Scattered Thoughts: Top 5 Sword Fights

With the passing of the great Bob Anderson, the swordmaster whose work has graced films such as Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings series, I thought it’d be nice to maybe celebrate the Top 5 Sword fights. First, let’s set some ground rules: since we are paying tribute to a choreographer and not a screenwriter, great sword fights can transcend bad movies. A great battle can benefit from a nice sense of escalating conflict, but it shouldn’t necessarily be excluded for lack of it. Also, due to the ever evolving complexity and sophistication of the medium, the list will be limited to the past twenty years or so. Sounds fair, right? So let’s go.

5. Star Wars Episode 1 – Darth Maul vs Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon.

Here’s a classic example of ‘great fight, bad movie’. This is a beautifully choreographed battle, accompanied by one of John Williams better themes. The movie also builds to this battle nicely, keeping Maul mysterious and only briefly flashing bits and pieces of Ray Park’s magnificent agility.

About half way through the fight, the three wander into a long hallway of force fields alternating on and off, separating the players. I, for one, thought this was brilliant. Juxtaposing a meditative Qui-Gon with a pacing, animalistic maul while they await their freedom draws a beautiful contrast while building a wonderful tension. Obi-Wan trying to catch up to the battle, helpless and isolated from his master, adds a lot, too.

Unfortunately, this great battle is marred by the decision to intercut it with a pair of equally silly wars featuring the much reviled Jar-Jar Binks and the young Anakin Skywalker. Also, as is the case with seemingly all lightsaber battles, the ending seems a tad anticlimactic. The characters spend all fight performing remarkable stunts and feats, only to finally be dispatched rather easily and suddenly.

By the way, should any debate arise, lightsabers obviously count as swords, hence Bob Anderson’s work on the series.

4. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Yu Shu Lien vs Jen Yu, round 2

The rare female vs female sword fight, and predecessor to some of the more ludicrous sword fights recently put on screen in Hero and House of Flying Daggers. This one may admittedly be cheating, because Yu Shu Lien is only using a sword for about half the time. Regardless, this is an elegantly choreographed battle with a lot of emotional intensity to boot. Yu Shu Lien, scorned and betrayed, has plenty of reason to go after impudent Jen Yu, thief of the venerated Green Destiny, and the fight benefits from it.

Crouching Tiger was one of the first in a new vein of martial arts movies, bringing a great deal of wonder and melancholy to a genre that had never quite crossed over to North America on such a grand scale. While its followers like the aforementioned Hero can sometimes take the melodrama to excess, Crouching Tiger hits a very enjoyable balance, thanks in large part to the charm and warmth of its cast. The love and longing between Yu Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai makes for maybe the saddest and most moving romance in action movie history.

3. Pirates of the Caribean: Dead Man’s Chest – Will Turner vs Jack Sparrow vs Commodore Norrington

Again, bad movie, great fight. A three way battle is difficult to execute, but this one has some nice, highly entertaining bits. Fighting inside a runaway water wheel, for instance, is gloriously over the top, not to mention just plain fun. The writer’s made an admirable effort of giving all three participants good reason to be in this fight, but the flimsiness of some of the previous events undermines what might have been a great coming together of plot lines.

Generally, this is a movie that suffers from characters being way, way too dumb, and it really drags this marvelous fight down. That anyone who has any experience with Jack Sparrow could take his word unless forced is absolutely ridiculous, and yet Norrington, Elizabeth, and Will all dance to his tune in one contrived, totally implausible scene after another. Jack tricks Will into getting taken captive by Davey Jones, and bafflingly, Elizabeth trusts that Jack had nothing to do with it. Even more egregiously, Norrington lets his rage be redirected from Jack to Will in midbattle by Jack’s desperate spin. But good choreography is good choreography.

2. Fearless – Huo Yuan Jia vs Qin Lei

This one is just out and out magnificient. Exquistely shot, beautifully lit, elegantly choreographed, and emotionally tense. Huo Yuan Jia, in his supreme arrogance, has challened Qin Lei to a duel because of an alleged attack on one of his students. While “the misunderstanding” is a well worn cliche to get a fight started, what follows is well worth it. Jet Li rocks the screen with what is may be his best fight ever, and Chen Zhi Hui truly holds his own.

The fight benefits from having great dramatic weight within the context of the story. Its consequences drastically alter Huo’s life, and leads him to profound changes in his attitude and lifestyle. A superfluous fight is seldom a good fight.

1. Rob Roy – Rob Roy vs Archibald Cunningham

I’ve discussed this scene here at SBM previously in a Writer’s Toolbox on Fight Scenes, and though it may not quite reach the technical mastery of the above battles, it benefits from a much more intense build-up. Rob Roy is by no means a great film, but this scene certainly is one of the great fight scenes, sword or otherwise.

Rob Roy culminates with a fantastic, slow burn sword fight where the powerful, lumbering Liam Neeson is outmatched by the frustrating skill of tiny, speedy Tim Roth. Rob Roy takes wound after wound, cut after cut until near exhaustion. When all seems lost, and Cunningham has his sword at poor Rob’s throat, Liam Neeson proves his unassailable manliness by vanquishing his foe in spectacularly brutal fashion. Justice is served in simple, satisfying terms, and the Scots achieve a rare catharsis.

Honorable mentions:

-Battle at the lake in Hero: omitted for its exhausting use of blank stares, celebrated for its total contempt of all physics.
-Westley vs Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. A classic with a clever gimmick at its core, but just not quite up to the athleticism and dynamic filmmaking of the ranked battles.

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