The best movie swordsmen (and women) of all time are:
- Madmartigan (Willow)
- Kuwabatake Sanjuro (Yojimbo)
- Yoda (Star Wars)
- Aragorn (Lord of the Rings)
- Beatrix Kiddo (Kill Bill)
- Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean)
- The Dread Pirate Roberts (The Princess Bride)
- Zorro (The Mask of Zorro)
- Connor Macleod (Highlander)
- Blade (Blade)
- Jen Yu (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon)
- Conan (Conan the Barbarian)
- Leonardo (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)
If there’s one fantasy genre trope I can’t get enough of, it’s the master swordsman. Whether being played as a young hero with endless potential or the old master with endless wisdom, the swordsman is a fascinating example of the power of discipline and will.
Often, these heroes are pitted against enemies with magic and armies at their beckoning. But still, the lone warrior prevails with the slickest of moves. For me, it’s all about the kinetic motion, the lone hero moving through chaos like a dancer. That’s the magic of the master swordsman, but he or she doesn’t even realize it.
Over a century of movies have brought us swordsman of every style, genre, shape and size. I thought it was time we had an ultimate list. Each of these characters will have proven themselves within their respective movie universes, and each will have a unique connection to their sword or swordsman identity.
Epic warriors are everywhere in movie history, but we’re going for the best of the best sword fighters. These warriors live and die by the sword—their swords define them as masters.
If you haven’t seen Willow, do yourself a favor and watch it.
This classic fantasy movie was directed by Ron Howard and produced by George Lucas, starring Warwick Davis as the title character. The story follows Willow, a member of a dwarven village outside a powerful kingdom. As these stories tend to go, magic, prophecies and the threat of Armageddon and/or baby sacrifice makes heroes out of ordinary people, even scoundrels.
Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) is one of those scoundrels, but he’s a legend nevertheless.
Toted as the best swordsman of all time, we meet Madmartigan in a low point of his life—trapped in a cage and left to die. He grows on us as the story progresses, proving his worth as an ally long before his hands find a sword in an assortment of set pieces. But then it happens—the mad Madmartigan finds a blade and finally works his craft.
The carefree chaos of his life is represented beautifully in his swordplay. He flings the weapon around with seemingly little regard for protecting himself. As the climax of the movie takes place, after several adventures and the overthrow of an evil kingdom, Madmartigan faces his arch nemesis—the skull-masked knight. The infamous madman finally finds his way to heroism.
Kuwabatake Sanjuro (Yojimbo)
Famous Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is known for groundbreaking samurai movies, which is exactly what defines Yojimbo.
Made in 1961, this movie was the originator of so many tropes we know today, in both the Western and Japanese media. It inspired Westerns such as A Fist Full of Dollars, which is essentially a remake of Yojimbo, as well as countless samurai movies and anime.
A lone rōnin wanders a desolate landscape of Edo era Japan in the 1860s. After coming across a sketchy village, he finds an opportunity to work his craft. He concocts a plan to fool 2 warring gangs after showing his sword prowess. With an effortless takedown of three gangsters, the warring clans begin to barter over his services.
His game, however, nearly ends in disaster. The gangsters go to all-out war in the streets, and he’s nearly beaten to death. With the help of an old man, who became his friend over the course of the movie, he escapes his death. The climax comes as he seeks his revenge—a lone swordsman against a whole gang.
I have to give credit to Akira Kurosawa’s other swordsmen—the Seven Samurai. We can thank this movie for the likes of The Magnificent Seven and Star Wars.
Also, shout-out to every samurai movie and manga that came after this. I could probably do an entire list of epic fictional samurai.
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Yoda (Star Wars)
Man, oh man, did I have some Jedi to sift through. After all is said and done, I had to choose the master, the little elf/alien man who forced the evil emperor to throw senate bleachers instead of crossing lightsabers, YODA.
Say what you will about the prequels—they had their moments. Attack of the Clones gave us plenty of magic, however, with a little foreshadowing connected. Obi Wan mentions to Anakin that if he spent as much time with the lightsaber as he did on flying space vehicles, he would rival master Yoda in dueling. Anakin thought he already did. Obi-Wan laughs in his face.
