Star Wars: 9 Most Iconic Lightsaber Duels
Written by Austin Hall (@ADWAustin) & Brandon C. Kesselly (@bckesso)
Lightsaber duels have been a staple of Star Wars since its inception. Yes, we love the space battles. Yes, we love the technology. Most of all, we love the Force, and those dramatic battles between light and dark. The space paladins known as Jedi facing down the dark wizard Sith (or Knights of Ren; thanks, JJ!) make up a significant portion of the franchise. It’s now even an official sport in France!
In honor of the upcoming Episode IX, we bring you what we believe to be the 9 most iconic duels of the franchise, thus far. These fights are iconic for various reasons, but mainly for their importance to the franchise, the characters, and pop culture as a whole.
Honorable Mention: Ahsoka Tano vs Darth Vader (Star Wars Rebels: “Twilight of the Apprentice”)
Brandon — Star Wars Rebels ended a year ago, and all I can say is that this series was a greater love letter to the franchise than even The Force Awakens. It was a marriage of nearly every piece of Star Wars media ever released, blending them together in ways that rewarded both new and longtime fans alike. That being said, this fight was for the longtime fans.
I’m on record saying Ahsoka Tano is my favorite Star Wars character. Her arc was one of the most important facets of the 2008 Clone Wars series. Her apprenticeship to Anakin Skywalker — the Chosen One — was a carefully written dynamic, and their relationship was more like siblings than a rigid master-pupil scenario. The two cared greatly for each other, so much so that it tore her master apart when she turned down her promotion and left the Jedi Order entirely. So, when she and Vader both popped up in Rebels, we knew they were on a collision course.
Her realization that Anakin had become Vader was almost as heartbreaking as their eventual encounter. Her determination to avenge her master’s legacy was admirable. And their duel is a remarkable display of power, speed, and finesse. It’s the kind of fight that leaves fans old and new in awe. Hearing Vader (James Earl Jones) mixed with Anakin (Matt Lanter) call out to her is a gut punch as we are reminded just how far The Chosen One had fallen.
Austin — Though I never watched the series, I always liked the idea of Ahsoka Tano and would love to see a live-action version at some point. I’ve seen this scene a few times, and any time we get to see a Vader fight is a good time, for sure.
9) Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Maul (Star Wars Rebels: “Twin Suns”)
Brandon — Battered, bruised, and broken, Maul had been cast aside by the Sith. He failed to reclaim the galaxy from his former master. He failed to turn Ezra Bridger to the Dark Side. Hell, he failed to kill Kanan Jarrus — the last Padawan — just minutes after blinding him. He searched the ends of the galaxy to find Jedi and Sith holocrons just to locate the man he blamed for all of it: Obi-Wan Kenobi. And so, he found his way to Tatooine, braving the merciless desert to face the exiled Jedi Master in one final duel.
This fight is quicker than even Kenobi’s rematch with Vader in the original film: Old Ben masterfully cuts down Maul within three moves. The drama, cunning, and planning are what make such a short sequence so powerful. Kenobi starts the fight with his stance from Revenge of the Sith, but quickly switches to his master Qui-Gon Jinn’s from The Phantom Menace. In turn, Maul initiated the exact technique he used to kill Jinn, only to be killed by Kenobi who anticipated it. He’d taken the bait from the old hermit, and paid a fatal price. In his dying moments, he expressed his desire for the Chosen One to avenge both himself and his adversary, both of whom were victims of the Emperor’s schemes.
Austin — One of the only clips I watch over and over, from a show I’ve never seen. This is the final battle between old foes, and, maybe someday, we will see the live-action version of it. Obi-Wan is a steward of the Force now instead of a full-fledged fighter, but still has enough ability to kill Maul faster than any villain has ever been killed, and we finally see that Kenobi didn’t just sit on his butt for years, but actually protected Luke the whole time.
8) Rey & Kylo Ren vs The Praetorian Guard (The Last Jedi)
Brandon — Look: I’m someone who doesn’t hate The Last Jedi. While the pacing is slower than fans are used to, the humor is too Marvel-esque, and the timeline is unnecessarily constrained, its emotional beats, action, and visual storytelling are genuinely engaging. Nothing exemplifies this more than the dynamic between Rey and Kylo Ren.
After facing off as adversaries in the previous film, the two develop a Force bond that deconstructs their characters for the audience. It also draws them together, making their team up heartwarming and their falling out heartbreaking. Having these two fight back to back is a first for a Star Wars film, and their fighting styles contrast beautifully as a result. Where Rey uses dexterity and ingenuity to vanquish her foes, Ren uses brutality — which, in my opinion, accurately reflects their characters at this point in time.
