Ranking the Star Wars Films by their Lightsaber Battles

The Lightsaber is an iconic and unique part of the Star Wars universe much in the same way we associate the Proton Pack with Ghostbusters, or the phaser to Star Trek. The inclusion of this futuristic light sword into Star Wars came from George Lucas’ love of fantasy serials, which frequently featured characters with swords. Much in the same way that medieval Knights represented a regal and noble order of combatants, the Jedi represents an individual devoted towards upholding peace and justice. It was only fitting then that they received a weapon that would represent the dignity of their status and charge. Of course, those good guys need someone to fight, and so the major enemies of the Jedi also tend to have Lightsabers.  

Aside from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, all of the Star Wars films so far have featured a Lightsaber duel between two characters wielding the weapon. Some of them have lightsaber-wielding characters in combat with foes that don’t have lightsabers, and some of the Star Wars films have sequences where more than two people are battling with lightsabers. This list looks at all of the lightsaber battles in each of the films and then ranks the films based on the cumulative quality of those battles. I only chose to consider live-action theatrical-released Star Wars films. Those films ranking higher showed greater entertainment, artistry, and creativity in their Lightsaber scenes. Let’s begin… 

 7. Episode IV: A New Hope

A New Hope’s lone Vader vs. Obi-wan lightsaber duel is the one that started it all (unless you consider the Luke vs. training remote as a lightsaber battle). It is a moment that the entire film builds up to. The audience is given glimpses of the lightsaber as the plot proceeds, but to see them (and hear them!) in action is really exciting. This duel cemented another unique aspect of Star Wars, and having a direct conflict with the film’s antagonist ratchets up the tension. From an overarching story perspective, seeing the elder Jedi master face off against his former pupil in a rematch is also important and emotional.

However, despite all of the important aspects of this sequence, you have to admit that it is kind of boring and plain when you consider the lightsaber battles in the other films. Lack of special effects besides the lightsaber effects makes it somewhat stiff and formal – a sci-fi version of a traditional sword fight and nothing more. Vader’s suit was so stiff that the movements had to be slow and deliberate compared to later duels. And unlike the other films, this battle doesn’t really take place anywhere interesting (a standard Death Star hallway) and is really short.

It definitely isn’t the worst dual in the entire franchise so far because of what is at stake and the sacrifice that is made (a major moment in the Star Wars storyline and franchise as a whole). But of course the filmmakers of the series would have to “up the ante” on the lightsaber battles to keep them interesting for the sequels, so you can’t really call this one a disappointment. Instead, it is a foundation upon which more creative undertakings could be built.   

6. Episode VII: The Force Awakens

The Force Awakens echoes A New Hope in many regards, and this includes the use of the lightsaber. Like in A New Hope, lightsaber usage is low compared to the other films. The lightsaber itself is approached with a sense of mystery – Rey finds Luke’s lightsaber and is intrigued by it. Likewise, it is through the lightsaber that Rey begins to find her connection with the Force, much like Luke. Another similarity between the films is the fact that a major character is killed by the main antagonist using a lightsaber.  

The most important lightsaber similarity with A New Hope is the fact that The Force Awakens culminates in a lightsaber duel with the main antagonist. Of course, this one is a bit different. For one, there are three people in this fight and all of them are not very experienced. Kylo Ren may obsess over the dark side of the force, but he is not his grandfather. Finn is only engaging as a matter of self defence and Rey is just finding out about her abilities, and makes some mistakes as a result. This makes the battle more brutal and less majestic than others in the franchise.

Overall, this duel is very well executed. Besides the duel at the end of Revenge of the Sith, this one makes the best use of its surroundings to create something that is visually compelling with contrasting colors. The dark, snowy forest sends a chill down your spine, while the hot glowing lightsabers and angst in the characters plays off of that. Unlike A New Hope, this sequence moves around and is less stilted. However, since The Force Awakens only really has this duel to consider as far as Lightsaber battles, it is at a disadvantage compared to the other films on this list. Furthermore, the lack of lightsaber skill and acrobatics in this sequence kind of cancel out the impact that the visuals and crisp filmmaking have WHEN COMPARING TO THE OTHER FILMS. By itself, I think this scene is fantastic, but the film as a whole doesn’t have much going on in the lightsaber battle department to allow me to rank it higher.

5. Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Attack of the Clones is the film that features the most Lightsaber scenes, including some interesting duels and important firsts. This film features the first time we see Anakin with a lightsaber, when he saves Padme’s life at the beginning of the opening chase sequence. Later Anakin uses his lightsaber to murder a village of Tusken raiders as revenge for the death of this mother, the first time we see Anakin leaning towards the dark side. On the rainy planet of Kamino, Obi-Wan faces off against Jango Fett ina wet confrontation, but loses his lightsaber for most of the fight. Later, when the Jedi’s arrive on Genesis with the clone army, we see multiple Jedi knights fighting with their lightsabers together for the first time.

Finally, you have the climax of the film which is basically one long lightsaber battle. First you have Anakin and Obi-Wan trying to prevent Count Dooku’s escape. As in Episode 1, we have a 2 vs. 1 battle, but Anakin’s inexperience and Dooku’s skills make him more than capable of handling the mismatch. But while that lightsaber battle is interesting, the real gem happens just after. Once Anakin and Obi-Won are defeated, it is none other than Jedi master Yoda who shows up to try his hand at defeating the powerful Sith lord. In that moment we see how powerful Yoda really is, much more than the limping frail elder he appeared to be.

However, although Attack of the Clones gives us a good variety of lightsaber battles, there just isn’t much quality or depth. Besides the final climax, the other lightsaber moments are fleeting and not that important as compared to other battles I will discuss. The climax itself suffers from the same problems that plagued the prequel films – too much reliance on CGI and wooden acting. While seeing an agile and acrobatic Yoda is cool, it took away from the realism we had seen in previous lightsaber battles and the emotional tension tied to them. That’s why I had to rank this film as the lowest of the prequels.

4. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

The finale of the original trilogy did not disappoint in terms of lightsaber battles, in many ways building on what had come before. At the beginning of the film we have the escape from Jabba the Hutt where Luke uses his lightsaber to rescue Han, Leia, the droids, and Chewbacca. That sequence is the most dynamic and exciting lightsaber sequence in the trilogy up to that point, but since Luke is the only one with a lightsaber, it doesn’t quite have the same value and tension as the classic duels.

The most memorable lightsaber battle in this film is at the end when Palpatine forces Vader to face off against Luke, trying to make his anger get the best of him. It’s a rematch from the previous film, where Vader got the best of Luke. At one point, Palpatine even takes part in beating up Luke, although he isn’t using a lightsaber. Visually the dark tone of this sequence goes along with the emotions involved, and is fitting against the backdrop of the Rebel Alliance’s assault on the 2nd Death Star. Like the duel in Empire Strikes Back, this one makes use of the environment, and even if Luke is trying to hide from Vader’s advances at first, it is nonetheless an intense sequence.

Luke’s victory against Vader in this sequence completes a story arc that began with Episode 1. In that manner, it is a very important moment in the Star Wars universe and for the film franchise as a whole. It also showed us how far Luke had come. Here he defeats his powerful father and in a way also defeats the Emperor which Yoda himself could not do. However, this lightsaber sequence is still a bit stationary in comparison to what the newer films are able to accomplish, and if I am honest this showdown takes a while to become exciting. For a while it just consists of the Emperor taunting Luke into a temper tantrum while a more exciting space battle looms out the window and down on the moon’s surface below.

3. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Although the prequel films came as somewhat of a disappointment to both die hard and casual Star Wars fans, one thing that you can’t argue with is that they upped the ante on lightsaber battles. With the advent of CGI and advances in stunt choreography, George Lucas had much more freedom and capability to create eye-dazzling lightsaber battles. Proof of that is evident in Revenge of the Sith, which features a couple of the most spectacular battles we’ve seen so far.

Like some of the other battles on this list, Revenge of the Sith features a revenge battle. This happens during the opening scene when Obi-Wan and Anakin take on Dooku again. Here we see how much Anakin has improved compared to the last battle at the end of Attack of the Clones. Later, Obi-Wan takes on Grievous who uses 4 lightsabers in memorable fashion. The big ticket is the finale of the film where Obi-Wan faces off against Vader/Anakin. This was the lightsaber battle we had been waiting for, and it did not disappoint. Set on the lava planet of Mustafar, the crumbling infrastructure and neon visuals make for an epic lightsaber battle.

