From all-out medieval warfare to one-on-one duels, swords have been used in movies since the invention of the motion picture. The ability to stage fluid choreography while forcing the combatants into relatively close quarters makes the blade a perfect weapon for the screen.
Movies around the world have provided their own unique take on the sword fight, whether it’s two samurai patiently squaring off or a revenge-fueled assassin blindly cutting down hordes of henchmen. The following are some of the best examples of how, when it comes to cinematic carnage, it does not get much better than a sword fight.
In the Qin state of ancient China, warrior Nameless (Jet Li) approaches the king after claiming to have defeated three assassins who have made multiple attempts on the king’s life. The king asks Nameless how he achieved this and allows him to step closer to the throne with each tale of an assassin’s death.
Hero isn’t the first time Li’s wielded a sword, but director Zhang Yimou’sstunning vision gives the international superstar some of his most memorable moments with a blade. An early fight scene grabs attention as Nameless confronts Sky (Donnie Yen). The skirmish is initially played out in Nameless’s head with graceful choreography and melancholic music, only for the real battle to end in a flash, with quick and deadly results.
‘The Princess Bride’ (1987)
Home sick from a cold, a young boy is visited by his grandfather who brings a book to read to him while he’s bedridden. It’s the tale of Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright), who falls in love with farm-boy Westley (Cary Elwes). When Westley goes overseas in search of fortune, Buttercup is arranged to marry an oafish prince. then kidnapped by bandits, hoping her love will one day come to rescue her.
Over the years, The Princess Bride has become a crowd-pleasing classic, partially due to its exciting swashbuckling action. The first and best example of this is when a disguised Westley confronts outlaw Inigo Montoya (MandyPatinkin). The result is a flurry of swordplay and banter emblematic of the film’s ability to perfectly balance adventure and comedy.
‘Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island’ (1956)
Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island is the final installment of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy. It follows the adventures of legendary swordsman, Musashi Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune), now retired and living on a farm. When he is challenged to a duel by an old rival, however, Miyamoto’s warrior spirit compels him to accept.
Given the film’s title, the final confrontation of this sprawling epic had a lot to live up to. Thankfully, it does not disappoint. Unlike most sword fights, the duel is less about clanging metal and more about a silent mental chess match between the two combatants as they strafe across the beach, waiting for the right time to strike. With the backdrop of a rising sun, it is by far one of the most suspenseful and visually striking duels ever put to screen.
‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’ (2001)
Based on JRR Tolkein’s fantasy masterpiece, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is the first insallment of the trilogy. It follows the adventures of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), a young hobbit who embarks on a quest to stop the dark lord Sauron, with the help of a band of companions.
Peter Jackson’s trilogy is often beautiful and elegant, but his roots in horror filmmaking gave his Middle-Earth a grittiness and palpable sense of danger. This can be seen in a climactic showdown between ranger-turned-royalty Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the hulking beast Lurtz. The scramble is fast, brutal and packed with memorable moments, including a shot where Mortensen deflected a real knife thrown at him with his sword.
‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000)
During the Qing dynasty of 19th century China, renowned swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) gifts his legendary sword known as “Green Destiny” to his trusted benefactor. It is not long before the sword is stolen and Mu Bai, alongside trusted friend Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), sets out to retrieve it.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is filled with balletic action sequences. The best of the bunch occurs when thief Jen (ZhangZiyi) refuses to give up the sword. Shu Lien must then use every weapon at her disposal to stop her. Lucky for her, she’s in a temple full of them. Zhang and Yeoh perfectly execute the legendary Yuen Woo-ping’s dazzling choreography in this absolute show-stopper of a sword fight.
‘The Duellists’ (1977)
In the year 1800, French Lieutenant Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) is pursued by fellow Lieutenant Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) after nearly killing a mayor’s nephew in a duel. When Feraud resists arrest, the two engage in a duel of their own, kicking off a feud between them that would last decades.
Director Ridley Scott’sdebut is lauded for its gorgeous cinematography and historically accurate approach to its combat. While every duel in the film is superb, Armand and Gabriel’s first confrontation sets the tone brilliantly. The integration of handheld camera movements makes the scene feel claustrophobic and deadly, placing you smack-dab in the middle of the central rivalry.
‘Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace’ (1999)
The origins of villain Darth Vader are explored when Jedi warriors Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) find a gifted young boy who they rescue in order to train. Meanwhile, corrupt trade federations and the threat of an evil empire loom.
At this point, the polarizing nature of the Star Wars prequels is common knowledge. What most people can agree on, however, is that the final lightsaber duel of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace is an iconic one. It plays out like its own short film, with little dialogue, relying entirely on visual filmmaking and a bombastic score. Darth Maul actor Ray Park choreographed every inch of the fight beautifully, down to his character’s memorable demise.
‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’ (2019)
Dog-loving hit man John Wick (Keanu Reeves) returns, now pursued by every assassin in the city after breaking organization rules. Now, he has to scrape together every resource and ally he has left if he plans on surviving.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum pulls out all the stops when it comes to its action. This makes it all the more surprising when the final face-off between Wick and fanboy assassin Zero (Mark Dacascos) still manages to impress. Set in a stunning glass building created for the movie, the two fight relentlessly, trading sword blows and elusive maneuvers. When the melee is over, a dying Zero says it best: “Hey John … that was a pretty good fight, huh?”
‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1938)
When King Richard is kidnapped, his malicious brother John takes the throne, increasing taxes for the citizens of England. Robin Hood (Errol Flynn), the heroic bandit, gathers his merry men in preparation for a rebellion against the tyrant.
Having built his career on swashbuckling romps, The Adventures of Robin Hood is one of Flynn’s best. The duel between Robin and Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) is among the most iconic in movie history. The two leap around the giant castle set as they clash steel, at one point going off-camera while their shadows continue fighting on a stone wall. One viewing of this scene makes it easy to understand why Flynn was a legend of his time.
‘Kill Bill: Volume 1’ (2003)
Before her wedding day, a trained killer referred to as The Bride (Uma Thurman) is nearly killed by the “Deadly Viper Assassination Squad”, and wakes up four years later from a coma. Utilizing years of training and a thirst for vengeance, she hunts down the squad one by one, working her way to their leader, Bill (David Carradine).
Quentin Tarantino’s two-part revenge tale is a cocktail of his favorite genres, most prominent being the samurai movie. The third act ofKill Bill: Volume 1 is a massive battle in a Japanese restaurant with The Bride cutting down the Crazy 88, a gang of masked fighters. The copious amounts of bloodshed and flying limbs were deemed too much for an R-rating, forcing a portion of the fight to be in black and white. This gloriously over-the-top tribute to ’70s grind-house cinema will live on forever in the hall of fame of gratuitous violence.
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