Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Part One: The Early Years

I’ve been thinking of making this list for a long time, and wondering how long it should be. Top Ten? Not enough. Top Twenty-five? Sounds better. In the end, I just decided to list all the ones I thought were the best. I’m not even going to count them.

Rule: Only one scene per movie. If a movie has more than one really, really good action scene, I may make note of the other or others.

Rule: The scene should be something that hadn’t been seen before, or be just so damn good that I left the theater breathless.

Rule: I define what an action scene is. Some of them carry on for as much as 15 minutes; others are over in only a few.

Rule: I can break any of the rules if I chose to do so.

You’ll notice there aren’t many selections from the 1930s and ‘40s. I’m not sure why that is. Possibly it’s because that period is between the silent era, when the camera was totally free, and the beginnings of really high-tech SFX and other techniques such as the traveling matte that made epic action scenes easier to do. Or maybe I’m just not remembering the great action scenes of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

I’ve looked at some lists by other people. One movie that is on almost all of them is The Matrix. It’s not on my list. It didn’t show me anything new. In fact, there are those who feel that almost all the great action scenes have happened in the last 10 years. You could certainly make a case for that, seeing as how the typical summer movie these days has six, seven, or eight set-piece action segments that are far beyond what used to be possible.

My reaction? Ho-hum.

Sure, CGI can now produce a car chase where vehicles fly though the air, spinning seventeen times, caroming off other cars like billiard balls … and it’s all phony, and doesn’t engage me for a second. It can amuse, it can make me smile, I can shake my head in admiration (what will they think up next?), but it probably won’t engage me.

I am very prejudiced toward real stunt work, and the basic techniques of building suspense in a scene. That’s why Bullitt is here, and innumerable much-more-elaborate car chases are not. Bullitt still puts me on the edge of my seat; The Dark Knight does not. In The Dark Knight I sit there, leaning back, chewing on my popcorn, and take it all in. Wow. Gosh. Golly-gee. How about that. In Bullitt, I’m apt to spray popcorn or Coke all over the rows in front of me.

In fact, I am unable to recall a single action scene from a comic book movie that has really moved me, and that is the prime qualification for inclusion on this list. I simply cannot be very interested in or worried by the doings of Spiderman, Superman, Batman, or any of the other –mans. I know they will come out okay, which takes all the tension out of it. I can get a chuckle, as in Iron Man. I cannot—so far, at least—get a visceral thrill. That’s just me. Judging from box office returns and from lists made by other people, I am in the minority. It’s not the first time, and I’m proud to be in it.

I welcome suggestions/reminders of scenes I might have overlooked, particularly from the 1930s and 1940s. You can even suggest scenes from comic book movies, though it is highly unlikely any of them will shoulder its way onto this list.

Now, hold onto your hat, because we’re at the top of the first hill of the roller coaster and about to head down …

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Battle of Petersburg: Immediately before this extended battle scene is the burning of Atlanta, pre-figuring Gone With the Wind. Petersburg was actually a nine-month siege, a matter of troops facing each other in trenches as they would some years later in World War I. This battle scene is truly amazing, and it must have completely blown audiences away. Hell, it blew me away. Much of it is filmed in long shots, tinted orange, and the smoke and explosions make it look like the very hinges of Hell. Figures move in and out of the smoke like ghosts. We see the mortars, the field artillery, and finally a series of charges by the Confederate troops that overwhelms two trenches before the last survivors are killed by Union soldiers. This is the granddaddy of all epic action scenes. Remember that when this showed in a large theater in a big town, there was a full orchestra playing the score, and dozens of sound effects men behind the screen supplying gunshots and explosions. That sort of show may never be seen again.

Take Two: There is an equally exciting scene near the end, but it takes a strong stomach and the detachment of a film student for that one, as it involves a lot of sex-crazed darkies storming a cabin where white women are holed up, and the Ku Klux Klan riding heroically to the rescue. Excuse me while I go vomit on D.W. Griffith’s grave.

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

The Odessa Steps: It’s 1905 and the crew of the Bronenosets Potyomkin have mutinied when ordered to eat meat with maggots in it. They have put into the port of Odessa. There is a sympathetic uprising among the citizens on shore. They are gathered on a great outdoor stairway when at the top appears a line of white-shirted Cossacks, armed with rifles. The Cossacks begin a relentless march down the steps, firing as they go. Never happened, but who cares? This is one of the great propaganda films of all time, and this scene may be the most famous sequence ever put on film, and rightly so. Sergei Eisenstein was the Russian D.W. Griffith, but while D.W. invented and perfected most of the language of film, he never got good at the sort of montage Eisenstein originated, with flash cutting to wonderful effect, and a mix of close-ups and long shots, and all the while, those Cossacks relentlessly marching and that baby carriage bouncing down the steps …

The General (1926)

Locomotive chase: Pretty much all of Buster Keaton’s feature films contain an epic chase, such as in the two-reeler Cops—which is just about all chase—or something else spectacular, like the storm in Steamboat Bill, Jr. But nothing could equal this one. Buster is an engineer in the Confederate South. The General is his train, and he sets out to rescue his sweetie from behind enemy lines, pursued by a trainload of Union soldiers. The sheer ingenuity of the things he does to stay ahead of them and avoid capture must be seen to be believed. Buster, of course, does all his own stunt work, and some of it is dangerous as hell. Except for Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton was the most physically adept movie comic ever. It all culminates in the most spectacular scene put on film up to that time: The collapse of a burning bridge as a locomotive is crossing it.

King Kong (1933)

Death of Kong: The genius of this film, of course, is that instead of a mindless dinosaur or an evil monster of some sort, the writer and director took a chance and made Kong into a sympathetic character, an innocent brought from his home to an alien environment, and even more incredibly, the love interest to the heroine. Myself, I think this was a big gamble, and couldn’t have been pulled off without the pioneering stop-motion SFX by Willis O’Brien, who made Kong come alive with his mobile face and body language. It was such an effective story that it has been ripped off twice since; both remakes were, of course, much more technically sophisticated (even if Kong in the De Laurentiis version was a man in a monkey suit), but neither re-captured the magic.

Take Two: For sheer action, the earlier scene where Kong breaks through the massive gate and goes stomping through the village is probably more exciting, but it doesn’t have the emotional oomph of the final scenes.

February 18, 2015
Vancouver, WA