This is the sixth post in a daily series. Read about it here and see the list of previous posts here. A new post about “Star Wars” will be posted every day for 40 days leading up to the franchise’s 40th birthday on May 25th.
Lightsabers are one of the coolest parts of the “Star Wars” universe, but not all lightsaber duels are equal. Not all lightsaber duels are even good.
I’ve gone through the seven episodes and ranked the lightsaber fights from worst to best. This is a subjective list, of course, so you might disagree. If you do, feel free to say so in the comments.
Before I begin, a few notes. This list only contains fights where people with lightsabers were facing other people with lightsabers. This distinction disqualifies some great scenes:
- The scene at the beginning of “The Phantom Menace” when Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon fight the battle droids
- The scene in “Attack of the Clones” when scores of Jedi fight the separatists
- The scene at the end of “Rogue One” where Darth Vader picks off rebels one by one
- The scene where Luke uses his new green lightsaber on Jabba’s sandbarge
- The scene in “The Force Awakens” where Finn uses a lightsaber while fighting a stormtrooper with some gnarly weapon on his arm
This list also only includes real duels that actually happened, so even though it was cool to see the vision of Luke fighting Darth Vader on Dagobah, that encounter doesn’t count.
Got it? Good. Now, let’s get to the rankings!
12. Yoda vs. Palpatine, “Revenge of the Sith”
This duel between a cackling Palpatine and a prancing Yoda would be funny if it weren’t so infuriating. The figurehead of the Jedi should be composed and focused, not flopping around like a damn catfish, and Palpatine is portrayed as demonic joker. They’re both shown as caricatures of themselves. They were two of the most powerful characters of the original trilogy, where neither were depicted with lightsabers. That they are shown waving lightsabers at each other while tossing each other around like bean bags not only cheapened their characters, but lightsabers in general.
11. Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Yoda vs. Count Dooku, “Attack of the Clones”
This, too, was ridiculous, by virtue of the fact that Yoda was using a lightsaber to fight someone more than twice his height. He looked like a crazed squirrel and poor Christopher Lee as Count Dooku looked like he was doing some stiff Count Dracula impression. Cool lightsaber handle, though.
10. Obi-Wan vs. General Grievous, “Revenge of the Sith”
General Grievous was ridiculous. His robotic body was ridiculous. His four arms were ridiculous. And his hacking cough was also ridiculous. But Ewan McGregor was so wonderful as Obi-Wan that any scene he was in was slightly less ridiculous. That, and the different colored lightsabers were cool. Those different lightsabers, as we learn, are trophies from Jedi he’s defeated.
9. Anakin & Obi-Wan vs. Count Dooku, “Revenge of the Sith”
The lightsaber fight itself was not spectacular, but a dude lost his head. And Anakin decapitating Dooku highlights Anakin’s conflicting loyalties to Palpatine and Obi-Wan.
8. Qui-Gon vs. Darth Maul on Tatooine, “The Phantom Menace”
This is a minor fight, but it set the tone between Qui-Gon and Maul. And, this was the first lightsaber duel we had gotten to see on screen in 16 years.
7. Mace Windu vs. Palpatine, “Revenge of the Sith”
The part of this battle fought with lightsabers might be the least interesting part of the battle, though it is satisfying to see Mace Windu in a one-on-one confrontation. What’s not satisfying is seeing Palpatine spinning around like he’s a figure skater.
But weird flips aside, this battle lets us see two things: Palpatine’s transition into his wrinkly visage, and Anakin’s conversion into Darth Vader. The conflict in him as he watches Palpatine shoot blue lightning at Windu mirrors the conflict we see in Vader while watching Palpatine torture Luke in “Return of the Jedi.”
6. Rey & Finn vs. Kylo Ren, “The Force Awakens”
There was a lot riding on this scene, as there had been a lot riding on “The Force Awakens.” This was the first “Star Wars” movie in 10 years, and a follow-up to “Return of the Jedi,” which had been released 32 years earlier. This needed to be good.
And it was good.
By this point in the movie, Ren has killed his father and shown his devotion to his dead grandfather, Darth Vader. That Finn and Rey have the lightsaber that belonged to Luke and Anakin only angers Ren more. That both Finn and Rey can use a lightsaber could hint at both of them being Jedi. There were female Jedi in the prequels, but none of them were ever developed or shown in a one-on-one duel, making this fight between Ren and Rey a historic first for the franchise.
