Great Movie Scenes

Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay

A few years ago I was looking through Roger Ebert's huge guide to movies and turned to the back to the four and five star film listings. And there were page after page of films that by any measure are stupendous works of art. Everything from Star Wars to High Noon to Citizen Kane. The issue suddenly was not why one film was given too high a rating and another was off the list, it was the sheer, staggering volume of work that by almost any standard, has to be considered great. We no longer build giant cathedrals or write grand opera. This is one of the outlets for creativity in our age, and we have nothing to apologize for. We can look Mozart square in the eye and say "Jupiterwas great. Now would you like to see Lord of the Rings? "

12. Hot Chocolate (Polar Express)

The craftsmanship in this film throughout is amazing. We see individual reflections off of snowflakes and individual hairs moving in the breeze. The compass around the great Christmas tree at the North Pole points south in all directions. And although I never much cared for tap dance numbers in old musicals, this one just blows me away. How they even conceived of the moves in this scene, let alone animated them, is absolutely beyond me.

Another great feature, and testimony to the producers' attention to detail, is that in the Spanish version, not only is the dialog in Spanish, so is the text. When the boy (he has no name) pulls out his encyclopedia article on the North Pole, it's in Spanish. So are the words punched in the tickets.

Many actors are immortalized as much by their roles in animated films as anything they did in real life, like the late Phil Harris as Baloo the Bear inThe Jungle Book, and Boris Karloff narrating Grinch. For all Tom Hanks' great roles, this may be one of his most remembered performances.

Honorable Mentions: The lost ticket. When one girl's ticket is blown out of the train, it lands in a snowy northern forest, is kicked up by a pack of wolves, snatched by an eagle (we'll forgive the fact that eagles won't be nesting on Christmas Eve and finally blown back into the train after a series of wonderful camera angles. And later on, when the train is careening on the ice, one ingenious scene shows the engine cab rushing toward the viewer, then the viewpoint passes through the window into the interior of the cab.

11. (The Mirror Scene) Duck Soup

10. Incomplete Pass (The Mouse That Roared)

The bankrupt Duchy of Grand Fenwick, completely off the radar of all the rest of the world's nations, decides its only hope of salvation is to declare war on the United States, lose, and be showered with foreign aid. So it sends a squad of soldiers, armed with chain mail and bows, to invade New York.

And they succeed, thanks to everyone in New York being underground for a Cold War attack drill. So, seeing the name of a famous researcher in the paper, they go to his laboratory to surrender. They discover that he's built something even deadlier than an atom bomb - the Q Bomb. So, thinking they've got an even better plan, they steal the bomb and kidnap the professor and his beautiful daughter (played by the beautiful but troubled Jean Seberg).

"Only an idiot could have won this war, and he did!" rants the Prime Minister when the unexpectedly successful army returns to Grand Fenwick. In short order, Grand Fenwick is the premier superpower of the world. When China offers assistance in combating American imperialism, one Fenwick official says "Oh, we could never do business with Red China." To which another replies "It's the other one."

Eventually, foreign agents get their hands on the bomb, which is soon being tossed like a football. As the bomb is flung for a particularly long pass, suddenly the screen cuts to a nuclear explosion. After a few seconds, the narrator intones "Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the end of the film. However, something like this might easily happen, and we thought we should put you in the proper mood. And now, back to our story."

9. Edge of the World (The Gods Must Be Crazy)

The story begins with a pilot over Africa finishing a soda and flinging the empty bottle out the cockpit window. It lands in the midst of a tribe of Bushmen, who had been living contentedly with no concept of material goods. They have no idea what the strange object is, but everyone becomes convinced he or she should be the guardian of it. Finally, the tribe decides the object is cursed and selects one member to dispose of it by throwing it off the edge of the earth.

On the way, he steals a goat for food and becomes entangled in Western concepts of property. There's a klutzy naturalist and a beautiful scientist, and a gang of fleeing rebels. The Bushman is rescued from his legal plight, the naturalist gets the girl, the rebels are rounded up, and the Bushman continues on his way.

===============Spoiler Alert!=====================

And would you ever expect in a million years, he actually finds the edge of the world? "And then one day, there it was," says the narrator, as the Bushman stands on a precipice high above a sea of clouds. From his perspective, this is exactly what the edge of the world would look like. He throws the bottle off the edge and heads home. For my money the most completely unexpected movie ending ever.


After the unexpected success of The Gods Must Be Crazy, a sequel was made called The Gods Must Be Crazy 2. It had a bigger budget, more technical polish, and not quite the wide-eyed naivet of the original. For all that, it's grand fun. Two compassionate, funny, feel-good movies.

8. Dinosaurs in Fantasia and Dinosaur

The original Fantasia languished in Disney vaults for years before re-emerging in the Sixties to audiences more receptive to its style (sometimes by means of chemical enhancements). Apart from the sappy finale to Schubert's Ave Maria (my candidate for worst piece of music ever written, and that's counting Back Street Boys and the Spice Girls) every segment is a gem. The history of the earth done to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is far from the "coldly scientific" view of earth history the narrators claim it to be, but still excellent.

The dinosaur segment shows dinosaurs as we pictured them in 1940: a somber world of brooding skies and swamps. The battle between Tyrannosaurus and Stegosaurus is set to flashes of lightning. In some respects Disney's anthropomorphism served him well; the dinosaurs are more social than most biologists of the 1940's would have thought, but actually not bad in light of present understanding. On the other hand, something the size of Stegosaurus was probably as immune to predation as a modern elephant or rhinoceros, and T-Rex probably scavenged as much as hunted prey.

