The best duels in cinema history
We present the best duels in cinema history, although it is our subjective choice. If you want to share your favourites, vote, you can choose more than one fight. If some of these duels are unfamiliar to you, please feel free to watch the videos below the poll.
Errol Flynn vs Basil Rathbone (Robin Hood vs Sir Guy of Gisbourne) “The Adventures of Robin Hood” – 1938
First, Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone had duelled in front of the camera before in Captain Blood (1935). Their choreographer in both productions was Fred Cavens, who mostly worked on Flynn, as Rathbone was a great swordsman before. Though the fact is, Flynn didn’t really train hard and relied more on his athleticism.
Historical realities were not adhered to, so the characters used duralumin swords, invented at the beginning of the 20th century. Additionally, in the Middle Ages, knights fought with hooks rather than complicated attacks and parries, but the producers said they would look nice on the screen.
Tyrone Power vs Basil Rathbone (Diego Vega vs Esteban Pasquale) “The Mark of Zorro” – 1940
Both actors were good swordsmen, although Basil Rathbone is considered one of the best in the history of cinema. The famous duel was staged by the Belgian fencing master Fred Cavens. Cavens specialized in staging duels that involved real fencing rather than acrobatics, which included the many “duels” in the films before (and after).
Cavens’ son, Albert, stand in for Tyrone Power in more fancy parts of the duel (mostly with his back to the camera), such as a longer exchange with Esteban, ending in breaking the bookcase. The shots were scaled down to 18 or 20fps (as opposed to the standard 24fps) and all audio effects were synchronized.
Tadeusz Łomnicki vs Daniel Olbrychski (Wołodyjowski vs Kmicic) “The Deluge” – 1974
The Polish list of “the best duels in cinema history” is certainly opened by a fight between Wołodyjowski and Kmicic. The scene of the most famous sabre duel was shot for two weeks. Several teams of firefighters were employed to pour water on the plan, two sets of clothes were prepared, dried in a shift and … a lake. Tadeusz Łomnicki and Daniel Olbrychski, who were wet all days, jumped into a nearby lake because they claimed it was warmer there. Additionally, their boots are equipped with football cleats to avoid accidentally slipping in the mud.
The matter was also made difficult by the fact that Tadeusz Łomnicki was a worse swordsman than Daniel Olbrychski. Meanwhile, in the film, he was supposed to show superiority over his rival. That is why both actors trained for two months under the supervision of prof. Waldemar Wilhelm in order to safely perform this scene. The preparation to wound Kmicic in the head is also interesting. Olbrychski had a special protective plate, and the artificial blood was pumped on the back with a pump.
“The Deluge” received awards for the best duel in the history of Polish cinema and the award for the best historical and costume film in the history of Polish cinematography at the jubilee 50th edition of “Golden Ducks”. In 1975, he also received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
I also insert interview with Daniel Olbrychski with memories in general shooting the entire film and individual scenes. (in Polish)
Harvey Keitel vs ??? (Gabriel Feraud vs the mayor’s nephew) “The duelist” – 1977
The entire film is based on the story of two officers who duel over the years. The story was based on the historical figures of two soldiers from Napoleon’s army. The circumstances surrounding the work are somewhat unorthodox. Ridley Scott, who previously only shot commercials, wrote the script from the book under a free license. He got a list of actors in bargain from the label for modest funds. It took quite a bit of persuasion for Harvey Keitel to play the lead role, who only agreed because he had just finished his role in Apocalypse Now.
The actors Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel insisted on using real weapons. However, despite the low budget, we have special effects here. The blades were connected to a battery that gave off sparks at the junction of the sword. In the book, the heroes fought a total of over 30 times over 23 years.
However, this first duel is between the main character and the third figure of the mayor’s nephew. Don’t be scared by the last shot! 🙂 A telescopic antenna was mounted to the handle, which smoothly folded as the “blade” entered the body. As for me, the whole thing was very realistic, there are no cinematic acrobatics, 10-element combinations, etc. There is a lot of “look”, attempts to sense the opponent and emotions.
