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The five best lightsaber battles in Star Wars history

Darth Vader vs. Luke. A levitating Yoda. And the greatest duel of them all.

“This weapon is your life.” Those wise words about the lightsaber from Obi-Wan Kenobi to a young Anakin Skywalker resonate throughout the Star Wars films, positively glowing with mortal meaning.

And ever since Force-sensitive warriors began wielding their plasma blades in 1977, the lightsaber duel has been a central Star Wars spectacle. From Luke Skywalker to Yoda, from Darth Vader to grandson Kylo Ren, these battles are more than physical showdowns — they are windows into who has greater power or purpose, whether the result is apparent victory or higher self-sacrifice.

There are numerous battles to choose from when debating the hand-to-hand highlights. With this month’s “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” seemingly wrapping up the great family saga, The Washington Post’s resident Star Wars nerds have ranked the top five lightsaber duels:

5. Darth Vader’s Hallway Rage

“Rogue One” (2016)

Darth Vader has seldom looked more terrifying than when he ignites his red saber in a pitch-black hallway and tears through rebel fighters. Will the Empire’s stolen Death Star plans, now in rebel hands, escape his gloved grasp?

Athleticism & choreography

2 out of 5 lightsabers

Unlike other classic Darth Vader scenes, this is one against the many — and the many are overmatched. Practically a march of mass destruction, this striking sequence is less a duel than a decimation. Take a look at our illustrated break down of this scene below.

1. Darth Vader disarms multiple soldiers with the Force, pulling away their blasters.

2. He slices through another lineup of soldiers who run for their lives in the narrow hallway.

3. One soldier manages to pass along the Death Star plans to his allies before being impaled against a door.

Gee-whiz effects

So many Vader moves are unfurled here in rapid succession, including lightsaber blocks and Force-choking and -slamming — all with elegant efficiency.

Use of the Force

Darth Vader taps his power almost effortlessly, rendering the up-close brutality all the more frightening.

Story impact

As the blueprints elude Vader despite his quickness, a rebel’s hallway escape provides the narrative path that will lead to the eventual destruction of the first Death Star.

Total score

12

4. Yoda vs. Palpatine

“Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” (2005)

Veteran Force warriors Yoda and Darth Sidious go head to head. Will Sidious live to rescue apprentice Darth Vader from his scarring and charred defeat to Obi-Wan — and will Jedi Master Yoda be forced into exile?

Athleticism & choreography

At last, George Lucas has the technical tools to stage a high-quality duel between a live actor and an entirely CG character — with the freedom to create any maneuver his team can dream up.

1. Palpatine and Yoda begin with lightsabers locked on each other, equally matched.

2. Yoda flips to find a better offensive position.

3. Despite the change in position, lightsabers once again lock, as the combatants each look for an advantage.

Gee-whiz effects

Force lightning! Yoda levitation! Speed and powers are on equal display.

Use of the Force

The battle in the empty Senate chamber lets us see just how closely matched these two fighters are, as each tests the highly trained powers of the other.

Story impact

The Dark Side gains an edge here, leading to the rise of Darth Vader.

Total score

14

3. Obi-Wan vs. Anakin

“Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” (2005)

Former dear friends, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and apprentice turned Sith Lord Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), square off. Can Obi-Wan prevent Anakin from fully turning to the Dark Side?

Athleticism & choreography

The lengthy mano-a-mano movement through the mining complex is a flashy mix of flips, kicks, leaps and clashing lightsabers.

1. Obi-Wan and Anakin balance on top of objects as they battle on the volcanic planet Mustafar.

2. Obi-Wan begins an aggressive attack and Anakin counters with equal force, fighting for position with little space for footing.

3. Neither is able to gain an advantage, and a tense stare-down begins.

Gee-whiz effects

The appeal of this scene largely rests upon your appetite for saturated green-screen wizardry, as the combatants work their way toward the eye-popping lava.

Use of the force

The Jedi and the Sith rely on the power — including Force-chokes and telekinetic Force Pull — to gain an upper hand. “You underestimate my power,” says Anakin, who is ultimately not as strong as he thinks, falling to Obi-Wan’s blade.

