Darth Maul vs Qui-Gon Jinn & Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace)
Ok, so this one isn’t technically a duel, but it does contain two duels. I think there’s a consensus among Star Wars fans that this fight is the best of the entire saga. Being the first prequel movie after a sixteen-year gap since Return of the Jedi, the special effects and particularly the lightsaber fight scenes of Phantom Menace were a significant improvement on those in the original trilogy. The lightsabers looked more crisp and the Jedi fighting arts were less… amateurish. The duels had a breathtaking intensity, speed and athleticism that were lacking in the earlier films, all perfectly complemented by John Williams’s rousing score.
Of course, it helps that Darth Maul was played by an actual martial artist, Ray Park. Park’s training made the Sith Lord seem convincing as someone who had dedicated his life to mastering the fighting arts. He truly gave the impression that he was more than a match for his two Jedi opponents.
Exciting as it may be to see three warrior mystics clash laser swords over and over again, it’s the pacing of the fight and the vignettes scattered throughout it that lift this scene above mere swashbuckling. Darth Maul’s tactical disposal of Obi-Wan allows him to focus on Qui-Gon alone. I’d even hazard a guess that Darth Maul led the fight up to and through the energy shields to prevent both Jedi from engaging him simultaneously.
The timed shields also cleverly serve to establish a break in the frantic combat. When they switch on, Darth Maul and Qui-Gon are separated from each other by an energy barrier. The Jedi Knight kneels to meditate and recover his strength, while the Sith Lord paces like a caged animal, hungry for the fight to recommence. These simple gestures succintly convey the difference in character between the two antagonists.
Obi-Wan’s duel with Darth Maul is another brilliant set piece within the larger fight sequence. It’s more acrobatic, and it even ratchets the already blistering pace up a few notches. After being starved of a decent lightsaber fight for sixteen years, Star Wars fans in theatres everywhere must have wet themselves at this point. The climax is perhaps a little incongruous (surely a Sith Lord of Darth Maul’s skill and reflexes would have seen that killing blow being telegraphed from a parsec away), but it’s a tiny flaw in an otherwise highly polished – and now iconic – fight scene.