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100 Essential Action Scenes: Swordfights

Sound on Sight undertook a massive project, compiling ranked lists of the most influential, unforgettable, and exciting action scenes in all of cinema. There were hundreds of nominees spread across ten different categories and a multi-week voting process from 11 of our writers. The results: 100 essential set pieces, sequences, and scenes from blockbusters to cult classics to arthouse obscurities.    
Sword fights, like one-on-one fights, target the emotion and power of each individual fighter, but are amplified by the extension of their weapon. Whereas one-on-one fights test the might and bronze of our competitors, sword fights add an extra element of intelligence and skill. A fighter can scrape by through luck in a brawl of fists, but a sword (and knife) fight exposes the true strengths and weaknesses of its opponents.

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10. Rob Roy (1995) – No quarter asked, no quarter given

Roger Ebert called the final duel between Rob Roy (Liam Neeson, in a role presaging his current badass old man work) and Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth) “one of the great action sequences in movie history.” It’s a simple battle to settle a simple matter: Rob Roy is blamed for the disappearance of 1,000 pounds that was actually stolen by Cunningham. Luckily, simplicity and brutality are not mutually exclusive properties. An essentially dialogue and music free scene, the duel is the film in microcosm, with the sniveling and dandy Cunningham smirking his way through the scene, as deadly and tactical as his rapier, and Rob Roy, imposing and honorable like his broadsword, taking hit after hit, just waiting to kind a single, deadly advantage. The duel takes place mostly in medium shots so we actually see the actors crossing blades; the moves, choreographed by William Hobbs, are clean and loud, never letting the audience forget the life or death stakes of the match. Rob Roy is a masterclass in swordplay, showing that all you need for a good movie fight is the appropriate stakes and strikes that are always intended to kill. (JJ Perkins)

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9. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) – Duel of the fates

The Phantom Menace may be a black eye on the face of the Star Wars franchise, but the final duel between Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) against Darth Maul (Ray Park) is almost enough to redeem the film. However fleeting, the magic of the original trilogy can be felt watching two skilled Jedis dueling a fierce Sith warrior. For all of the geeking-out that occurs when Darth Maul reveals his double-bladed lightsaber, what is most impressive is the skill on display. The three fighters maneuver in ways that fans had never seen before in a Star Wars film. Darth Vader, for all of his fearsome behavior, was a bit stilted when it came to lightsaber fights, and Luke barely reached his peak during his Jedi tenure. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan move fluidly, matching Maul as he leaps all over the floor, besting the two Jedi at every turn. When John William’s “Duel of the Fates” starts blaring on the soundtrack in a goosebumps inducing crescendo, we’re left wondering “where was this magic earlier?” (Colin Biggs)

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8. The Princess Bride – Westley vs. Inigo

There may be no other film that captures both swashbuckling action and comedic charm better than Rob Reiner’s classic The Princess Bride. Staged in front of a fake backdrop befitting Gone With the Wind, the fight between Inigo Montoya and The Man in Black is a thing of beauty. Inigo has allowed Westley to live rather than fall to his death, because when the two fight, they’re not enemies but artists. They spar verbally as much as physically, engaging in fencing theory with perfectly timed comedic swipes. The scene is endearingly old-fashioned and hammy with whooshes and orchestra swells accompanying some stylish gymnastics, as when Inigo’s sword falls out of the sky back into his hand. All of the effects add to the fantastical storybook feel, none more fittingly than Reiner’s two exhilarating, hilarious twists: “I am not left handed!” I would sooner destroy a stained glass window than dispose of a scene as wonderful as this. (Brian Welk)

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7. Sanjuro (1962) – A test of speed

When one thinks of the best cinematic swordfights, what often comes to mind are showy, highly choreographed duels full of fancy moves and the buckling of swashes. The final duel of Akira Kurosawa’s 1962 film Sanjuro goes a much different route, presenting a sword fight boiled down to a single move, a test of the speed and reflexes of the duelists where the blades of the combatants never even meet. When protagonist Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) finally squares off for his final duel with Hanbei (Tatsuya Nakadi), the pair defies what one would expect from a samurai movie, standing at arms length from one another, slowly drawing their arms from their sleeves, and locking eyes. This isn’t a duel of skill or technique but of who can draw their sword and deliver a killing blow fastest. For over 30 agonizing seconds, the pair stands across from each other, waiting for a sign, an opening, a signal to strike. Finally, at some signal that we the audience are never to know, swords are drawn, and in an instant the duel is over. The scene is a distillation of the movie swordfight, a reduction of the form to its basest elements: speed, tension, and reflexes. Despite the utter lack of movement in the frame, the tension is palpable throughout the scene, as the audience, and the gaggle of young samurai in the background, watch as these two seemingly evenly matched fighters put their abilities as swordsmen to the ultimate test. (Thomas O’Connor)

