There’s a unique joy that can only be found while watching a battle between a Sith Lord and a Jedi Knight, a rush of excitement that comes over you as you hear the hum of lightsabers clashing in a battle of good versus evil.
Most of the time.
With six films full of laser sword battles, there were bound to be a few duds among them. To prepare for Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I re-watched every Star Wars movie and ranked every lightsaber fight, judging all twelve of them on the merits of the fight, the relationship between the combatants, the fight’s role in the story, and their significance. I could have made a rubric or algorithm to determine this list, but I decided to trust my feelings. Just seemed more appropriate that way.
(Note: this is only a list of when lightsabers meet, it does not include any time a lightsaber is used, nor Luke’s vision of Vader on Dagobah because it wasn’t real.)
12. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. General Grievous (Revenge of the Sith)
Episode III is the Star Wars lightsaber parade, with the most meetings (five) of Sith and Jedi. Oh, and it also has this thing, the only lightsaber battle that involves someone not a part of either group. Not only is General Grievous not an actual Sith, he is using four lightsabers. It’s fan service at its worst. This screams, “We can do it so we will!” It’s beyond lame. Obi-Wan is the most inconsistent lightsaber fighter in the galaxy, but he quickly cuts off two of Grievous’ arms, and almost before it started, it’s over. None of this is helped by the fact that the film version of Grievous is one of the worst characters in the movies. Technically (and fittingly) this battle ends with a blaster — a clumsy ending to a ridiculous fight.
11. Qui-Gon Jinn vs Darth Maul on Tatooine (The Phantom Menace)
This ranks so low mostly because it’s so fast. The actual fighting is fine, because it’s always great watching Ray Park display his skills, and it is the first known lightsaber battle between a Jedi and a Sith in a thousand generations, but there’s no time to develop anything meaningful beyond that. There’s not much “wrong” with this one, there’s just not much to it period.
10. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker vs Count Dooku (Attack of the Clones)
Dooku makes easy work of two Jedi. That would be fine if it didn’t feel so easy. Christopher Lee is a great actor, but Count Dooku doesn’t exactly instill the fear of the Dark Side in you the way Darth Maul, Darth Vader, or the Emperor do. The best part of this showdown is when Anakin slices the exhaust pipe in half, causing steam to frame the fight. It pays homage to the battle he would have with Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. This battle is really more about setting up the one that comes right after it; it’s just the undercard.
9. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker vs Count Dooku (Revenge of the Sith)
Obi-Wan Kenobi would go on to win a fight against the most power Sith ever known later in this movie, but he can’t last twenty seconds with Count Dooku, again, even when he and Anakin actually attack him simultaneously. The dialogue between Dooku and Anakin is the best part of this scene–not exactly a ringing endorsement of a fight, but definitely a plus. This is one where a short fight makes sense, as it displays the growth and power of Anakin.
The symmetry with Palpatine being there and pushing Anakin to the Dark Side in contrast with his failure to do the same with Luke in Episode VI is certainly an extra element that makes this one generally good, though not overly exciting. (Just ignore that silly “yeah” from Palpatine during it.)
8. Yoda vs Count Dooku (Attack of the Clones)
Yoda moves so fast and creates such a blur that you don’t get to experience seeing our favorite Jedi Master fight with a lightsaber for the first time they way you’d want. What starts off feeling like an epic battle you’ve waited decades to see turns into a mini rave. It’s also much shorter than you probably realize. This would be lower if not for Yoda, but it should probably have been higher for the same reason.
7. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs Darth Vader (A New Hope)
Okay, let’s discuss the first filmed lightsaber battle honestly. When you watched this the first time you couldn’t believe it — the wise old Obi-Wan taking on this monster of evil with freaking swords made of light. From what you knew of their past Vader had destroyed the Jedi and killed Obi-Wan’s friend, Anakin Skywalker. It’s an amazing set-up, and an amazing moment in film history.
But it’s kind of terrible. They barely move, with Vader’s shoulder piece severely limiting his mobility. Even when Obi-Wan lowers his defenses Vader’s fatal swing is awkward and goofy.
I actually think their fight at the end of Revenge of the Sith enhances this fight after the fact, as though the epic nature of the first one is something neither of them is interested in, because they both know it doesn’t matter how much they run or jump, it’s all the same as standing in front of one another. Besides, Obi-Wan knows he can’t win, and he isn’t really trying anyway, he has bigger plans. But just as easily you could argue that the first meeting highlights how bad the actual fighting is here.
