Technically, a fight scene is just a physical manifestation of the inner conflicts that drive the characters, which a storyteller includes as a way to resolve the narrative. But we all know fight scenes are awesome. And fantasy fight scenes are even better (sometimes they have dragons! And valor and whatever, I guess, if that’s what you look for in a fight scene).
For the next few weeks, I’ll be running down top-ten lists of some of fantasy’s best fight scenes: the vast battles, one against impossible odds, the magnificently over-the-top.
But we’ll begin with the essence of the fight scene: the duel. One on one, mano a mano, these characters settle their differences the old-fashioned way. Under the cut, we count down ten of the best duels in fantasy film.
For a kid’s movie, The NeverEnding Story doesn’t miss a chance to put you through the ringer. Not only does out hero Atreyu lose his horse in the Swamp of Sadness, Atreyu then has to face off with the terrifying wolf Gmork. The fight itself is over quickly (it’s what happens when your opponent is animatrionic). The real duel here is the battle of wills, and Atreyu wins the moment he offers to fight.
King Arthur and his greatest knight, Lancelot, meet cute by beating the stuffing out of each other, chivalry-style. Might win the award for most varied approaches in a single duel – no weapon unused! (Though if we’re making a case for British mythological figures of superhuman ability as the basis for fantasy, I’d swap this out for the 1938 Robin/Hood/Guy of Gisbourne face-off in a heartbeat. Just saying.)
If you ever wondered at whose hands Bruce Wayne became an impossibly-badass fighter with astounding daddy issues, this clip should answer your questions pretty neatly.
The Mummy Returns lacked some of the charm of its predecessor, and had a significantly higher percentage of subplots. On the other hand, it’s hard to complain about previous-life flashbacks when they get you a sai duel between Princess Nefertiri and concubine Anck Su Namun (who we know is up to no good). The first duel ends in a stalemate proclaimed by the Pharaoh, but everyone knows there can be only one winner, and a few millennia later they get to pick up right where they left off. [Video clips unavailable, due to all extant examples being set to Christina Anguilera’s “Fighter”.]
Disney’s first prince who actually had a personality versus the most sophisticated Disney villain ever, in a battle for Sleeping Beauty. You know the only thing that would make this better? If one of them turned into a dragon. (DONE.)
Nothing shows the difference between an earnest apprentice and a seasoned professional like having control of the elements. Assassin Flying Snow shows young Moon how it’s done, in one of the loveliest death matches ever.
It’s been referenced endlessly, but there’s still a certain punch (GET IT?) to the fight scenes in The Matrix. This one, in which Keanu’s babe in the woods decides to stand his ground and fight a foe with a 1,420,000-0 win/loss record is still ballsy enough to make you stop flipping channels and root for the guy.
This duel is one of the shortest that Star Wars has to offer. But of all the many duels in the seemingly-endless canon, none of them can come close to matching the impact of this one, which had repercussions for three movies in every direction.
One of the definitive works of fantasy literature was given an epic film treatment by Peter Jackson. Woman warrior Eowyn protects her fallen uncle from the supernatural Witch King, who nearly kills her before he makes the fatal mistake of monologuing about being impervious to men. Eowyn cuts him off mid-smug and singlehandedly proves the danger of using gendered pronouns in your prophecies. If you haven’t already memorized the movie, you can watch it here.
Ironically, the mysterious Man in Black and the vengeful Inigo Montoya have no beef with one another; in fact, it might be the least personally-invested duel ever, as they trade training histories, compliment one another’s skill, and take breaks at regular intervals. Nonetheless, this chatty tête-à-tête moves beautifully along, and it might just be fantasy’s most memorable duel.