With Ready Player One out in cinemas (you can check out our review here), one of the greatest film directors of all time, Steven Spielberg, is back to deliver spectacle to the masses once more.
Spielberg is no stranger to spectacle. He brought us the terrifying T-rex and raptors in Jurassic Park (and its sequel), the fantastical adventures of Indiana Jones, delved into the horrors of slavery and persecution in his more hard-hitting content and gave us aliens in ET: The Extra Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He is the master of tension, grandeur and action.
So choosing 20 of his greatest moments is an almost impossible task. The Indiana Jones franchise could give us twenty alone; the same for his Jurassic Park movies. But we’ve attempted incorporate his entire back catalogue to select the cream of the crop from Spielberg’s movies.
Raiders of the Lost Ark – Indy shoots the swordsman
This is the perfect scene to sum up who Indiana Jones is. Faced with a manic, sword wielding killer on the streets of Cairo, it looks as if he is in real trouble. The crows parting to reveal the figure in black, John Williams’ music becoming more sinister, you wonder just how he is going to get out of this situation. But the nonchalant way he pulls a gun and shoots his would-be foe dead, delivered with a seemingly bored expression by Harrison Ford, is a moment of perfect comic timing and a fantastically directed scene by Spielberg.
ET: The Extra Terrestrial – ET is dying
This was the scene that left me an emotional, crying wreck as a five year old. There are probably enough great scenes in this movie to make up 20 alone, but up to this point it’s all been rather fun and magical (the drunk scene and Halloween costume moments spring to mind). But this is where things get gravely serious; Elliott discovers ET white and frail dying in the bath, leading to the horrible moment as the men try to resuscitate him as he flatlines. ET ‘dying’ while a distraught Elliot feels everything and his sister weeps, is one of the most traumatic moments of my childhood, and probably is the same for many others.
On a side note – the original version was much more grizzly with a man’s hand being ripped off; fortunately Spielberg retained the emotional intensity of the scene with the softer, but just as harrowing version.
The Terminal – Goat Medicine
The story of Tom Hank’s Victor Navorski, stranded in JFK after his country starts a revolution, is an incredibly heartfelt one, inspired by the true story of Iranian Merhan Nasseri. Hanks delivers one of his best roles as a man living in the terminal, adapting to his new life while dealing with the worries of home; despite all this he remains a sweet and endearing character and this is epitomised in the scene where he is asked to translate for man bringing drugs into the country for his father.
Navorski’s intelligence allows him to convince the authorities that the medicine is for the man’s goat, an act that will allow him to pass through. The joy of the scene is that you never really know if he is telling the truth or not, but you cheer him along every step of the way. There is an understated, comic beauty to this scene that Spielberg directs with an abundance of charm.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – Dinner is served
Another Indiana Jones moment now, from second movie Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom and Spielberg mixes the fantastic with squeamish black comedy in one of the most stomach-churning dinner sequences in cinematic history.
Arriving at Pankot Palace, Indy, Short Round and Willie find themselves guests of the Maharajah Zalim Singh and an elaborate meal. Snake surprise – hundreds of wriggling black snakes stuffed into a dead python? Or the soup with the floating eyeballs? Sucking the juices from a giant beetle? Or if you’re ready for desert, chilled monkey brains? And it is all about the performances; Harrison Ford is completely stoic as he discusses Pankot history while Kate Capshaw captures the full horror at her Willie’s situation as she squeals at revulsion with every course and her dinner companions hungrily devour it all.
Jaws – Comparing scars
Jaws, like several films on this list could make a list of 20 memorable moments alone – from the opening attack to the camera zooming in on Brody’s face on the beach – but there is one moment that is less about shark-based action and more about just great characterisation.
The scene where Brody, Quint and Hooper share war stories is a terrific piece of scripting, performed brilliantly by Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss and directed with intensity by Spielberg. Quint telling the story of how he got his scars hunted by tiger shaws after his ship went down in World War II sets the scene for the deadly final confrontation; the dread sense of danger permeates the scene and you can cut the tension with a knife.
Minority Report – Hiding in the ice bath
Spielberg is the master of edge-of-your-seat excitement and the moment from Minority Report where Tom Cruise’s John Anderton hides from the authorities is real nail biting stuff. The spider robots are creepy creations, slithering under doorways, hunting relentless and you can feel the cold as Anderton hides in the bath of ice to escape his captors.