5. Obi-Wan vs. Vader, “A New Hope”
This was the first lightsaber battle we ever got to see. While it seems quaint and simple compared to the duels in other movies, this scene is nothing to sneeze at: there’s tension, action, and suspense.
The differences between Vader and Obi-Wan couldn’t be any more black and white: Vader is vain and arrogant, whereas Obi-Wan is not concerned with Vader’s boasts. Obi-Wan not only doesn’t fear death, he seems to welcome it, saying, “If you strike me down, i shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
4. Obi-Wan & Qui-Gon vs. Darth Maul, “The Phantom Menace”
This might be the most visually arresting duel, as it introduces a double-sided lightsaber that allows Darth Maul to battle both Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon at once. In the context of the “The Phantom Menace,” it’s definitely one of the most interesting parts of the film.
Darth Maul makes the battle visually interesting, but it’s Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan who make it intriguing. There’s a scene in this fight where Qui-Gon kneels and closes his eyes, almost as if he’s praying. Not much later, he’s impaled by Darth Maul. A devastated Obi-Wan then rushes in, too late to save Qui-Gon (but not too late to slice Maul in half.)
In hindsight, the scene of Qui-Gon kneeling is easy to read as foreshadowing, as if he knows he will die but he presses on anyway. And he does so in a way to protect not just Obi-Wan, but Anakin as well. In contrast, Darth Sidious isn’t even there to help Maul, who must fend for himself. We see that a Jedi is willing to sacrifice himself to protect his apprentice, whereas a Sith is willing to sacrifice his apprentice in order to protect himself.
3. Obi-Wan vs. Anakin, “Revenge of the Sith”
The previous battles in the prequel trilogy were easy to paint as good versus evil, but this battle comes with a different complexity. This is the only battle in any of the movies where we see two lightsabers of the same color battle against each other, because these two characters – who Obi-Wan says were like brothers – have now been pitted against each other. (General Grievous had some blue lightsabers when fighting Obi-Wan in the aforementioned scene, but those different lightsabers, as we learn, are trophies from Jedi he’s defeated.)
The emotional tension between Anakin and Obi-Wan is what makes this scene. More specifically, it’s Ewan McGregor’s performance that makes the scene. In the hands of a lesser actor, this would just two grown men flailing around a lava pit like acrobats delivering clunky dialogue. Which is what is happening here, to be sure. But McGregor imbues Obi-Wan with such pathos that’s hard not to feel Obi-Wan’s heartbreak.
2. Luke vs. Vader, “Return of the Jedi”
The stakes have changed since Luke and Vader last faced off. For starters, Luke is now a Jedi, having trained and prepared since their last encounter. And Luke now knows he and Leia are both Vader’s kids, which gives him a new sense of focus: he no longer thinks he’s fighting an evil monster with no hope of redemption. And because he sees Vader differently, Luke goes into the battle seemingly with no interest in actually killing his father.
For his part, Vader doesn’t seem 100 percent sold on killing Luke, either. Luke can sense the conflict in his father, and this conflict sets the tone for the rest of the fight. As Luke rightly states, this conflict is why his father won’t kill him when he has the chance.
As Palpatine shoots blue lightning at Luke, one can sense the competing loyalties in Vader, even though we cannot see his eyes. Ultimately, he chooses good, sacrificing Palpatine (and himself) to save his son. It’s a scene that was powerful on its own, but in a post-prequels viewing, it’s easy to think of this scene as reminiscent of the conflict in Anakin when he stood by and allowed Palpatine to kill Mace Windu in “Revenge of the Sith.”
1. Luke vs. Vader, “The Empire Strikes Back”
In a franchise full of memorable scenes, there is no scene more memorable than this one. This shocking interaction — where we learn that Vader is Luke’s father — has been parodied and copied in multiple ways. That reveal not only set the course for the rest of the trilogy, but for both the prequel trilogy and the sequel trilogy.
So, yeah. Pretty huge moment for the franchise.
But it also raised the bar for the series’ lightsaber duels. The first duel we ever saw between Vader and Obi-Wan was simple and contained to one space. This scene, though, had the action sprawl across a few locations, ending up overlooking Cloud City’s central air shaft. And that scene introduces a weird but charming recurrence in the “Star Wars” stories: Luke falls from the bridge, starting a noble tradition of people in “Star Wars” falling into vague, bottomless spaces. We’ll later see Palpatine, Darth Maul, and Han Solo do the same.
Do you agree with these rankings? Or do you think they’re bantha doodoo? Sound off in the comments.
Sign up for the weekly newsletter here.