One of the things I love to do is make lists. Often I’m doing this in my mind when I’m driving around town. Today, I got thinking about the best swordfights in movies: the sort of clashes of metal that leave us exhilarated.
I’ve always been of the opinion that a good action sequence is like a little story-within-a-story, with its own plot of sorts, twists and turns, and climax. The same holds true for that special category of swordfights.
Here are a few of my favorites:
1. Shanghai Knights (2003): This was what I was watching that inspired the list. This sequel to Shanghai Noon is overall somewhat uninspiring, but the final sword duel between Jackie Chan’s Chon Wang and the villain is excellent. Chan’s character is completely outmatched in the battle, which adds a huge amount of tension to the scene.
2. Rob Roy (1995): This film, about a Scottish highlander who is betrayed in a deal to aid his small town, ends with a duel between Rob Roy (Liam Neeson) and the evil Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth). This battle is simple: two men, with swords, facing each other to the death. Rob Roy is also completely outmatched, and Cunningham is just playing with him, wearing him down.
3. The Three Musketeers (1948): Dumas’ classic swashbuckling story has been remade probably too many times, the most recent being an atrocious unsubtle Disney version. The 1948 version, starring Gene Kelly, holds remarkably true to the original novel, including its surprisingly dark climax. The best swordfight is Gene Kelly’s first. After inadvertently agreeing to duels with each of the titular musketeers, D’Artagnan and the trio end up battling the cardinal’s guardsman instead. Gene Kelly’s acrobatics training really shines, as he completely taunts and outclasses his opponent, leaping about him and rolling over his back!
4. The Princess Bride (1987): This one is obvious, even though it’s a comedy! Rob Reiner’s classic fairytale includes a magnificent cliff-edge comical sword battle between Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and a mysterious masked figure (Cary Elwes). This film perhaps illustrates more than any other what I mean when I say an action sequence plays like its own mini-story: the twists and turns in this battle are classic!
5. Highlander (1986): This is the film that made running around lopping off random people’s heads with a sword cool. Immortal warriors run around decapitating each other through the centuries, claiming the slain’s power and working towards the time where one remains. Lots of sword play here, but my favorite is probably the first battle, in the parking garage. Steer clear of the sequels to this film, though: I watched the second one with the volume off, and it was still painful.
6. The Empire Strikes Back (1980): Okay, not literally a ‘sword’ fight, but a lightsaber battle is close enough! Luke’s first battle with Darth Vader is a dark and desperate clash, culminating in one of the classic, and ridiculously melodramatic, revelations in movie history.
7. Army of Darkness (1992): This film will end up making a lot of my ‘top movie’ lists! Idiot hero Ash (Bruce Campbell) blunders about during the middle ages against supernatural forces of evil. The final siege of the castle by the undead is both action packed and a riot. Ash himself grabs a sword for a high-energy battle with himself, managing to wisecrack the whole way. According to Bruce Campbell’s autobiography, Sam Raimi wanted the swordfight to take place in one perfect continuous take. Once you see the scene, however, you’ll see how impossible that would be. Raimi apparently heckled and derided Bruce for his wimpiness throughout the filming.
These are just the few that first came to mind as exemplary sword battles. I’m sure there are many others that I’ve overlooked. Any other suggestions?