Mark Hamill vs Bob Anderson (Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader) “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” – 1980
I hesitated (probably like many others who choose the best duels in cinema history) between the final duel from “Return of the Jedi” and the one from “The Empire Strikes Back”, but in the end, I decided to go for this fight. In both, we have a huge dose of emotions, where the clash with swords is only an addition to the fight of will. However, here Luke waves his blade less like a flail 🙂
Great, slightly mysterious scenery and selected soundtrack give the impression that Luke and his father are the only people in the universe, and nothing else exists outside the room. Thus, nothing is distracting. At the same time, they use elements of the scenery, such as a hibernation chamber, a pipe with a carbonite cloud or flying iron.
Why did I enter a stuntman instead of an actor? Because it was Bob Anderson who played all the duels. Additionally, note that the camera’s attention is often focused on Luke because most of the shots were made without the Vader helmet, which made breathing difficult. 🙂
Mandy Patinkin vs Cary Elwes (Inigo Montoya vs Dread Pirate Roberts) “The princess bride” – 1987
Let’s start with the fact that this is a comedy, so nothing, not even a duel to the death (knockout) and life, is serious. Here we have unjustified changes of hands, references to the famous masters of the sword from the 14th and 15th centuries … and the architect, and a lot of bragging. However, professional fencers say that this is a pretty well-made scene that outclasses some of the modern high-budget productions!
On the other hand, we are not surprised. Both actors spent months practising hard under the supervision of Peter Diamond and Bob Anderson. You must have heard these names before – they were together at the Olympics, they worked on the choreographies of Lord of the Rings, Bonds, Indiana Jones, Star Wars. Bob Anderson led Banders on “The Mask of Zorro” and “The Legend of Zorro”, Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp. Peter Diamond is also associated with the Zorro fandom, as he is responsible for fencing on the New World Zorro series.
The training has paid off. Initially, the duel was supposed to last a minute, but the actors fought so well that the stage was extended to over three minutes. Filming time: one week 🙂
and the second one:
Liam Neeson vs Tim Roth (Rob Roy MacGregor vs Archibald Cunningham) “Rob Roy” – 1995
A Scottish local clan chief with a large and bulky two-handed claymore sword or a well-trained noble with a quick and handy rapier? They both agree to the conditions – only one will come out alive. Even though we are brave highlander at heart, common sense suggests that Cunningham will win.
A very interesting and quite realistic duel. Opponents do not throw themselves mindlessly at each other, they circle around and look for rival’s weakness. Rob Roy is scored with more cuts every now and then, in the stomach and in the arm. His attacks often hit the void. He ends up wounded, tired, on his knees and unarmed. And I’m not revealing, watch for yourself 🙂 But this is the most surprising and original ending I’ve ever seen in my life.
Antonio Banderas vs Matt Letscher (Zorro vs Harrison Love) “The Mask of Zorro” — 1998
The scene refers to both old Westerns from the Wild West (Zorro’s sword draw) and to Indiana Jones (only this time the antagonist rejects the gun instead of using it). The flash on the blade isn’t made up in post-production but uses natural lighting. The actor himself came up with this idea, and the appropriate effect was achieved in the third attempt.
This duel combines traditional fencing with good use of the environment and acrobatic elements that had previously appeared in the film.
Banderas prepared for a film with the Spanish Olympic team for four months and with legendary coach Bob Anderson, who also taught Errol Flynn (Basil Rathbone’s opponent in “The Adventures of Robin Hood”) in the past. The actor was highly praised for his skills, and he also insisted on making a large portion of the dangerous shots on his own without stuntmen.
Antonio Banderas vs Catherine Zeta-Jones (Zorro vs Elena) “The Mask of Zorro” — 1998
The duel is from a series of more meaningful and memorable than ingenious ones, but still a good watch. Notice how Zorro positioned Elena at the start of the fight — facing the sun coming through the windows. It might not have been enough to blind her, but it certainly was quite a nice maneuver.
And finally, a falling wardrobe. Any swordsman will say that it is impossible. But how cinematic! 🙂 To make this shot, a wire was attached to the dress, which was simply pulled at the right moment.
Liam Neeson & Ewan McGregor vs Ray Park (Qui-Gon Jinn & Obi-Wan Kenobi vs Darth Maul) “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” – 1999
Do you know that Darth Maul appears in the entire movie for eight and a half minutes, half of which is the final match? He was played by Ray Park, who can also be seen in the new Disney Star Wars, Mortal Combat, Nikita, the Heroes series.