Austin — It fills me with sadness, angst, and anger that so many people didn’t love this movie the way I did. Growing up, Luke Skywalker was my hero, a person who always saw the good in people and always fought for what’s right, but at 29, I understand that humans can be emotional and irrational, and give in to fear and anger when things don’t go their way. Luke’s story is one of tragedy. His father was the most evil person in the galaxy; he never knew his mother; his aunt and uncle died and he saw their bodies; Luke watched his father die and was repeatedly lied to and manipulated by his Jedi Masters. After all this, he trained a nephew who turned on him. That was enough to force him into exile, not because he couldn’t face the new threat, but because, to him, that was the right thing to do. And yet, he saves the day one last time anyway. A perfect ending, in my opinion.
The fight happens after Ren kills his own master, Supreme Leader Snoke, and teams up with Rey to kill off The Praetorian Guard who somehow have weapons that lightsabers can’t cut through. It’s an avant-garde, art-house type scene where we follow both fighters using swift flicks of their sabers as they kill off the Guards. The end sees the destruction, once and for all, of Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber, and sets things up for who knows what in Episode IX.
7) Finn/Rey vs Kylo Ren (The Force Awakens)
Brandon — This fight was probably one of the best bait-and-switch moments in modern cinema. The marketing behind The Force Awakens led fans to assume that Finn, the defecting Stormtrooper, was going to be a Jedi. Once the film was in full swing, however, it became apparent that the Force was strong in Rey, and Finn was just the delivery boy of the Skywalker lightsaber. When Finn faces Kylo Ren, there’s a sense that he is trained, but still out of his league. He’s scrappy and gets a hit in, but also gets bodied quickly right after. Ren torches him with his weapon, disarms him, and incapacitates him to assert his dominance. But when Ren tries to summon his grandfather’s lightsaber, it flies past him into the hands of the scavenger Rey.
Rey’s duel with Ren is different. Due to her lack of training, she uses the environment and her dexterity to try to gain advantage. She jumps, rolls, and even cuts branches in attempts to distract her opponent, but she’s clearly panicking for two-thirds of the fight. Her swings are sloppy and scattered; she merely parries Ren’s slashes and thrusts her weapon while he toys with and overpowers her. It is only after he reminds her of the Force that she gains a second wind and begins to turn the tide — which is both the best and worst thing about this fight (but that’s another discussion entirely).
Austin — This is the first lightsaber duel we see in the sequel trilogy, and boy does it deliver. Finn, who it seemed for all the world to be the next Jedi, faces off, quite valiantly, against a wounded Ren, but is ultimately defeated quite violently. Ren uses the Force to try and retrieve the lightsaber, but it flings past him and settles into Rey’s hand — a scene that still gives me chills years later, as we learn who the true new Jedi will be. The fight is evenly matched, and it seems a little hard to believe that Rey can overpower Ren, having just started using her powers that day. But, it’s truly wonderful to see Rey standing over him, and the audience I was with whooped and clapped in the theater that day. The only flaw of rewatching that scene is that I can’t insert audience reaction into my copy.
6) Master Yoda vs Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus (Attack of the Clones)
Brandon — When Luke first visited Dagobah in search of Yoda, he sought “a great warrior”. Yoda was, until 1999, the “Jedi Master who instructed” Obi-Wan Kenobi. But, from 1980 to 2002, nobody had ever seen the “warrior” side of Yoda — only the sage. So when Count Dooku, the Jedi Master turned Sith Lord, washes both Kenobi and apprentice Anakin Skywalker, the old master decides to remind folks that he can dance with the baddest in the galaxy.
Everything that makes this fight iconic relies on contradiction. It is equally badass and blasphemous: Yoda with a lightsaber? Wow! It is equally riveting and ridiculous: Look at him spin! He zips! He zags! He’s got the SWAG! Still, getting a taste of Yoda in battle gave fans the sense that he truly had trained Jedi “for 800 years” — even though he had prioritized Force abilities over combat until this moment.
Austin — We’ve been told a whole lot about how Yoda is the most powerful Jedi Master of all time, but we had to take it for granted until this scene. After Count Dooku dispatches Anakin Skywalker — in his first ever lightsaber duel — then Obi-Wan Kenobi, things look quite dire until Yoda shows up. He easy re-channels each of Dooku’s electric blasts before Dooku gives in to a lightsaber battle, and is so adept with his saber that Dooku has to put Kenobi and Skywalker in peril in order to escape. People have criticized Yoda jumping up and down as he fights Dooku with his mini lightsaber, but I thought it was a cool effect. I mean, really, he’s what, two feet? How else is he going to be able to fight?
