Considering it spawned 4 sequels, 141 television episodes, and a cartoon, Highlander is probably responsible for more filmed swordfights than any other franchise in history. But when it comes to the original, there can be only one.
Highlander introduces the concept of immortals. They live among us and are just like humans in every way, except that they cannot be killed by any means save one: decapitation. And instead of living wonderfully long, peaceful lives, these immortals are inexplicably drawn to duel each other with swords.
Connor MacLeod runs an antique store in 1980s Manhattan, but before that he was born in the highlands of 16th century Scotland. It is here that he is stabbed by a monstrous barbarian known only as The Kurgan, only to miraculously recover later. Ramirez, a fellow immortal, finds and mentors the nascent warrior in the way of the sword. One night, when MacLeod is out, The Kurgan returns.
The originality of the ensuing fight is remarkable in its simplicity: the two combatants can wound each other as grievously as one can imagine and, so as long as both heads remain attached, the fight can continue. The two men fight so hard, they bring down half of MacLeod's home with them.
Round one goes to Ramirez as he cuts The Kurgan's throat and runs him through with the business end of Japanese steel. But the more powerful Kurgan knows the rules. He grabs hold of Ramirez's sword while it's still in his gut and beheads the Scottish Egyptian.
Buildings Destroyed: 1
Death Blow: decapitation
Don't get me wrong: Kurosawa's canon of samurai films is a thing of beauty and badassdom. But I chose to include Takashi Miike's historical epic instead because it is a worthy and bloody successor. 13 Assassins tells the story of men much more honorable than the title suggests, who must do the unthinkable to protect the people.
Lord Naritsugu, son of the former shogun and brother of the current shogun, treats all below his station as his personal playthings; he rapes, tortures, and kills for fun. Before he can add his sadistic voice to his brother's council, a desperate official hires elder samurai Shinzaemon murder the young lord before he can do any real damage to the country. Shinzaemon puts together a team of 13 men for the suicide mission against Naritsugu's soldiers led by Hanbei, an old friend of Shinzaemon.
Shinzaemon vs. Hanbei
When the two finally meet in a one-on-one samurai showdown, they first discuss honor. Hanbei is bound to his samurai code, to kill and die to protect his lord. Shinzaemon argues that they have a higher duty to the welfare of the people. But when words fail, swords are drawn. The two skilled swordsmen were evenly matched back in the dojo, but Shinzaemon is willing to do whatever it takes. He kicks mud in Hanbei's eyes, giving him the edge he needs to behead Hanbei in one stroke.
Ethical Arguments: 1
Men of Honor: 2
Death Blow: decapitation
The Princess Bride tells the story of the true love shared by Westley and Buttercup. After Westley is lost at sea, Buttercup reluctantly becomes betrothed to haughty Prince Humperdink. But Humperdink, scheming to start a war, hires mastermind Vizzini, giant Fezzik, and swordfighter Inigo to kidnap his betrothed and frame neighboring Guilder.
Wesley returns in the guise of the infamous Dread Pirate Roberts and rescues Buttercup from the trio of thugs. But when Humperdink steals back his bride and leaves Westley for dead, it is the affable Fezzik and Inigo, spared by Westley's mercy, who help him to save Buttercup for good.
No discussion of movie swordfighting would be complete without mentioning the wonderful fight between Inigo and the Dread Pirate Roberts. Choreographed by film legend Bob Anderson, the fight includes multiple styles and disciplines, many of which are discussed by the characters during the fight.
But ultimately the famous sequence, a throwback to the swashbuckling action of Douglas Fairbanks films, is innocuous. The characters never seem to be in any real danger. But the movie's final swordfight doesn't pull any lunges.
Count Rugen, the Six-fingered Man
Count Rugen, Humperdink's right hand man, is revealed to be the man who killed Inigo's father. Inigo's vengeance is almost thwarted when Rugen throws a dagger into his belly. But Inigo refuses to collapse, deflecting two killing thrusts into flesh wounds in his arm and shoulder.
Inigo repeats the line, "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die," over and over, like a mantra reinvigorating himself. He beats back Count Rugen and pays him back for every wound. When Rugen tries to bribe him, Inigo finally runs him through and delivers one of the best lines in all of cinema, "I want my father back, you son of a bitch!"
Fathers Avenged: 1
Death Blow: impaling
The Lord of the Rings, probably the single most influential work in all of fantasy fiction, finally got the big screen treatment in 2001 thanks to director and fan Peter Jackson.