Fast forward an hour or 2 and we’ve reached the climactic battle—Obi-Wan and Anakin versus the powerful Sith Count Dooku. Dooku is a master duelist, as is portrayed in his sword grip and elegant style. Anakin made the mistake of rushing the old sword master and lost a hand. Rookie mistake.
Then, a small walking stick taps the floor as a hunched little alien enters the arena. When Yoda formed his green lightsaber for the first time on film, my movie audience went nuts. Yoda’s acrobatic fighting style was awesome, and Dooku found himself outmatched. The evil Dooku was outdone in spectacular form.
As I mentioned before, he very nearly took down the all-powerful Darth Sidious, the Sith who would become emperor. The old, craven wizard of darkness had to resort to diabolical tactics and flee—per usual scummy bad-guy stuff.
Aragorn (Lord of the Rings)
Admit it, you knew he was hanging around here somewhere. J. R. R. Tolkien’s chosen king wields a legendary sword and cut down more fighting Uruk-hai than I could count.
A swordsman of mythic proportion, Aragorn lived much of his life as a ranger. His time with the elves and in the wild honed his skill to a sharp edge. Not only is he a capable adventurer with knowledge of the land, he’s a slayer of monsters. Many sword fighters on this list only need to worry about other sword fighters—Aragorn has to fight cave trolls and ring wraiths.
He and the fellowship were absolutely lethal, when you stop to think about it. The goblins and orcs they fought were savage enemies, no knock-around guys. When his legendary sword is re-forged, he gains the confidence of a king. His sword alone caused an army of ghosts to bend the knee.
Beatrix Kiddo (Kill Bill)
Beatrix Kiddo, the Bride, the scorned hero of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill franchise, is one bad mother with a katana. This is especially showcased in part 1 of the story, as she faces down a criminal empire from fellow assassin O-Ren (Lucy Liu) and her Crazy 88 army.
Trained in several deadly arts, her connection to the katana is unparalleled. In her mind, the only way to seek true revenge is to force the hand of legendary sword maker Hattori Hanzō—Bill’s old sword master. After her own sword is crafted, she begins her warpath.
Each of her old assassin sisters, 3 in total, are picked off, one by one, ending in a final showdown with the infamous Bill.
The fact that she took down 4 expertly trained assassins, an army of criminal samurai thugs, a psychotic bodyguard and a few more dirtbags along the way chisels her name in sword fighter stardom.
Basically, the wrong woman was scorned.
Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean)
With all of his eccentricities, Jack Sparrow is easy to overlook as a legendary swordsman, but don’t be fooled—that’s his game.
Do you think this is wise, boy? Crossing swords with a pirate?
One of the first fencing matches we witness in this swashbuckling action movie sets the stage for our two heroes. Well, one is more a hero than the other, but go with me for argument’s sake. Will Turner—a blacksmith’s assistant and young man of honor—jumps into action to face an escaped pirate who wanders into his forge.
As the two cross swords, a witty dialogue begins. We learn that Will is not only skilled at making swords, he practices with them daily. Will is a disciplined student, an honorable, knightly character with honed skill. Jack, on the other hand, fights like an experienced pirate—full of slick moves of his own and a dash of cheating. This fight is used to show us the skill and tactics of these two swordsmen and how they play off each other.
I should probably give Will Turner a shout-out here. He had several impressive duels against supernatural beings and impossible odds.
However, Jack’s antics and peculiar tactics set him in a league of his own. His legendary duels against his ghostly nemesis Captain Barbossa, the squid-faced Davy Jones and countless British soldiers gives him legendary status. He’s a man who tempts fate and plays with the gods.
The Dread Pirate Roberts (The Princess Bride)
The Princess Bride is a romantic, fantasy adventure, complete with some of the most famous sword fights in movie history.
Farmhand Westley just wants to love a local village girl but first must set off to make his fortune. Unfortunately, tales of his capture by the Dread Pirate Roberts return home. Naturally, his lover Buttercup thinks he’s dead.