5) Qui-Gon Jinn & Obi-Wan Kenobi vs Darth Maul (The Phantom Menace)
Brandon — It has been brought to my attention that this fight will be 20 years old come May. That means, I first saw it when I was seven years old. And, full disclosure, I get thrown back to first grade whenever that theme song comes on. Before the dark times; before Liam Neeson’s lust for hate crimes (I think).
This trio of fights was a brilliant display of the Jedi in their prime. Gone was the rigidity of the kendo-inspired swordplay from the original trilogy. This was quicker and flashier — more wuxia and swashbuckling than samurai. Darth Maul (martial artist Ray Park) had a lightsaber staff that he clearly knew how to use. Maul was also smart: He couldn’t take them both on forever, so he separated them and took out the master before being bodied by the student. Obi-Wan played no games, and his victory, while ruining our suspension of disbelief, was very much one of hard work and tenacity.
The subtleties of this encounter are impressive to this day. The ways in which the characters respond to each other’s fighting styles, adapt mid-combat, and press advantages tend to be enough to suspend our disbelief in the combatants’ actual danger (those sabers connect an awful lot for all that spinning). Still, when you ask people about Star Wars fights, this is always going to come up in the discussion.
Austin — The first Star Wars movie I ever saw in theaters brought to all audiences the first double-edged lightsaber. I can still remember, to this day, the trailer that shows off that saber and getting hyped. This fight shows Darth Maul using it for the first time and was so adept with it in the beginning, it looked like three Jedi couldn’t defeat him. After he kills Qui-Gon Jinn as Obi-Wan Kenobi looks on, Kenobi takes up the mantle of trying to defeat the first Sith Lord we see (canonically) in the movies. It’s a defining moment for Kenobi, and it sets him on a path to train the most powerful Sith ever — oops!
4) Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader (Return of the Jedi)
Brandon — This is a different fight than before. On Bespin, Luke was fighting to avenge his father and master; he was naive in believing Obi-Wan and Yoda; and he thought he knew the whole story. On the new Death Star, he had all of the information and training he needed to face Vader again. No longer was he a boy chasing a fairy tale. Now he was a man, seeking to redeem what was lost. Armed with truth, compassion, and the Force, Luke faced his father one last time in a battle for his spirit and humanity.
Luke brushed with the Dark Side the entire film. Since Bespin, he had accepted the truth about his father’s transformation into Darth Vader. Would he give in to temptation? When faced with the fact that the Dark Side allowed him to overpower and disarm his father in the end, would he surrender himself entirely? His answer: “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”
Austin — Luke is at his most powerful, and shows Vader, who he now accepts as his father, just how much that is the case. The scene goes at a zigzag pace as Luke goes from speaking calmly about how he won’t fight him to charging after him and wailing on him, fueled with anger. Unlike his father, he is not seduced by the Emperor, and gives himself up instead of killing his father. Vader, in turn, finally fulfils his destiny, killing the Emperor and bringing balance to the Force once again. Personally, I enjoy this scene more than the best fight, but only because I love two things in movies: heavy dialogue and conclusions.
3) Obi-Wan Kenobi vs Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader (Revenge of the Sith)
Brandon — From the moment the prequel trilogy was announced, this was the fight fans were clamoring to see. It was a bit of old trivia that Obi-Wan was the reason Vader was in need of his suit, meaning that whatever he did to Anakin must have been brutal. Yeah, there was talk of him being thrown in a volcano, but the lava planet of Mustafar will certainly do.
Other than the aforementioned hype, what makes this fight so iconic is the mixture of flair and feeling that make this the dramatic magnum opus of the George Lucas era. Obi-Wan had trained Anakin to Knighthood, and the two had become legendary heroes of the Clone Wars, the Jedi Order, and the Galactic Republic. They were the only two in a thousand years to defeat Sith Lords in combat, and they were now facing each other as equals in a physical and moral conflict between brothers.
Anakin had plunged himself into darkness, murdering men, women, and children alike out of anger, hatred, and pain. He was tempted by the Dark Side, due to his selfish desires to cheat death and prolong the life of his wife. Obi-Wan took it upon himself to kill his student before he became a bigger threat in the future — but we know his track record on actually killing Sith in combat. Still, this fight’s theatrics build tension rather than boredom, rounding out the origin story of Darth Vader in an understandably tragic matter.
