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10 Best Movie Duels

Whether swords, pistols or lightsabers, these fights beat the odds.

By Rob Vaux     November 08, 2011

 Duels pretty much make their own gravy when it comes to moviemaking. They’re visually arresting, emotionally dramatic, and can pack a climactic wallop for nothing more than the price of a good fencing coach. Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn set the standard for exciting cinematic duels, but the concept includes more than sword fighting. The movies would be a poorer place without gunslingers facing down at high noon or wuxia kung-fu masters duking it out in the monastery courtyard. Here are ten of the most spectacular duels in movie history: chosen not only for their terrific choreography, but for the narrative undercurrent driving the conflict.

Our honorable mentions list could fill an entire book: They Live, Troy, House of Flying Daggers, The Fellowship of the Ring, Robin and Marian, Yojimbo, The Black Pirate, and anything Errol Flynn ever made.

 

10. Rob Roy MacGregor vs. Archibald Cunningham, Rob Roy

The conflict had been building for the entire film. Liam’s Neeson’s Rob Roy – paragon of honor boxed in by various English twerps – finally faces down Tim Roth’s Cunningham – bastard nobleman’s son, murderer and certified rapist – in a formal duel. The blades match the men, with the enormous Scotsman favoring a heavy cutlass and his reedy opponent taking a whipcord thin rapier. Cunningham survived as long as he had by being consistently underestimated, and the match-up represents a neat reversal of the traditional underdog role. Could the hero’s brute strength overcome the skilled technique of his horrid foe? It comes down to the wire to find out the answer. (BTW, Roth received an Oscar nomination for his role here; he lost to Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects.)

 

9. Indiana Jones vs. The Nazi Mechanic, Raiders of the Lost Ark

A more traditional David vs. Goliath battle takes place when Indy tries to sneak aboard a Nazi plane containing the Ark of the Covenant. He dispatches one mechanic pretty quickly, but the second (played by franchise stalwart Pat Roach) proves a little bit more than our hero can handle. The environment around the fighters makes this scene a classic, with propellers threatening to carve them into strudel, more German soldiers arriving by the minute, and the delightful combination of open flames and leaking fuel getting ready  to blow everyone sky high. It also illustrates one of the core reasons behind Indy’s enduring appeal: no matter how many superheroic feats he performs, the poor guy just can’t catch a break.

 

8. Tristan vs. Septimus, Stardust

Technically, this fight takes place between the noble Tristan (Charlie Cox) and Lamia the witch (Michelle Pfeiffer). Lamia’s weapon of choice, however, is the resurrected corpse of aristocratic cad Septimus (Mark Strong), whose zombielike frame makes for one hell of a challenge. The fight is all too brief, but we promise you’ll never see its like again.

 

7. The Bride vs. O-Ren Ishii, Kill Bill Vol. 1

Uma Thurman’s Bride is pissed. We get that. And after carving her way through an entire army of Bruce Lee wannabes on her way to her intended target, said target can’t even feign respect. At least at first. But as the climax to Quention Tarantino’s delirious Part One continues, the Bride extracts it from O-Ren blow by determined blow. That’s just the beginning, of course – what’s revenge without a little blood? – and with the self-knowing tone already slathered in heaps of gore, O-Ren’s final comeuppance arrives only after giving her due time to reflect upon her sins.

 

6. Tang Lung vs. Colt, The Way of the Dragon

Bruce Lee could almost fill this list up single-handedly; of the plethora of bad-ass throwdowns he’s been involved in, we’re going to go with his famous battle against a very hairy Chuck Norris in The Way of the Dragon. Not only does it feature two kung-fu legends squaring off (with a kitten apparently serving as referee), but it demonstrates Lee’s willingness to look fatigued and even vulnerable in the face of his opponents. He also yanks out a fistful of Norris’s chest hair at one point, which doubtless grants him all manner of supernatural powers.

 

5. Jen Yu vs. Yu Shu Lien, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Yuen Wo Ping’s gravity-defying choreography reached its apex in Crouching Tiger, a feast of world-class duels undergirded by one of the most touching love stories ever to grace the screen. The powerful but inexperienced Jen (Zhang Z iyi) faces off against the older wiser Yu (Michelle Yeoh)… armed with a mystic sword to even the odds. The scene makes brilliant use of a deceptively simple space, as well as being one of the few duels of this sort to take place between two women.

 

4. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn vs. Darth Maul, The Phantom Menace

Some might argue that the big showdown in Empire between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader belongs here, and you could make a strong case for that earlier scene. But as powerful as it is, it represents the Jedi at their nadir. An inexperienced boy takes on an aging cyborg who’s been king of the hill so long he can no longer remember what it was to face a real challenge. In The Phantom Menace, we saw three fully trained Jedi Knights at the peak of their power trying their darndest to kill each other. Its speed and viciousness took the breath away, even in light of the flaws in the film surrounding it. For all the complaining about The Phantom Menace, I’ve yet to hear anyone say boo about the lightsaber duel: a further testament to its power.