Important, meaningful, historic, but slow and terrible. It pains me to do this, but middle of the pack is the right place for this one.
6. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi vs Darth Maul (The Phantom Menace)
It’s a little uneasy to think Jedi Knights would attack one combatant, but it’s about battling evil, not looking like a hero. Ray Park is great, and Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor look the part. Strangely this is most memorable for the time when they aren’t fighting, with all three locked in their own chamber. Each personality is on display, with Darth Maul pacing like a caged predator, Qui-Gon in contemplative meditation, and young Obi-Wan anxious and a little unsure.
Darth Maul disposes of Qui-Gon, but his arrogance costs him as Obi-Wan keeps his cool and kills the Sith (a horrendous decision by the way, Darth Maul was a much better villain than Count Dooku by a million). This was your favorite part of The Phantom Menace for a reason. Even if it was the only part you liked, it’s great on its own anyway.
5. Yoda vs Palpatine (Revenge of the Sith)
Theatrical, powerful, and oh yeah, it has the greatest Jedi facing off with what would turn out to be the most successful Sith Lord ever. I know CGI Yoda is generally frowned upon, but the characters here are so good they overcome that. Especially because their fighting styles exemplify their personalities. It would be better if it didn’t devolve into a battle of throwing senate boxes at one another, because watching them wield lightsabers is more fun, but it doesn’t take away from the excitement of this duel.
4. Mace Windu and Jedi vs Palpatine (Revenge of the Sith)
This might be the biggest surprise on the list, but seeing Palpatine use a lightsaber for the first time is a jump-out-of-your-seat moment. Watch how he catches the Jedi off guard with a style no one else ever uses in the films. He doesn’t swipe, he thrusts, a method that comes from pure aggression. Mace Windu is the most skilled Jedi with a lightsaber, and while they have a short battle, it is intense and everything you’d hope to see from the two. Palpatine’s debut with his lightsaber is one of the great moments of the prequels, and it just happens to end with the birth of Darth Vader. It’s kind of a big deal.
3. Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader (Return of the Jedi)
This is the most meaningful lightsaber fight in any of the movies. They are battling for the souls of one another. Luke knows whom he is facing this time, unlike during their first fight, and he knows losing might mean something worse than death, it might mean losing himself to the Dark Side like his father. With the Emperor himself overseeing the proceedings, this is final battle of good and evil, where the fate of the galaxy depends on a father and son fighting each other and themselves. The fact that Luke’s love for his sister could possibly be the impetus for his destruction is just another layer to this scene. The fighting is good and the scene looks good, but just a smidge below the level of their Empire battle. Still good enough to end up very high on this list, and an amazing end to Anakin Skywalker’s story.
2. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs Darth Vader (Revenge of the Sith)
The prequels have “problems.” They are mostly three movies of “problems,” but this single fight almost makes it worth all of the disappointment that preceded it. It goes on for a long time, but never feels tedious. Mustafar is a setting worthy of this battle, one where the battle for the galaxy is only the second most important element after the relationship of the two men fighting.
Because Anakin Skywalker is required to say something goofy every five seconds, he has that absurd line, “From my point of view the Jedi are evil,” but even that is saved by the raw emotion of Obi-Wan’s response, “Well then you are lost!” (Seriously, Ewan McGregor consistently makes unwatchable scenes great. I think his performance as young Obi-Wan is the best of any of the six films. Totally heartbreaking and genuine.)
I know some people dislike the end here, but it makes sense. Obi-Wan is a Jedi and is still thinking. Anakin is a Sith acting on emotion, blinded by his rage and sure of his superiority. There are no secrets between these two, but the flaws and strengths of each matter, and they decide the victor.
Even though I found Revenge of the Sith didn’t hold up as well as I’d hoped, this fight still got to me as much as ever. “You were my brother Anakin! I loved you.” When you combine the actual fighting that takes place here with the emotional baggage of the battle it’s tough to top. It takes something truly special.
1. Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader (The Empire Strikes Back)
This is it. The lighting, the mood, the stakes, the actual fighting; it has everything. An absolute showdown between good and evil, presented in one of the most beautifully shot scenes in movie history.
Then it just happens to end with the greatest reveal in cinematic history.
I wish I could travel back in time and experience this on opening night. It must have been chaos. I don’t know how anyone focused on the end of the movie. When you put everything together, this isn’t just the best lightsaber battle in Star Wars history, it might be the best fight in movie history.
So what did I get right and what did I get wrong? Let’s battle it out in our comments section below.