Story impact

With the Sith Lord left to die, limbs sliced and body burnt to a crisp, there is only one path forward for the man who will become Darth Vader.

Total score

15

2. Luke vs. Vader

“Episode VI – Return of the Jedi” (1983)

Father vs. son 2.0: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Darth Vader (voice of James Earl Jones) meet again after the Dark Lord of the Sith defeated Luke on the Cloud City of Bespin. Now, can Luke resist as his father and the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) try to lure him to the Dark Side?

Athleticism & choreography

Nothing groundbreaking, but the shift from a horizontal fight, including dramatic silhouettes, to Luke looking down on Vader after gaining a superior vertical position is marked by deft transitions.

1. Luke begins strong offensive strikes against Vader.

2. Vader easily defends against Luke’s attacks but fails to pay attention as the two steadily move across the room.

3. Luke eventually forces Vader into the narrow space of a bridge, where he is overwhelmed.

Gee-whiz effects

The clash of sabers is engaging for a film from the original trilogy, with the high point being the violent flurry of strikes by Luke to take down dear ol’ Dad.

Use of the Force

So much of this showdown is telegraphed mentally, as Luke tries to tap the Force to stay on the side of the light.

Story impact

At last, Luke is looking like a Master Jedi — very much like his father’s son. And Vader turns away from the Dark Side as he makes a papa’s supreme sacrifice.

Total score

16

1. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan vs. Darth Maul

“Episode I – The Phantom Menace” (1999)

In "The Phantom Menace," Sith villain Darth Maul (Ray Park) travels to Naboo, where he faces off against Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Jinn’s Padawan apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) in what’s been dubbed “Duel of the Fates.”

Athleticism & choreography

The original trilogy duels look inelegant compared with this massive step up in physical artistry, especially from Park, a trained martial artist who moves like a stalking jungle cat. Stunt coordinator Nick Gillard told Vulture that he had to “invent an entirely new form of sword fighting” for the exhaustively rehearsed scene.

1. Obi-Wan furiously stares down Darth Maul before he launches into a full-frontal assault.

2. Darth Maul counters the strikes with both edges of his double-bladed lightsaber.

3. Darth Maul twirls into an offensive attack.

Gee-whiz effects

The prequels gave Lucasfilm the chance to go bigger visually, and this battle — featuring Darth Maul's double-bladed saberstaff — is a pinnacle.

Use of the Force

Darth Maul wields his Force powers to slow the approach of Obi-Wan — but the young Jedi taps new Force abilities to bring the duel to a sudden acrobatic climax.

Story impact

Obi-Wan enters this fight a green Padawan; he walks away a master.

Total score

19

Across four decades of Star Wars films, there are so many great moments of conflict and combat — just the types of duels we’re looking for.

Our “honorable mention” scenes for this list, for example, include other battles from the original trilogy, such as when Luke and Vader square off in “The Empire Strikes Back,” or when Obi-Wan meets Darth in “A New Hope” — the latter a rematch potent with a meaning that ripples through every movie that followed.

And in the current Disney trilogy, we especially relish seeing Rey and Kylo take on Team Snoke in “The Last Jedi,” as well as Kylo and Rey fighting in the snow in “The Force Awakens.”

Yet unless “Rise of Skywalker” gives us something spectacular, the “Duel of the Fates” fight soars like young Obi-Wan, technically and narratively head and shoulders above all others.

Michael Cavna

Writer/artist/visual storyteller Michael Cavna is creator of the Comic Riffs column and graphic-novel reviewer for The Washington Post's Book World.

David Betancourt

David Betancourt writes about all aspects of comic book culture for The Washington Post's Comic Riffs blog.

Shelly Tan

Shelly Tan is a graphics reporter and illustrator specializing in pop culture. She designs and develops interactive graphics.

Sarah Hashemi

Sarah Hashemi creates motion graphics and animation for The Post's video team. Her work ranges from graphic explainers through branding and documentary. She has worked within many Washington Post brands such as The Lily, Voraciously and By The Way.

About this story

Reporting and writing by Michael Cavna and David Betancourt. Illustrations, design and development by Shelly Tan. Video motion graphics by Sarah Hashemi.

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