Fast forward a few years later, and Buttercup is being scoped out by a tyrannical Prince Humperdinck. She isn’t excited about it, but neither is she excited by the kidnapping that takes place before her wedding day. Three outlaws of varying talents capture her for a ransom, pursued by Prince Humperdinck and strange masked man. The masked man outmaneuvers everyone, including the prince, a giant, an intellectual and a skilled fencer named Inigo Montoya.
We come to find out the masked man is the notorious Dread Pirate Roberts (actually Westley in disguise), and one of the most spectacular duels ever takes place between him and Montoya. When I say this is one of the most famous duels ever, it’s because Montoya is arguably more famous as a swordsman. His speech to the “Six-Fingered Man” and his story of revenge are classic to the sword master trope.
However, Westley definitely won the duel.
Zorro (The Mask of Zorro)
Zorro is a legend in his own right—the swashbuckling hero who inspired Bruce Wayne to become Batman. He’s a man of the people, a wealthy nobleman with a distaste for corrupt rulers. Other than a few tricky, low-tech gadgets, his primary method of fighting crime is the old-fashioned way.
In 1998’s The Mask of Zorro, the filmmakers gave us a whole new level of swashbuckling as Antonio Banderas donned the mask. This movie was built from the ground up to be a blockbuster, as is obvious with its blazing intro. We see a new version of the classic hero, a bandit named Alejandro Murrieta trained to be a hero and gentleman by the original Zorro, Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins).
With intense fight scenes, explosions, a dash of parkour and a healthy dose of PG-13 dancing, Banderas’ depiction of the character is an exciting ride. There’s no denying the legendary status of a one-man army fighting tyranny, armed only with a rapier and the cunning of a fox.
Connor Macleod (Highlander)
Connor Macleod is an immortal swordsman, engaged in an eternal tournament of sorts. As the story goes, the immortals can only be slain by removing their heads. Thus, a culture of sword fighting emerged between these chosen people.
Connor begins his story in 16th Century Scotland, where he was supposed to die in battle. After surviving the mortal wound from his nemesis, the Kurgan, Connor is trained by a fellow immortal—a man named Ramírez. He learns of the Quickening, the magic life-force of his kind, and how separating an immortal’s head releases that energy.
The last immortal left will meet for “the Gathering” and fight for “The Prize”, which is obviously world-ending power to enslave humanity. No worries, though. Connor’s a good guy, and he’s had a few centuries to practice. Bad news is, Kurgan’s going to be there, too, and he’s killed all of Connor’s friends.
What makes Connor’s sword fighting so unique is this long history, where he’s had time to duel with different types of swords. In one century he’s wielding a rapier, one a Celtic longsword, but in the 1980’s, he’s swinging a katana. Probably a good choice for taking heads.
He ultimately defeats the barbaric Kurgan to win “the Prize”.
There can be only one.
Marvel Comic’s Blade (1998) was one of the most successful live-action adaptations before the MCU, even before Sam Rami’s Spiderman trilogy, and may have paved the way for these franchises. Westley Snipes was born to play this character, bringing the attitude and genuine martial arts mastery the role needed.
Born half-human, half-vampire, Blade is the ultimate monster hunter. He crafts and uses unique weaponry to hunt his prey, but none is more infamous than his sword—it’s where he gets his name. The movie focuses on this aspect of his character, as the handle of the weapon is booby-trapped. Nobody touches Blade’s sword but Blade.
His skill with the weapon is on full display throughout the film. He cuts through vampire minions with ease, ending in an epic showdown against the vampire Deacon Frost. Frost is more of a gangster, not an especially old or powerful vampire. However, he manages to summon a vampire blood god named La Magra, who infuses its power into him, before his showdown with Blade.
I should definitely mention Deadpool here, who’s been on quite a few adventures with Blade in the comics. These two seem to be opposite sides of the same coin, as far as superpowers and skillsets go. To me, however, Deadpool is a close 2nd place. Sure, he rocks those katanas and had a fantastic fight with them against villain Ajax, but he probably likes his guns better.
I’ll also give a shout out to Captain Kronos—Vampire Hunter (1974) for his vampire-killing katana skills. Blade’s just way cooler.
