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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.