In the end, Episode III gets a lot of things right in terms of the lightsaber battles. The only reason it did not rank higher on my list is that its lightsaber battles don’t quite have the artistry and importance of the next two films. Furthermore, these battles (and indeed the lightsaber battles from the prequels as a whole) feel a bit gimmicky. It’s almost as if Lucas didn’t think that a lightsaber duel would be exciting enough on its own, and so he has to add in melting buildings, crazy lightsabers, and bouncy green aliens to make it more interesting. I think these embellishments take away some of the of the lightsaber battles’ class, but they do make them more entertaining.

2. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Although many Star Wars films feature a lightsaber duel as the climax, none of them build up to that confrontation in the way that Empire Strikes Back does. In many ways, the entire plot of Empire Strikes Back is designed to lead up to the duel between Luke and Vader. After the death of Obi-Wan in Episode 4, the audience was waiting for Luke’s opportunity to get revenge. After withstanding a counterblow from the Empire on Hoth, and then getting some lessons in from Yoda to hone his Force skills, Luke finally gets that opportunity. It does not disappoint.

Although Luke uses his lightsaber on Hoth to escape the Wampa, and faces Vader in a hallucinatory training exercise on Dagobah, the defining lightsaber battle moment in Empire Strikes Back is the confrontation with Vader. It is such an iconic scene that I was willing to overlook the film’s absence of other good lightsaber battle scenes in order to rank this film as #2. Luke’s battle with Vader is everything we could want from a classic lightsaber duel. Vader uses his force powers to hurl objects at Luke, who is hopelessly outskilled and outgunned. Yet, Luke is driven by his emotions. That is what makes this scene so effective. The audience gets caught up in Luke’s hatred. The film does such a great job of making us hate Vader, that when Luke gets the opportunity to go after him, we are there cheering him on.

The sequence is also very technically proficient. It uses some special effects, but not to the point of actually overshadowing the swordplay and the focus on the characters like we’ve seen in the prequel films. Similarly, it makes great use of the setting. Starting with the carbon-seal chamber, the lighting is excellently crafted to not only look cool, but enhance the emotion and texture of the film. Later, as Luke retreats out into the center chasm of Cloud City, the scope of the setting adds a sense of awe as well as a sense of danger. Finally, I haven’t mentioned the fact that this sequence contains one of the greatest movie lines (and twists) of all time. That definitely counts for something.

1. Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Speaking of Star Wars films that put nearly all of their lightsaber battle eggs in one basket, The Phantom Menace fits the bill. Sure, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon use their lightsabers at the beginning of the film onboard the Trade Federation battleship, and there is a brief confrontation between Qui-Gon and Darth Maul on Tatooine, but those moments are just a tease of what will come later. Episode 1 ranks #1 on my list because of the final climactic showdown between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul.

Not only is this lightsaber fight one of the longest in the whole franchise (so far), it has to be considered as the most artistic. Whereas later prequel lightsaber battles would oblige in dangerous locations and impossible CGI characters in order to keep the audience’s attention, the final showdown in Episode 1 is surprisingly simple. For nearly 5 minutes we have a Jedi master and his apprentice trying to take down a Sith Lord in their traditional mode of battle. Darth Maul’s double lightsaber was a game changer that the franchise is still trying to replicate. Add in the classic Naboo architecture seen in the background, and an unforgettable soundtrack, what you end up with is a piece of art.

I’ll admit, the setting itself is a little nonsensical. But we are able to suspend our disbelief because it is science fiction, and maybe we just aren’t supposed to understand everything. Maybe it only looks like a room that was specially created in order to make an epic lightsaber fight even more exhilarating. That’s my only complaint. This sequence is one of the creative highs in all of Star Wars, and the fact that it happens in one of the prequel films shows us that when George Lucan can focus, he can achieve great things. Choreographed to perfection, filmed brilliantly to take full advantage of the space, and brought to life with vivid performances by all three actors, this is a lightsaber sequence that may not ever be topped.

And that’s it….so far. What are your favorite duels/battles in the Star Wars franchise? Would you rank the films any differently?