 

3. King Arthur vs. The Black Knight, Monty Python and the Holy Grail

A lot of movie duels become great when one of the opponents just doesn’t know when to quit (see Rob Roy, above). The Pythons take this to ridiculous extremes when the Black Knight loses limb after limb seemingly without understanding what has just happened. The sequence actually pokes fun at actual Arthurian literature, written back in the days when dramatic plausibility was less important than making one’s point. Knights would fight for three days until one of them lost an arm, upon which time they would embrace and be as brothers. Way to not hold a grudge guys… especially when you’re in the middle of bleeding to death.

 

2. Blondie vs. Tucco vs. Angel Eyes, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Western showdowns are all about the build-up rather than the gunshot itself, which usually comes so fast we barely register it before it’s over. Sergio Leone teaches a seminar on atmosphere every time he steps behind the camera, and the three-way duel for possession of a fortune in gold is positively operatic in its scope. Clint Eastwood’s Blondie dictates the terms of the battle, giving him the upper hand, but both of his opponents are proven survivors and faster on the draw than any mortal has any right. No high-noon showdown either before or since has come close.

 

1.  Wesley vs. Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

The greatest duel in movie history skirts right up to the edge of self-parody. Like the rest of The Princess Bride, it performs its duties with a wink and a nod to the audience, as well as the countless Errol Flynn movies that inspired it. As the Dread Pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) faces off against vengeful swordsman Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), they pay smiling lip service to notions of honor and fair play, letting us know how far-fetched the concept can be. Then, almost before we’re aware of it, they move the parody into something authentic: a pair of characters who really mean what they say. The balance is precarious but perfect, and when added to fighting moves that complement the tone without skipping a beat, you have a duel that is at once timeless and eternally hip.

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

Showing items 1 - 10 of 34
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Roqueja 11/8/2011 9:14:45 PM

This list definately should be the top 100 duels.  I woulda slipped They Live in the top 10 somehow, but a very good job narrowing it down.  It couldn't have been easy.

jppintar326 11/9/2011 12:33:24 AM

I would've gone with Anakin vs. Obi Wan in Episode III and Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker in Empire Strikes Back.

FerretJohn 11/9/2011 3:33:24 AM

A decent list actually, I'll agree with most (which is a rarity for one of Vaux's) but as Roqueja says there are a hundred that could also fit nicely here.  Zorro vs Captain Love (Mask of Zorro) instead of Stardust, Jet Li vs Jackie Chan (Forbidden Kingdom) instead of Crouching Tiger, Max vs Blaster in the Thunderdome, Rocky vs Apollo, The Hulk vs The Abomination, the list goes on and on and on....

Mossy1221 11/9/2011 4:00:35 AM

I hear a lot of people praising the Jackie Chan/Jet Li fight scene.  However, I fail to see how amazing it was.  Other then the fact it is legend against legend.  I have seen many Jackie Chan movies. From the 70's to today.  And he has MANY more duel scenes that blow that one out of the water.   One of my favs (And should be on Roqueja 100 list) is that 20 min fight scene in Who am I.    

And as a child I watched The Princess Bride over and over again.  I love that movie!

marcd30319 11/9/2011 4:24:02 AM

This list is hardly exhaustive.  You skip the various versions of the The Three Musketeers, with the final battle between Michael York's d'Artagnan and Christoper Lee's Rochefort in The Four Musketters

You ignore Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. 

You ignore Guy Williams in Disney version of The Prince and the Pauper  and the Zorro TV series.

You ignore the duels in El Cid starring Charlton Heston.

You ignore Stewart Granger in Scaramouche and The Prisoner of Zenda.

You ignore Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk,  Adventures of Don Juan, The Prince and the Pauper,  and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

I could go on, but what is the point?  This entire was a fool's errand.

boxker 11/9/2011 5:38:11 AM

I think the battle at the end of Blade II should get at least an honorable mention, It's one of my favorite duel scenes. As far as Star Wars, that entire battle between kenobi, Qui Gon, and Maul is the best of all six movies ( though I did miss the back and forth dialogue), however, the best part of the fight is between Kenobi and Darth Maul.

Shmoooooo 11/9/2011 6:43:19 AM

No love for Highlander???? 

lusiphur 11/9/2011 6:46:51 AM

 I wholeheartedly agree with your number 1.  In derferrence to marcd30319, the choreography in the duel between Wesley and Inigo was, in my opinion, the best sword duel in any movie I have seen.  And the list is by no means exhaustive.  

jackwagon 11/9/2011 6:48:49 AM

At least you were noble enough to mention Troy in Honorable Mentions for, I presume, Hector vs. Achilles.  But no Neo vs. Smith in The Matrrix??  The frakking hell? 

What about Castor Troy vs Sean Archer in any of their shootouts in Face/Off?  Or the mother of all movie brawls in Superman II where Supes took on Zod, Ursa, and Non all at once?

Wiseguy 11/9/2011 6:58:13 AM

I was thinking the same exact thing as jackwagon, Neo vs Smith in The Matrix is already a classic. I prefer the duel in The Matrix over Revolutions but both were great

Another classic also with Indiana Jones is the Sword vs Gun in Raiders albeit a very short duel it is a classic

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