Austin — I recently discovered a full orchestra play the theme music of this fight — along with awesome actors reenacting it — and it is a sight to behold, reminding me how important this fight was. Beyond the obvious iconic lines, this is one of the most emotional fights we see in Star Wars. Kenobi and Anakin face off as brothers, or father and son, or enemies, depending on a certain point of view, and while the action drags on way too long, the ending, with Kenobi telling Anakin “I have the high ground” and Anakin yelling about how much he hates him will stick with me far more than the awkward and useless dialogue that includes “From my point of view the Jedi are evil!” It’s a great scene, and both actors really bring it when they need to. And oh my, that music!
2) Obi-Wan Kenobi vs Darth Vader (A New Hope)
Brandon — The spark that ignited a franchise, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness) faced off against Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) for the first time in cinematic history. Earlier in the film, Kenobi told Luke that the lightsaber was “an elegant weapon for a more civilized age”. And he put that on full display in this encounter. While sluggish due to the times, its combat techniques are deeply rooted in the Japanese martial art of kendo — “the way of the sword”.
As a former kendo practitioner, seeing the techniques on screen is more than a little entertaining. Kenobi and Vader constantly maintain a specific mai (distance) as if they are going to strike with the “sweet spot” of their blades. Both attempt to use seme to pressure their opponents, to varying degrees of success. Their hand placements, footwork, and swing motions are mostly based around striking the men (head), kote (wrist), and do (body). They even reset after every failed attack. The only thing they’re really missing is kiai, a battle cry that has been commonly associated with the martial arts for years.
While it lacked Maul’s flair, Dooku’s finesse, or Ren’s brutality, there are very few wasted motions — just two master swordsmen looking for a quick, decisive finish. But this fight also left us all wanting more — and we have gotten that for four decades, from the movies and TV shows to YouTube duels like “Ryan vs Dorkman.”
Austin — This is the first ever fight in the movie franchise’s history, and while it delivers great lines, it is quick and awkward, but still unforgettable. Still, I’ve watched this scene so many times, and there is a random part where it seems that Obi-Wan’s saber shorts out for no reason. In any case, it’s Darth Vader facing off against his old master for the first time since Mustafar, and Kenobi’s sacrifice at the end leads Luke Skywalker on the path to avenge him. The Mustafar fight, in my opinion, actually heightens this scene, as the now wiser Kenobi. in his familiar robes, faces off against Vader at the height of his powers. It’s not about the actual fight here, but what it sets up, that makes it so important, and anyone who disagrees must remember that only a Sith deals in absolutes.
1) Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader (The Empire Strikes Back)
Brandon — For many reasons, this has been the most iconic lightsaber duel in the Star Wars franchise. This was the first film where Luke Skywalker, the hero, faced Darth Vader in single combat on screen. Vader had killed their shared master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, as well as Luke’s father, and was the enforcer of the Galactic Empire. He had trapped and arrested Luke’s friends, baiting the young hero into a match on his terms. So, clearly, Luke had to rush in to save the day. And he failed spectacularly.
While young Skywalker put up a fight, he was absolutely no match for Vader. As he trembled in fear and reacted in anger, Vader calmly used a single hand to show him how much he was outclassed. When Skywalker tried, he lost his weapon, and almost got frozen in carbonite. Vader toyed with him for almost ten minutes, testing his swordsmanship, Force potential, and overall resolve.
After he pushed the Sith Lord to use two hands, he was screwed. Almost as soon as he landed a single blow to Vader’s shoulder, he quickly lost his hand and weapon. And then the gut punch: Vader was his father, and Kenobi had lied to him. The man Luke had followed on a “damned fool’s errand”, who trained him to be a Jedi like his father, had sent him into battle to kill the very man he was trying to emulate and avenge.
Austin — This is the best fight, and it’s not even close. Luke faces off against his arch enemy, the one who killed his first master. In the movie franchise, it’s the first time we see Luke vs. Vader, though it is not the first time they actually face off (thanks comic books!). It’s a long fight, one between a budding Jedi who is quick, adept, and resilient, but ultimately way out of his league against a true Sith Lord who is just messing with him the whole time. It delivers the most iconic line of the franchise, which has ironically been misinterpreted for eons. While everyone thinks the line is “Luke, I am your father”, it’s actually an exchange that leads to the ultimate twist (that I can cite off the top of the dome, BTW):
Vader: Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.
Luke: He told me enough! He told me you killed him!
Vader: No, I am your father.
This fight alone is what made the young Austin want to be a Jedi, wield a lightsaber, and destroy the Sith. Lightsaber battles are always the highlight of any Star Wars movie for me, which is why, in Episode IX and beyond, I hope to continue to see how different filmmakers interpret the art and bring it into a new age.
How do you feel about our list? What does yours look like? Which is your favorite fight? Star Wars: Episode IX arrives in theaters December 20, 2019. Hopefully this will bring a new contender for future lists!
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