Liam Neeson did most of the stunt shots himself, but he had 3 doubles just in case. In the final fight, he partially swapped places with one of them, Joss Gower.
As for the fight itself — great choreography, music well composed with the action and a lot of tension. Personally, I am rather a fan of the balanced, psychological duels from the original trilogy, where sword swing was only the background of the actual fight between the Light and the Dark Side. Those unrelenting acrobatics from the second trilogy, without a message, look nice and that’s it. However, this duel is a good reference to the original: both Obi-Wan’s reaction to the death of the mentor can be compared to Luke’s, but you can also see the whole range of padawan’s emotions or meditation and calming down the Jedi Master during the forced break. There’s more to this.
Not only with a sword, i.e. the best duels in cinema history, also hand to hand
As for interesting facts, note two things: hand-to-hand combat and tactics. Darth Maul hits or kicks enemies 9 times in total. In a lightsaber duel! Someone might say, “Why? You’d better chop off his arm or his leg.” And here we come to the second part. When you fight many opponents, you try to eliminate them in order of the weakest, so that they do not get stuck under your feet and it is easier to find a hole in their defence. At first, Maul fights face to Qui-Gon Jin and back to Obi-Wan. Okay, he wouldn’t normally do that, but let’s say he “sees him through the Force.” 🙂
He kicks the Padawan hard whenever he has the opportunity, sending him far to the side. And then again, this time far down. Before Obi-Wan pulls himself back together, Darth Maul pulls the Jedi behind his laser shields, guaranteeing himself only one enemy at a time. And here we come back to hand-to-hand combat. How is Qui-Gon Jin defeated? He gets fang in the nose with his sword hilt. It was distracting him and giving the Sith an opportunity to finish Jedi off. Simple and effective.
Michelle Yeoh vs Zhang Ziyi (Yu Shu Lien vs Jen Yu) “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — 2000
Throughout the movie, the actors themselves performed acrobatics, and only the supporting links were removed in post-production. And the lead choreographer, Woo-Ping Yuen, you might know from The Matrix (1999).
Jen Yu was very good at martial arts, but the actress Zhang Ziyi who played her was not necessary. Therefore, instead of taking martial arts training, the actress used dance routines for filming.
Michelle Yeoh, on the other hand, caught a cruciate ligament injury early in production and was taken to the United States for surgery. While she was convalescing, she appeared on the set, but the fight scenes were postponed.
Moving on to the duel itself. The director at first didn’t want Shu Lien to fight with a heavy two-handed straight sword against Jen because she preferred the curved “dao” sabre all the time. Jen’s favourite weapon, on the other hand, was the simple “jian”.
Russell Crowe vs Joaquin Phoenix (Maximus Decimus Meridus vs Cesar Kommodus) “Gladiator” — 2000
Watching the movie, we know in the back of our heads that it is all fake, acting, etc. Meanwhile, Russell Crowe, after the duels in “Gladiator”, had no feeling for two years in his right index finger, he worsened the Achilles tendon injury, broke his hipbone and foot, and also injured the tendons of the biceps muscle. Joaquin Phoenix, on the other hand, will remember shooting the final scene from a slight hangover. The poor man was so stressed that he asked Crowe to “disturb” him a bit. Eventually, Richard Harris and Crowe handed him a few pints of Guinness, and Phoenix relaxed.
In the film, the creators deliberately distorted some historical issues (e.g. with a thumbs up) but stuck to others quite faithfully. Commodus actually fought in the arena as the only emperor. And before each such duel, the gladiator was stabbed with a knife so that he would not pose a threat to the ruler.
And a comment by a professional fencer:
Johnny Depp vs Geoffrey Rush (Jack Sparrow vs Hector Barbossa) “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” — 2003
Do you know that the cave of this duel was built by 100 people for 5 months? In addition to the lively exchange of thrusts, we also have the whole plot set here. Jack can’t kill Hector, but Hector can kill Jack? Unless Captain Sparrow had insured himself against that possibility. 🙂
I know it’s CGI, but the light streaks and the switching from full-blooded pirates in the shade to skeletons in the moonlight add extra points.