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6. Eastern Promises (2007) – Bloody bathhouse

There are plenty of tough scenes throughout cinema, but this one trumps them all due to one factor: nudity. At a certain point in Cronenberg’s gangster movie, Viggo Mortensen’s Nikolai gets framed as Kirill (Vincent Cassel), the incompetent son of Russian crime boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Two knife-wielding hitmen are sent after Nikolai in a bathhouse where he is resting in nothing more than a towel. Every single action and reaction in this wince-inducing scene is neither masked nor hidden in the editing. You see it all…especially once that towel is ripped off. Mortensen commits to the roughness of the fight, which must have been as tough to shoot as it is to watch. Nikolai incurs several stab wounds and gets tossed around on hard marble floor before managing to stab one hitman in the chest and kill the other with a blade to the back of the head. Just when you think it’s over, the other hitman snaps back into consciousness to choke Nikolai, who responds by breaking the guy’s same arm three times and jamming the knife in his eye. In the most vulnerable state a man can fight in, somehow he wins. What’s the toughest, roughest thing you’ve done while naked? One time I slipped in the shower and got a bruise, and then I cried for ten minutes. Nikolai fights off two guys while unarmed in the most brutal fashion while nude, and he makes it out alive. Schwarzenegger never threw down in the buff (Terminator doesn’t count). And Stallone’s shorts weren’t that short in Rocky. In the realm of action movie badasses, everyone else can go home. Mortenson wins the toughest scene of all time because he leaves it all on the bathhouse floor. More nude fight scenes please. (Dylan Griffin)

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5. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) – The Bride vs. Vernita Green

As Kill Bill Vol. 1 opens in Pasadena, California, the blaring siren, quick zoom and deep red flashback as The Bride and Vernita Green lock eyes is all Quentin Tarantino needs to let you know it’s on. In a flash, Tarantino has paid homage to the ‘70s Kung-Fu movie style, only to deconstruct it a moment later. The Bride’s fist and knife fight showdown with Green is rough and visceral, not flashy fun. Tarantino makes full use of the room and the props available to the point that in no time flat there’s carnage and clutter everywhere. It’s acrobatic but painful. Tarantino has a quick joke as The Bride makes a whooshing sound effect as she leaps over the table. But Tarantino’s next twist when Green’s daughter arrives is much more significant. “Come on bitch,” Green beckons to the Bride. Tarantino knows this isn’t just a fight, but a feminist statement of power that will carry through the rest of the film. (Brian Welk)

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4. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) – Hell hath no fury like a woman’s sword

When Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was released, it was one of the biggest surprises in US cinema. A wuxia film entirely in Mandarin, it is recognized for being one of the most influential foreign language films in the US and sparked a significant increase in wuxia films from China. The film is also highlighted by the dominance of its female characters — warrior Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), the outlaw Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), and her disciple Jen (Zhang Ziyi). An aristocrat’s daughter, Jen craves the adventurous life of a warrior and after secretly learning the inner workings of Wudang, she escapes her arranged marriage and steals the powerful Green Destiny sword, owned by Lien’s friend/love interest, Li Mu Bai (Chow-Yun Fat). This key fight between Shu Lien and Jen comes as they discontinue their enemies, allowing them to fully show their combative skills against each other for the first time (Jen had previously been masked). Yuen Woo-Ping’s fight choreography is balletic, highlighting the actresses athleticism while accompanied by Tan Dun’s almost tribal music. A renowned stuntwoman in Hong Kong cinema, Yeoh shows off her abilities as a martial artist, whereas newcomer Ziyi shines in a demanding, fast-paced role that makes it hard to believe she isn’t trained in martial arts (she learned dance at a young age). Although both women are equally skilled, Jen is at a slight advantage due to the power of the Green Destiny, which only feeds her arrogance in her abilities. Yet Shu Lien’s determination in besting her young opponent, while using a series of weapons, highlights her strength as a warrior. The whole scene is balanced in combat and choreography, making it the standout of Ang Lee’s impressive feature. (Katie Wong)