The opening sequence of Dinosaur shows how far we came in sixty years. A dinosaur egg falls into a stream and through its travels we see the Mesozoic world. It's beautiful! The egg gets eaten and spit out by a giant salamander, then, in one of the most innovative views ever, nearly gets trampled by a herd of herbivores. But our first view of them is from under water as they are drinking from the river. Then the egg is snatched by a pterosaur who gives us an aerial tour of the Mesozoic, featuring towering waterfalls, great peaceful herds of dinosaurs, breathtaking canyons and majestic sea cliffs.

7. Firebird Suite (Fantasia 2000)

I looked forward eagerly to Fantasia 2000 and found it generally disappointing. Whales and The Pines of Rome? Okay, nice music, but there's not enough grandeur in the oceans that they have to fly, too? The tin soldier was sappy, the Gerschwin number had all the visual appeal of Huckleberry Hound (yes, I know it was a tribute to a particular illustrator) and completely failed to capture the vitality of a great city, and the Beethoven abstract piece was dreary. Despite Bette Midler's snotty dismissal, I thought the snippet done to Ride of the Valkyries would have been better than any of them.

I'm not at all a Stravinsky fan so it's interesting that two of the best pieces in the two Fantasias use his music. The Firebird Suite begins with a forest locked in the grip of winter. An elk wanders into a cave and his breath brings a nature sprite to life. She begins bringing springtime to the world, but as she ascends a nearby mountain peak, she notices that her magic no longer works. Curious, she descends into the crater of the mountain to investigate and comes upon a sinister looking black knob of rock. When she touches it, the knob comes to life (perfectly timed to the music and enough to lift you out of your seat) to reveal a fire monster. The volcano begins to erupt and the sprite desperately flees. We see the volcano surmounted by the Firebird for a second as the world is engulfed in flames. Finally the sprite is cornered and the firebird pounces.

After a moment of silence, we see the elk wandering in a lifeless landscape. He comes upon the barely alive sprite, who is too demoralized to awaken. She finally climbs onto the elk and notices that her tears bring life. She takes flight and pours rain on the land, and the forest returns triumphantly. The sprite returns to the mountain, greening it all the way to the top. Then, the very best moment of all, the camera recedes into the forest until the mountain disappears, and the sprite bursts across the screen with a look of utter exultation on her face.

Many aspects of the volcano are obviously modeled on Mount St. Helens, though the treatment is far from literal. I was on a field trip there some years ago on a beautiful afternoon, and the visual impression of looking up in a Pacific Northwest forest on a sunny day is captured to perfection in the last moments of this piece.

The fanfares of Firebird Suite are also used in Episode 5 of Carl Sagan's Cosmos.

6. Waltz of the Flowers (Fantasia)

5. In the Desert (Hidalgo)

4. Helms Deep (The Two Towers)

If there is a better description on film of men preferring to go down fighting against the forces of evil instead of running or supinely accepting defeat, I want to see it. With an overwhelming host of orcs breaching their last defenses, Aragorn whips up Theoden's flagging courage and they attack.

And then Gandalf shows up on the skyline with the Rohirrim and the impossible charge turns into a rout. One of the great stand up and cheer scenes in film history.

In Return of the King, Theoden gets off one of the great lines of the whole trilogy. Gamling says: "Too few have come. We cannot defeat the armies of Mordor." And Theoden replies: "No. We cannot. But we will meet them in battle nonetheless."

3. Lighting of the Beacons (Return of the King)

Minas Tirith is under siege by an army from Mordor and the cowardly Steward prefers to go down in defeat rather than put up a fight or send for help. So Gandalf sends Pippin to light the beacon fires as a distress signal.

What follows is a succession of ever more dazzling mountain scenes and camera sweeps following the beacons across the world through day and night and into day again. And finally Aragorn sees the beacons and bursts into the Great Hall with the news. Everyone, even Legolas, looks at him as if he's committed the most outrageous social blunder imaginable. He exclaims "Gondor asks for help." and brave Theoden delivers the perfect response after a just long enough pause: "And Rohan will answer." An Italian version posted on line is even better: "E Rohan respondere!" Say it with forcefully trilled r's.

2. The Space Station (2001: A Space Odyssey)

This venerable classic is beginning to show its age. Many scenes are obvious paintings. Pan American, Howard Johnson's and the Soviet Union, all seen in the film, faded into history long before 2001. We would not outfit space flight attendants in hair covers and Velcro slippers today. Instead we'd have them wear short hair and teach them how to move safely, and chances are they wouldn't all be female, while some of the pilots would be (in some ways the world we have is better than Kubrick and Clarke envisioned). But the scene where the twin wheels of the giant space station sweep on either side of the viewer is as powerful as ever. I saw this in a theater, and seeing it on a wide screen without knowing it was coming was absolutely breathtaking.

1. The Exodus (The Ten Commandments)

You're a slave. You were born a slave. You will die a slave. Your children will be slaves. Your ancestors as far back as anyone can recall were slaves. You have no rights. You have no hope. And then suddenly one morning, you're free. What would that be like?

Even if it actually happened (and there are those who doubt it) it probably didn't play out exactly like this. You don't have to believe literally in the Book of Exodus, or even if you do, believe things actually happened this way. Just take it as a cinematic description of liberation and a celebration of freedom.

Elmer Bernstein, composer of scores for The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, was at the top of his craft for this scene. The first half is a jubilant, bustling melody to go along with the chaos of preparations to tear up roots, then the actual exodus is a stately, joyful triumphant march. We see people doing things, like pushing heavily laden sledges, that they cannot possibly sustain for more than an hour. But they're on their way. An old man dies, having lived just long enough to see the day of liberation. In the very next scene a young man learns his wife has given birth to a son who will never be a slave.

Oh, there's also a famous scene involving water in this movie. But to me it pales in comparison to the Exodus. This is simply the most joyous ten minutes ever put on film.

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Created 31 March 2008, Last Update 31 May 2020