LOTR is the story of an ancient evil whose power resides in a lost ring. When the magic ring is found by hobbits, the unlikely heroes set out with an unprecedented alliance of man, elf, dwarf, and wizard on a journey to destroy the artifact.
But evil forces, including the reaper-like Ringwraiths and the dark wizard Saruman, also seek the ring to bring back their lord Sauron. Saruman uses his magic to create a new race of powerful Orcs called Uruk-hai to hunt the heroic fellowship.
The first film of the award-winning trilogy ends with the Uruk-hai and their leader Lurtz finally overtaking the heroes.
Aragorn carries the reforged heirloom Anduril while Lurtz wields what is essentially a big, sharp piece of scrap metal. Lurtz, the larger, stronger opponent, knocks around Aragorn, but Aragorn uses his ranger training to slip away from fatal blows. Both fighters are visibly exhausted by all this, setting the battle apart from a lot of other fantasy swordplay.
Aragorn is able to disarm Lurtz (by chopping off his arm) and impales him. The Uruk-hai actually pulls in the human leader by DRIVING THE SWORD FARTHER INTO HIS OWN BELLY! But before he can get his remaining hand on Aragorn, the once Strider and f*ture king beheads the abominable creature.
Severed Limbs: 1
Death Blow: impaling, decapitation
With Spartacus: Blood and Sand, the STARZ Network saw HBO and Showtime's gratuitous sex and raised them graphic violence. The show's over-the-top fight sequences quickly turned it into a guilty pleasure, and its sincere drama even garnered some critical praise.
Spartacus is the story of a Thracian soldier betrayed by his Roman allies and sold into slavery. The only chance Spartacus has of regaining his freedom and finding his wife is to survive in the arena long enough to become a rich and famous gladiator.
The writers and fight coordinators of Spartacus consistently find new and inventive ways for the show's trained killers to dispatch one another, but the high watermark is the team-up of Spartacus and Crixus against Theocles.
Spartacus and Crixus
Rarely does one root for the duo in a 2 on 1 fight, but Theocles, a man so dangerous he is known as "The Shadow of Death", is a mountain of a man. He wields two swords and no armor. The myriad scars that adorn his bare chest and face are testament to his invulnerability through many battles.
The fight begins with once bitter rivals Spartacus and Crixus working in tandem as planned, providing openings for one another with blocks, covering each other's backs. They manage to take the big man down with only a few quick slashes.
But their celebration is premature. The monstrous Theocles rises unexpectedly, immediately breaking up the two-man phalanx. The giant topples Spartacus and slashes Crixus.
Spartacus defends his fallen partner, but it is the resourceful Crixus who, in a move that would make Perseus proud, blinds Theocles with glare from his helmet. Spartacus takes the opportunity to finally behead the behemoth while Crixus bleeds out in the sand.
Major Wounds a Giant Can Shrug Off: 7
Hacks Necessary to Remove a Giant's Head: 4
Men Left Standing: 1
In 1995, the year Braveheart won best picture, this tale of another Scottish folk hero flew under a lot of radars. But those who did happen to catch it saw what may have been the manliest swordfight in movie history.
Liam Neeson plays Robert Roy MacGregor, a poor but noble 18th century rancher who lives in peace with his family in the rural hills of Scotland. MacGregor's problems start when he is forced to take out a large loan from a local marquis.
The marquis's main muscle, the deceptively foppish Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth, in an Oscar-nominated performance), steals the money and murders the courier, who also happens to be MacGregor's best friend.
MacGregor's outstanding debt makes him an outlaw. He goes to ground, pursued through the difficult Scottish terrain by the duplicitous Cunningham. Unable to catch MacGregor, wily Brit Cunningham decides to provoke his quarry into facing him, raping his wife and murdering his brother.
A duel is finally negotiated between the two men, the victor of which, besides being the only one to walk away, will be proclaimed righteous in the eyes of the law.
Robert Roy MacGregor
The resulting fight is decidedly one-sided. Cunningham is a master fencer who plays with MacGregor like a cat with a mouse. Our hero swings his sword in wild anger, but fencer Cunningham dodges and deflects every blow and with a few quick slashes, drives MacGregor to his knees.
But just as Cunningham is about to deliver the killing blow, MacGregor grabs Cunningham's blade with a bare hand. Cunningham struggles to free his rapier, slicing deeper into MacGregor's fist, but MacGregor holds tight, picks up his own weapon, and hacks the villain damn near in half with one mighty swing.
Neeson said he had a very particular set of skills.
Chances of MacGregor Using Senor Lefty Tonight: 0
Death Blow: cleaving