The Greatest Movie Action Scene of All Time

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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