Jen Yu (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon)
Jen Yu is a young governor’s daughter who secretly taught herself the Wudang fighting style. So, first and foremost, she is a prodigy sword fighter with more to learn. You could argue that Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) are technically better, being older sword masters. However, Jen Yu possesses unique traits as a character that set her apart.
I can’t help but admire the fact that she escaped traditional duty, taught herself martial arts to an incredible degree and stole a legendary sword from a legendary sword master. She is truthfully the center of the story, a tale of a rogue princess of sorts. Within the story of the stolen “Green Dragon” sword is her doomed love with the bandit Lo. Jen Yu is living life her own way.
The movie showcases her skill in the Wudang sword art. The villainous Jade Fox, a fierce and cunning warrior in her own right, realizes that the young Jen has surpassed her. She can’t believe the little girl taught herself to such a degree. We also witness Jen face off against an entire room full of opponents. Sure, she was using a legendary sword, but it’s not like the sword fought all by itself.
Conan (Conan the Barbarian)
The original buff guy in a loin cloth with a sword, the story of Conan was brought to the big screen via Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1982.
The character was originally written by Robert E. Howard and made its debut in Weird Tales in December 1932. Howard took the genre of sword and sorcery and blended it with the idea of prehistoric civilizations of legend. Conan lives in a time before recorded history, a mythical age Howard named “Hyborian”, at the end of Atlantis’s reign.
The character was based on ancient Celtic warriors, but Schwarzenegger naturally added a Germanic flavor to him. He’s much like Beowulf, the old Nordic hero, unafraid to fight unarmored, but he hides vast strength.
His father crafts a sword at the beginning of the movie, foreshadowing Conan’s fate as a warrior. Conan is meant to be a swordsman, but he must go through hardship first. This is especially shown with the importance of the “Riddle of Steel”, a vital metal to his people. In an age before known civilization, this would have been a legendary metal.
His family is soon taken from him by the evil warlord Thulsa Doom, who kills his father and slays his mother with his father’s sword. Obviously, revenge is in order. Conan grows to be an unbeatable gladiator, essentially winning his freedom. As he makes his escape, he takes refuge in an Atlantean colonist warrior’s tomb. It’s here he finds an ancient sword—one he would use to seek his revenge.
After slaying sorcerers, monsters and warriors alike, there’s no denying the legendary swordsman status of this iconic barbarian. He’s similar to Aragorn, but I’m not sure Aragorn could pull off the half-naked look.
Leonardo (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) is a grossly overlooked movie. With impressive martial arts (especially with limiting costumes), Jim Henson studio’s puppetry and deep characters, this film is a jewel.
Each turtle has a totally unique personality: Michelangelo the goofball, Raphael the attitude, Donatello the thoughtful nerd and Leonardo the responsible big brother. Along with these personalities, each turtle specializes in a weapon style of combat. Of course, every turtle has a basic knowledge of martial arts, ninjutsu and stealth tactics, but their weapons set them apart based on their strengths.
On first glance, these weapons are typical martial arts instruments that look cool on paper. Nunchaku and twin sai are weird and difficult to utilize—that’s how you know these turtles mean ninja business. However, a strange detail points at the eldest brother’s level of responsibility—he specializes in the most lethal weapons. The youngest two, Donny and Mikey, use blunted weapons—a staff and nunchaku—and Ralph’s sai are built to capture and disarm bladed weapons (though those points are brutally sharp).
All of this is to say: Leonardo was trained with the utmost care and mastery. Splinter really cares about avoiding needless death. This is the crucial ingredient in Leo’s status as a movie swordsman. He is trained in the ancient art of ninjutsu, but honed enough to control it.
In the original cut, he is the only brother to wound Shredder in their final showdown. Shredder only took the advantage as a last desperate move, using the brothers’ love for one another against them. He even admits the other brothers would have overpowered him, but his cunning and experience was his saving grace. For some reason, people often forgot that aspect from the climactic scene, but I certainly didn’t.
I know what you’re thinking—what about epic dudes like William Wallace, King Leonidas and Maximus Decimus? All of these guys had mad sword skills. However, their identity and impact were much more rooted in their roles as leaders.
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