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3. Hero (2002) — Nameless vs. Sky

Martial art fights provide some of the best examples of how the use of weaponry can lead to an enticing and climactic brawl. Films like Yojimbo, Seven Samurai, and countless other samurai classics do an incredible job in showing how a sword can capture the pure talent and precision of its swordsman while heightening the element of surprise and danger. Even with modern installments like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a clear influence on Yimou Zhang’s Hero, this holds true. Its slow motion, gravity-defying choreography might be a bit overplayed for its time yet is a classic method of zoning in on the action at hand. Top that with the fast-paced footwork of our fighters, and time almost twists and bends right before our eyes. The choice of sword is also important to our characters and is a direct reflection of them. Jet Lee’s Nameless is quiet and his sword is a testament to his character. Donnie Yen’s Sky, on the other hand, has to counteract Nameless by being loud with a flexible sword that is just as conspicuous as he is. It’s even accented with a large white feather. Like a bouncing pendulum, with every whip and slide, our protagonist ducks and dodges with perfect accuracy. In this hare vs. turtle race, persistence beats speed tenfold and exemplifies the power of a great sword fight. (Christopher Clemente)

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2. The Raid 2 (2014) – The skill to live

Gareth Evans’ Raid series is the culmination of years of action cinema. Action films can usually be broken down into two types — the story driven where action comes out of incidents and the technical driven where plot is the bare minimum designed only for the action. While The Raid was more of the latter, The Raid II ups both quotients. There’s almost too much plot, and the case can be made that there’s almost too much action. But when the action is this damn awe-inspiring, it’s hard to argue against it for delivering the goods with such bloody gusto. The greatest among them: the final, bloody kitchen knife fight between in-too-deep cop, Rama (Iko Uwais), and the silent, steely-eyed Assassin (Cecep Arif Rahman) of a drug kingpin. After Rama cuts a tear through hordes of henchmen and two colorful killers, it’s time for one last showdown. Rama and his opponent fight hand to hand before The Assassin brandishes two karambit knives. It may be the most unbalanced start to a knife fight ever, as Rama must first wrestle a knife from his opponent to even the odds. Uwais is an expert stuntman, but he doesn’t receive enough credit for his emotional intensity as an actor. Here, his face is a constantly shifting canvas of the fear, anguish, and struggle of a man who has come too far to end up just another corpse. This is a knife fight where the opponents–though superhuman they may appear–register the horror of every swipe, slash, and stab that cuts flesh. It’s an endurance test for the audience as much as for Rama. How much more pain can be inflicted? How much longer can these two go before one is literally cut down? When Rama twists his blade in the Assassin’s throat, a killing move that brings his opponent’s lifeless body into his almost like an embrace, a look of utter exhaustion overcomes him. This is no triumph. There will always be more bad guys in the way, and he may not survive the next time. But for now, his sigh of relief won’t be his last breath. (Shane Ramirez)

The Raid 2 … essentially a bigger, more expensive remake.

 

1. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1981) – Give dad a hand

There are more technically-impressive lightsaber duels in the Star Wars films, but none have the kind of impact on plot, character and theme as the lightsaber fight that constitutes the climax of The Empire Strikes Back. Representing the first face-to-face meeting between Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones), the battle itself is mostly one-sided: after Luke initially impresses Vader by simply holding his own, the battle quickly turns against the hero as Vader dominates the young would-be Jedi, mercilessly pummeling him with machinery and acting with the air of predator simply playing with his prey, culminating in the loss of Luke’s weapon and hand, followed by Vader’s stunning declaration that he didn’t kill Luke’s father, Vader is Luke’s father. It’s a turning point for both Luke as a character and the entire saga, recontextualizing it not as the story of Luke Skywalker but as the story of Luke’s family, and one of cinema’s most iconic and oft-quoted moments, a jaw dropping climax that makes a good sword fight a great one while leaving an indelible mark on pop culture. (Austin Gorton)

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Top Choices from our Writers

Colin Biggs – Eastern Promises

Christopher Clemente – Sanjuro

Ricky D – Dao (Blade)

Austin Gorton – Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

Dylan Griffin – The Raid 2

Thomas O’Connor – The Princess Bride

JJ Perkins – Rob Roy

Shane Ramirez – The Raid 2

Christopher Saunders – The Adventures of Robin Hood

Brian Welk – Star Wars

Katie Wong – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

(Check out the rest of the list by clicking below)

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