The 10 Best Steven Spielberg Action Scenes
Steven Spielberg is back in theaters this week with Ready Player One, his first out-and-out action movie in almost seven years. (Where have you gone, unproduced Tintin sequels? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.) To mark the occasion (but mostly because I wanted an excuse to watch a lot of Steven Spielberg clips on YouTube), I decided to assemble and rank the greatest of Spielberg’s many superb action sequences.
Sadly, nothing from Ready Player One made the cut, but many other Spielberg classics (and even a few Spielberg flops) are represented. And while list-making is mostly an amusing way to waste time, watching and writing about these sequences together illuminated some things about Spielberg’s favorite action themes and tropes that I had never noticed before. You’ll see them emerge over the course of this piece, like a CGI prairie dog burrowing its way to the surface. Speaking of which...
10. Marshalling the Troops
From Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
All the kvetching about nuclear fridges and Shia LaBeoufs obscures the fact that two-thirds of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a really fun movie. The most fun scene is this high-energy motorcycle chase through Marshall College, which Spielberg filmed on the campus of Yale University. Indy and LaBeouf’s Mutt get cornered in a diner by the KGB, then start a fight between preppies and greasers to make their getaway. After we learn about Indy and Mutt’s secret past, the sequence becomes a nice echo of the father-son motorcycle chase in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (And yes, before you do additional kvetching on Twitter, this scene is superior to the motorcycle chase in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Better stunts, better flow, and better music.)
9. War Begins
From War of the Worlds
Plenty of filmmakers can thrill you with a chase scene; few are as good at terrifying you with one as Spielberg. Consider the 2005 version of War of the Worlds, wherein Tom Cruise’s Ray Ferrier witness the arrival of one of the first alien “tripods” and then runs for his life as it wantonly zaps everyone in its sight with a death ray. Through sheer luck (and Cruise’s uncanny sprinting ability), Ray survives. He emerges from the chaos a changed man. Audiences did too.
8. Hell’s Kitchen
From Jurassic Park
Spielberg can do non-stop action when a film calls for it, but he also knows how to alternate stillness and movement, building suspense then releasing the tension in a burst of excitement. Case in point: The incredible stop-and-start chase through the kitchen in the original Jurassic Park. I dare you find a gag as clever as the one in this scene, where Lex looks like she’s about to become raptor dinner, but when the dinosaur lunges he’s been tricked by a reflection and she runs away to safety.
7. Chasing the Ark
From Raiders of the Lost Ark
Speaking of sustained action: Here’s half a dozen minutes of peak Spielberg, with Indiana Jones chasing a Nazi convoy on horseback, and then using one truck as a battering ram to drive the bad guys off the road. The modern version of this sequence would be unwatchable: swooping cameras, heavy editing, and extensive CGI. Spielberg’s version is practical in more ways than one, and his visual storytelling skills are on full display. He knows exactly when to use a cutaway (note the use of rearview mirror shots) and when to linger on Indy’s smirk, like when he shoves an unseen Nazi motorcycle off the road with a flick of the truck’s steering wheel and we hear the crunch of metal as the Germans careen into a pond.
6. A Literal Cliffhanger
From The Lost World: Jurassic Park
One of the best parts about Spielberg’s career: Even his bad movies have great stuff in them. The best example of that may be this underwhelming sequel to the original Jurassic Park. On the whole, the movie’s a bust, but it does contain one sequence that rivals anything in the first film for sheer white-knuckle suspense. The heroes are in a trailer that gets pushed over a cliff by dinosaurs. (Dinosaurs: Ancient history’s greatest jerks.) Julianne Moore’s Sarah falls onto the glass window of the trailer, and Spielberg traces the tiny fractures that crack-crack-crack around her fingers and face in extreme close-up. This clip makes my palms sweat.
5. The One-Take Chase
From The Adventures of Tintin
Here’s another masterpiece from one of Spielberg’s unloved late-career highlights; a breathless chase through Morocco on jeep, motorcycle, eagle, clothesline, and assorted other means of improvised conveyance as Tintin, Captain Haddock, and Snowy the Dog try to retrieve an all-important scroll. The scene starts with a series of wide shots, then ramps up to an extended long take, with Spielberg’s virtual camera swooping back and forth between the various characters as they fumble over the scroll. These six minutes are the best argument in favor of motion-capture animation I’ve ever seen.
4. Flying Bikes
From E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial
I speak from personal experience when I say every bike-owning child of the ’80s played this scene from E.T. with their friends at least 10 times before they graduated from middle school. Granted, John Williams’ soaring score does some of work. but even Williams’ music would be nothing without Spielberg’s camerawork, editing, and seamless special effects. It’s a moment so powerful that they made an entire amusement park ride out of it. The experience of flying with E.T. at Universal Studios is okay, but the emotions the ride stirs are nowhere near as potent as being carried away by the actual film.
3. The Giant Ball
From Raiders of the Lost Ark
Here’s another Spielberg classic that’s been tattooed into the minds of generations of filmgoers. It’s also another scene that’s about manipulating the audience by speeding things up and slowing things down. Indy’s entrance to this secret temple is methodical; we watch his caravan’s approach, and then his step-by-step procession through various traps and puzzles. Then after he grabs the idol it’s a mad dash to safety inches ahead of that famous gigantic rolling bolder. (Side Note: Who made that perfectly round giant boulder? How’d they hoist it up there? I have questions.)
2. The Tyrannosaurus Rex Attacks
From Jurassic Park
As we reach the end of this list, here is what I see: Steven Spielberg likes to put people in a situation that is seemingly impossible to escape, and then watch how they get out of it. Sometimes in his movies, they succeed because of dumb luck; other times, the answer is quick thinking and their overpowering will to survive. Occasionally it’s a mix of the three. But backing the characters into a corner is always the key. The audience cares because the stakes are high, and there really are few stakes higher in all of fiction than “A giant tyrannosaurus just flipped my jeep over and is trying to eat me.”
From Saving Private Ryan
All of the scenes on this list are great, but the opening of Saving Private Ryan is on a whole other level. It is essentially a self-contained short film about the horror of war; 20 minutes of carnage, bloodshed, and mayhem all expertly choreographed with Spielberg’s unparalleled precision and clarity. I still have vivid memories of watching this movie in the theater in the summer of 1998, at the tiny Strathmore Cinemas in Aberdeen, New Jersey. (On a date! That didn’t go great.) When the sequence finally ended, I took a deep breath and realized my entire body had subconsciously tensed up. It’s maybe the most visceral sustained action sequence in more than 100 years of movies.
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