For a moment you think he is safe and then one of the robots detects him. It is a hold-your-breath moment as they crawl all over him and try to scan his eyes while his former colleagues turned hunters lurk outside. Only when he fools the robots and they move on does the audiences really allow themselves to relax again.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – You have chosen wisely
The third Indiana Jones movie might not have had quite the spectacle of the first two but it is still a wonderfully engaging movie as Indy and his father (and perfect performance by Sean Connery) battle the Nazis in the hunt for the Holy Grail. It culminates in this powerful climax as Indy and his nemesis encounter the ancient knight and are asked to choose from the spectacle of possible grails before them.
The arrogance of Julian Glover’s Walter Donovan leads him to drink from a majestic, golden grail and one of the nastiest moments from many people’s childhoods as he withers away to dust. Indy meanwhile, uses his wit to determine that Jesus, as a poor carpenter would not have drunk from a gold, jewel-encrusted goblet but a simple wooden cup, a decision that saves the today and proves his is the hero of the story once and for all.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind – The mothership
The descent of the mothership over the mountain at the climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of the most majestic moments in Spielberg’s catalogue. It is a gorgeous spectacle, accompanied by John William’s sweeping score and captures the full emotion of the film as everyone waits with anticipation to discover what has happened to the abductees.
Those iconic beats from the ship as the aliens communicate is elating and the return of the abductees a bittersweet payoff to the tension and drama of what has happened. Jillian’s reunion with her lost son Barry is perhaps the sweetest moment of all.
Schindler’s List – The girl in the red coat
There are many harrowing, powerful moments in Schindler’s List, but the most iconic moment is this one. While the use of black and white was tastefully down to help tone down the horrors of the concentration camps, it also allows him to draw out a single girl as Liam Neeson’s Schindler watches in horror as the Jews are rounded up. The girl in the red coat stands out – a pure innocent caught up in this nightmare – and like Schindler, you are drawn to her as her world is torn apart. This is powerful stuff in a very powerful movie.
Amistad – The Mutiny
Another powerful moment now from an equally powerful movie as Spielberg moved from the persecution of the Jews to slavery. The mutiny against the slavers is a shocking scene, one of the nastiest Spielberg ever directed but expertly delivered, taking place in the stormy night sea.
The desperation as the slaves tear at their owners, breaking their chains, slitting their enslaver’s throats is guttural, emotive stuff. The hand to hand fighting is tense and brutal and you feel every moment of these slaves’ attempt to free themselves from their harrowing ordeal.
Jurassic Park – The T-Rex makes its debut
The first Jurassic Park really builds the suspense, making the audience wait just long enough that when the real spectacle hits, it is nothing short of spectacular. At this point in the film, we had seen majestic dinosaurs grazing in the fields as the characters entered John Hammond’s world, but what audiences – like the characters – had been really waiting for was the king of the dinosaurs himself.
The T-Rex’s debut in the franchise is a masterpiece of action, terror and atmosphere. Spielberg traps the cars outside the storm-soaked paddock and builds and builds the tension to breaking point. The dead goat, the fence coming down, the infamous ripple in the cups of water. And then all hell breaks loose as the lights on Tim’s torch draws the T-Rex in and it proceeds to rip the car apart, crushing the two kids inside. Cue Alan Grant’s heroics, the death of Gennaro and the panicked escape down the side of the ravine, as this magical place becomes something much more terrifying.
Saving Private Ryan – Normandy beach
The opening sequence to Saving Private Ryan is one of the most dramatic and harrowing sequences Spielberg ever directed. It throws you right into the heart of the action and the director isn’t afraid to expose the audience to the full horror of what is happening. This is loud, bloody and brutal; the man dragging his friend who has lost his legs is perhaps the most gut wrenching moment of it all.
Like many of his less fantastical films, this isn’t an easy watch but it conveys to the true heroics, death and bloodshed that took place as the Second World War finally turned. Even in the spectacle, there is something very true about the battle sequence that honours the good men that fought and died that day.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – The train cart chase
It might not have the substance of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the sequel (or chronological prequel) has some terrifically fun moments. The train cart sequence makes amazing use of the wondrous set piece that is the temple beneath Pankot Palace as Indy is freed from mind control and leads a rebellion against the cult that has enslaved the children.
Indy, Short Round and Willie find themselves hurtling through a rickety train cart, racing at impossible speeds while fighting off the pursuing henchmen. It is probably the biggest action sequence of the Indiana Jones franchise that builds and builds with drama and hilarity. Indy fighting henchmen at impossible speeds, racing over lava, escaping torrents of water and saving the day; it’s a tall task and one this hero achieves with spectacular fashion.
Duel – The Final Chase
The earliest example of this list comes from Spielberg’s 1971 TV movie Duel, and the tense climax as Dennis Weaver’s David Mann is pursued relentless by the deadly, Peterbuilt truck through the mountain roads. It is essentially a slasher movie but with vehicles as Mann attempts to frantically escape in his red Valiant while this decaying monster of a truck races after him silent and deadly, only the occasional thundering horn or plume of smoke to mark its way.
Weaver’s performance is desperate and haunted, as he faces all the familiar tropes of a slasher movie; the police car that signifies safety is in fact a pest control car, forcing him to race away at the last moment before the truck hits him. The radiator on the car forcing a burnout is that exhaustion in the chase and the final trap as he lures the track off the cliff is the victim fighting back. Given the intensity of this and many other examples on the list, I wonder what terror and tension Spielberg would have given us if he has turned his hands to a full on slasher movie…
Jurassic Park – Raptors in the kitchen
The T-rex might have been the king of the dinosaurs but it’s the raptors that take the crown; we’ve been told they were intelligent but none could have guessed they could open doors. But when Tim and Lex hide in the kitchen, they discover that a simple door will not stop the two raptors from closing in.
This is a delightfully tense sequence, the two raptors working in tandem to hunt their prey while the two kids cower behind metal cabinets. This is true monster movie stuff – with the T-Rex there is a chance you can escape – but the raptors are more vicious and more clever and that ramps up the tension to the max.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind – Barry Guiler is abducted
There is a great sense of wonder in Spielberg’s 1977 movie about alien abductions, but it is also atmospheric and terrifying too as this scene proves. Melinda Dillon Jillian Guiler notices the yellow lights in the sky outside her remote farmhouse while her young son Barry (Cary Guffey) watches in wonder. There is amazing contrast between Dillon and Guffey as her terror sees her racing to lock the doors, shut the hatches and gradually break down as the appliances start to turn on, while he marvels at everything happening around him.
The taught direction from Spielberg, mixes with the ominous orange glow and smoke that fill the house, is electric and John William’s music adds to the tense atmosphere of it all. As an audience member, you can only watch helpless as Jillian tries everything to save her son only to lose him anyway. Has there ever been an alien abduction sequence in TV or film as powerful as this moment?
Jaws – The final attack
We had caught glimpses of the infamous white shark throughout the film but we didn’t get a sense of the scale of the beast until the climax, when Brody, Quint and Hooper’s attempt to catch it goes tragically wrong.
Jaws is so huge that it is able to launch itself against the boat, causing it to sink. Quint slides towards his death, devoured brutally while the surviving Hooper watches on in horror. Suddenly there is no safe place. Faced with the sinking vessel, Brody is forced to climb up the mast as the shark attacks. It’s a tense and brutal final sequence, ending with a sense of triumph as Brody shoots a gas canister, killing the shark once and for all (we’ll just ignore all the sequels…)
ET: The Extra Terrestrial – Cycling across the moon
What is the most magical movie moment of all time? Subjectively there are hundreds, but for many, ET and his friends on bikes fleeing the authorities and ascending into the sky might be the best. It is a hugely uplifting, triumphant moment, as the bad guys lose and Eliot and ET make their daring escape. John William’s score is majestic and the shot of the bike soaring past the full moon is one of the defining cinematic shots of all time. If you want to know what magic looks like, watch this scene.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park – Trailer over the cliff
The sequel to Jurassic World has many detractors and some of those criticisms are valid. But it still has a great cast and plenty of thrilling moments to keep its audience entertained. And what is has best of all is one of the most tense sequences not just in the franchise but in movies in general. How do you top one T-Rex? Have two.
This is a relentless scene that sees are heroes thrown over the side of the cliff by the dinosaurs and even the attempt by Richard Schiff’s Eddie Carr to drag them to safety fails spectacularly with a particularly gruesome death. The music, the action and the direction is taught; you find yourself holding your breath as Nick, Ian and Sarah desperately try to climb to safety. And Sarah trying to pull herself of the fracturing glass is as nail biting today as it was on first viewing.
Raiders of the Lost Ark – The opening sequence
The opening sequence from the first Indiana Jones movie is still one of the best. The set piece looks fantastic as Indy and his ‘guide’ Sapito enter the tomb and navigate through deadly spear traps, skeletons, spiders and cobwebs to find the golden treasure at its heart. But the moment that Indy tries to replace the treasure with a bag and the tomb begins to collapse that the real fun is had; the giant bolder hurdling towards Indy is an iconic, thrilling moment of cinematic history all culminating in Sapito’s betrayal as Indy loses the treasure he so desperately searched for.
It is the moment that defined the franchise, gave us a hero with wit and determination and showed that Harrison Ford wasn’t just Han Solo from a galaxy far, far away…
Do you agree with our choices, or do you feel there are others unfairly missed from the list? Please let us know your greatest Steven Spielberg moments in the comments below…