intensity of the swordplay, setting the standard that most future installments would follow.
Gillard remained aboard for the entire Prequel Trilogy, but his most celebrated work is certainly the two-on-one match between Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), his Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), and the tattooed baddie Darth Maul (Ray Park). For an entire generation, this was the lightsaber fight, in which the master and apprentice attempt to capture an impossibly agile demon wielding a never-before-seen double-bladed lightsaber.
Their contest is balletic, and thanks to maestro John Williams’ ominous Duel of the Fates, intensely operatic. Like everything else in the Prequels, it’s a little overblown and a strain on one’s suspension of disbelief, but boy is it ever dramatic. As disappointed as many fans were by The Phantom Menace upon its release, even haters had to agree on two things: First, the podrace was pretty cool. Second, that this was one hell of a lightsaber fight.
1. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader on Death Star II (Return of the Jedi)
In hindsight, Return of the Jedi is a pretty messy film, one that takes a few shortcuts in an effort to tie up the trilogy’s many plot threads. (“We promised to reveal another potential Jedi savior in the last movie, but we already have a lot going on, so I guess Luke and Leia are twins now. Hopefully, people won’t find it weird that they kissed a couple times.”) Even so, its final 40 minutes are everything you could ask for in the third act of a third act of a trilogy. The deciding battle of the Galactic Civil War takes place across (you guessed it) three fronts, each with its own distinct setting, pace, and tone.
On the surface of the forest moon Endor, a somewhat comical ground war is waged by the unassuming teddy bears called the Ewoks; above unfolds a space battle of a scale and speed never before seen on film; and in the throne tower aboard the second Death Star, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) duels his father (David Prowse, voice of James Earl Jones) one last time in front of the cackling Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). The three threads are interwoven perfectly, escalating in concert, but the lightsaber duel is the emotional spine of the entire act, as Luke fights not for his survival, but for his soul.
Each of the players’ motivations is complex. Luke delivers himself to Vader with the intention of defeating him via passive resistance. He has decided not to fight his father, and to believe that his father will choose not to fight him. Vader has been under the thumb of Emperor Palpatine for decades, and has been ordered to turn Luke to the dark side by any means necessary. Palpatine doesn’t care if Vader lives or dies; he wants the stronger Skywalker as his enforcer, whichever that may be. With these stakes set, the arrogant Palpatine provokes a fight between two champions who are each fighting desperately against their own interests. It’s not about who’s the stronger fighter, it’s about who has the stronger will, and the conflict is conveyed impeccably by the staging of the fight, the haunting John Williams score, and above all, Mark Hamill’s anguished performance.
Vader prods Luke again and again, picking away at his pacifism by threatening the Rebellion, his friends, his sister. Luke keeps taking the bait and then regretting it, finally throwing his weapon away. He’s not going to repeat his father’s mistakes and destroy himself, which forces Vader to decide what happens next. Consider, for a moment, the strangeness of this narrative choice. The hero entrusts the fate of the galaxy to the villain –but it works, and we buy it. It’s George Lucas’ greatest storytelling coup, and without the intensity of the preceding duel, this beat simply would not play, and the entire trilogy would come crashing down around it.