Tom Cruise vs Hiroyuki Sanada (Nathan Algren vs Uijo) “The Last Samurai” — 2003
Maybe there is not much fencing here, rather a trained samurai “punches” the opponent. But Nathan’s determination and emotional dimension made the duel on the list.
Eric Bana vs Brad Pitt (Hektor vs Achilles) “Troy” — 2004
Brad Pitt and Eric Bana refused the services of stuntmen in their epic duel. They made a gentleman’s deal that they would pay each other for each accidental hit: $ 50 for each light strike and $ 100 for each hard strike. In the end, Pitt paid Bana $ 750, and Bana didn’t owe Pitt even a cent.
Keanu Reeves vs extras (Kai vs soldiers) “47 Ronin” — 2013
A quick … not quite a duel, rather a small slaughter. 🙂 But it is captivating that the experienced samurai did not manage to move when the novice defeated the entire squad of equally trained Kira people. Test? Perhaps. However, it is impossible to underestimate the good engagement of many opponents in combat at once and the use of various weapons, starting without any. And this arrow at the end … It was made (like all the others) by the well-known European producer of arrows Michael Reape. And all in less than half a minute.
And a comment from a specialist:
Kenshin Himura vs Sojiro Seta (Takeru Satô vs Ryûnosuke Kamiki) “Rurōni Kenshin 2” — 2014
A professional killer with a conscience? This can only lead to retirement. Kenshin, however, is challenged to another duel. Do you expect such a converted protagonist to win? Not this time. 🙂
The whole thing is dynamic, referring to “Chinese action movies” in terms of acrobatics, but unconventional. Because who saw it so that the Evil One would smile so charmingly and looks so cute? I also appreciate the references to the “sword-drawing art” of the so-called iaido, which I have never seen in any other movie.
Bartosz Sieniawski vs Krzysztof Sieniawski (Błażej Wronowski vs Dymitr Repnin) “Born for the Saber” — 2019
The idea for the film, and above all its implementation, did not come from the producer, who only looked at the sales potential. “Born for the Saber” is the work of a professional fencer Janusz Sieniawski (he created choreography for, among others, “With Fire and Sword”) and his two sons Bartosz and Krzysztof, whom we can admire in this final duel. The trio decided to recreate the art of cross-style fighting with a Polish saber on the basis of documents from the 16th and 17th centuries. The entire film is a mixture of fictional and documentary scenes.
What is worth paying attention to is the high realism in terms of weapons, costumes, architecture, historical compliance of customs, and even language. The weapons the actors use are a faithful reconstruction of the 17th-century originals. Both duelists are professional sportsman-fencers. Who, if not them, should play the best duels in cinema history?
Below is the specialist’s comment with fragments of the duel:
And the whole movie can be viewed on Vimeo. Available subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian.
Geralt vs Renfri’s band (Henry Cavill vs different actors) “The Witcher” — 2019
The person responsible for the choreography in the series was Wolfgang Stegemann, but Vladimir Furdik was responsible for preparing the cast, who also worked on “Game of Thrones”. He praised Cavil a lot for his fencing skills, quick learning, and hard work. Reportedly, the former Superman was able to assimilate the choreography for the fight scene in just two hours. The two created a more dance-style fighting style to distinguish themselves from the game dueling. The actor’s contribution to the role was greater. He spent a lot of time in the gym so as not to need a stunt double. Everything we see on the screen he did absolutely himself. And as he admitted, he did not part with the sword to get used to its weight.
The Blaviken slaughter is also worth appreciating in terms of cinematography. The scene was recorded with one take, without a single cut, from different angles, with retreat, close-ups, and zooms.
And the swordsman’s comment:
and the second one:
And finally, a gem. Henry Cavill breaks down the scene into prime factors and shows what was shot with real half-swords and what was added in post-production:
Gregory Mele, an American expert on medieval and renaissance fencing, also spoke about the whole series and the witcher’s fencing (in article).
The best duels in cinema history — summarise
After seeing previously unseen scenes, you already know which the best duels in cinema history are your favorites? Vote or add your own option, and we will try to add it to this list.
Finally, a small bonus – an unofficial fan-made film by fans, so off the rankings: