The Greatest Movie Action Scene of All Time

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When
anyone writes an essay on "The Greatest. . . ." he is
sure to get a lot of protests. Well, I don’t care. On this one,
I’m right.

I’m
not talking about monologues or dialogues. I’m talking about action
scenes — scenes that visually reinforce or even change the way we
think by means of a series of moving images on a screen.

I
have opinions about monologues and dialogues, of course. But I’m
willing to consider the outside possibility that I’m wrong.

The
greatest movie monologue is George C. Scott’s opening scene in
Patton.”
That’s mainly because George S. Patton wrote most of it, although
in separate speeches. Scott’s version was sanitized for family
audiences. The movie would have stood alone without this opening
scene, but it set the tone for the movie’s main character. The
screenwriter probably should have put in the section from Patton’s
June 5, 1944 speech
in England.

One
of the bravest men that I ever saw was a fellow on top of a telegraph
pole in the midst of a furious fire fight in Tunisia. I stopped
and asked what the hell he was doing up there at a time like that.
He answered, “Fixing the wire, Sir”. I asked, “Isn’t that a little
unhealthy right about now?” He answered, “Yes Sir, but the Goddamned
wire has to be fixed”. I asked, “Don’t those planes strafing the
road bother you?” And he answered, “No, Sir, but you sure as hell
do!”

As
for the greatest movie dialogue, I am emotionally partial to the
exchange of words in "Shane,"
when Shane finally confronts the gunfighter, Wilson, played by
Walter Jack Palance, in a role that set the standard for western
villains.

Shane:
I’ve heard about you.

Wilson:
What have you heard, Shane?

Shane:
I’ve heard you’re a low-down Yankee liar.

Wilson:
Prove it.

But
a serious film critic must never let his personal, deeply felt
prejudices color his artistic assessments. So, I offer as the
greatest dialogue in movie history Paddy Chayefsky’s masterpiece
in “Network,”
delivered by Ned Beatty in one of the premier bit parts in film
history. Beatty, as the head of a conglomerate that owns a TV
network, confronts Howard Beale, a wildly popular, madhatter,
TV news anchorman. Beale had recently exposed a looming business
deal between Arab oil nations and another, even more powerful,
but highly secret conglomerate. This killed the deal politically.
In a huge, darkened corporate meeting room, the previously affable
Beatty begins.

You
have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and
I won’t have it, is that clear?! You think you have merely
stopped a business deal — that is not the case! The Arabs
have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they
must put it back. It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity, it is ecological
balance! You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and
peoples. There are no nations! There are no peoples! There are
no Russians. There are no Arabs! There are no third worlds! There
is no West! There is only one holistic system of systems, one
vast interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion
of dollars! Petro-dollars, Electro-dollars, Multi-dollars, Reichmarks,
Rubles, Yen, [he actually says "Ren"] Pounds and Shekels!
It is the international system of currency that determines the
totality of life on this planet! That is the natural order of
things today! That is the atomic, subatomic and galactic structure
of things today! And you have meddled with the primal forces of
nature, and you will atone! Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

So
far, it’s all monologue. But two words, spoken by Beale (Peter
Finch), make it a dialogue.

We
no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale.
The world is a collage of corporations, inexorably determined
by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business,
Mr. Beale! It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and
our children, Mr. Beale, will live to see that perfect world
in which there is no war and famine, oppression and brutality
— one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all
men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will
hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties
tranquilized, all boredom amused. And I have chosen you to preach
this evangel, Mr. Beale.

Beale:
Why me?

Jensen:
Because you’re on television, dummy. Sixty million people watch
you every night of the week, Monday through Friday.

In
1976, Chayefsky here outlined the theology of Nafta and the World
Trade Organization. The man was a prophet.

But
that was a scene based on words. I have in mind a scene that is
uniquely visual. There is one scene that stands out above all
others, a scene that powerfully conveys a message about modern
civilization, and which always gets a laugh, no matter how many
times the audience has seen it.

It
appears in "Raiders
of the Lost Ark
." Legend has it that Harrison Ford was
sick that day, and wanted a short take. Spielberg suggested this
scene as the shortest one possible. I would like to believe that
the legend is true.

Across
a large, open bazaar, Indiana Jones confronts his latest challenger,
who is dressed entirely in black. He holds a sword.

You
know the scene.

This
master of oriental weaponry whirls his sword round and round,
in a performance of razor-sharp dexterity. The performance says
it clearly: "There is no escape, Western Imperialist."

You’re
smiling already.

Why
are you smiling? Maybe because you remember your reaction to the
scene the first time you saw it. But it’s more than this. That
scene conveys a clear, unmistakable, unforgettable message regarding
the clash of two civilizations, East and West.

Jones
reaches into his pocket, pulls out a cheap revolver, and plugs
him. He crumples, sword and all.

The
audience roars.

In
that scene, we see the confrontation between the West, which has
adopted science, technology, price competition, and mass production,
and the East, which has adopted mysticism, ancient technology,
and personal self-mastery by an elite. The issue is resolved visually
in that scene. One shot.

All
over the world, backward societies today are trying to get more
of what the capitalist West has. Economic growth is spreading
Eastward and Southward because a commitment to free market capitalism
is spreading.

"Raiders"
came out in 1981, Reagan’s first year in office. Red China had
liberalized its rural districts in 1979, but the resulting economic
boom was not yet visible. The Asian tigers had not yet hit their
stride, but soon would.

That’s
why that scene was not only definitive, it was prophetic.

If
you think I’m wrong about this as the greatest scene in movie
history, then I suggest one other wordless scene as its only reasonable
challenger: the closing scene of "Raiders," where the
Ark of the Covenant is dealt with in the way that a modern government
bureaucracy deals with anything truly important. The item gets
filed away. Egypt did it first. The Ark is nailed inside a crate,
and is then wheeled into the depths of a gigantic warehouse. As
the workman rounds the distant corner and disappears with the
crate, we are reminded of the modern State’s substitute for the
paralysis of Eastern mysticism. The scene makes it clear that
it had triumphed in Washington no later than 1936. Egypt lives!

November
29, 2000

Gary North is the author of a ten-volume series, An Economic
Commentary on the Bible. The latest volume is Sacrifice and
Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Acts. The series can be downloaded
free of charge at www.freebooks.com.

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