From 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark and 1984's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the four films have permanently burned some truly great images into the minds of movie fans over the past four decades.
In fact, there are so many great scenes in the four movies that we had to leave several of them off the list, which will undoubtedly cause a few arguments among fans. But we think these standout set pieces represent the movies, as well as the franchise as a whole, best, as you'll see in our list of the Top 10 Indiana Jones Movie Scenes.
10. The three challenges, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
The quest for the Holy Grail is the central focus of the third Indiana Jones film, as our hero (played by ) teams up with his father (Sean Connery), who’s been captured by the Nazis while searching for the fabled item. Eventually, Indy, his dad and plenty of bad guys all arrive at the Holy Grail’s final resting place, but it’s not so simple as just walking in and grabbing it. Someone — and, of course, it ends up being Indy — has to complete three challenges to get to the Grail. There’s a language-based challenge that involves sharp saws, a literal leap of faith and then a choice among various possible Grails overseen by a very old Knight of the Crusades. Indy is able to proceed through each challenge, including the last one, where he chooses wisely. The same can’t be said for the villainous multi-millionaire who sent Indy on the journey: When he picks the wrong Grail, he ages decades instantly and dies on the spot. Remember to choose wisely.
9. Hanging on for dear life, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Indiana Jones is always risking his life for one reason or another, but every once in a while it feels like he’s got a bit of a death wish. That feeling gets very strong in the finale of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which boasts some incredible action sequences in its first and final half-hours (and a lot of unpleasantness in between). Indy’s gone through hell and back by this point, having been briefly possessed by a cruel cult leader to worship a demonic god, before escaping his literal clutches. In the finale, Indy is on a rickety rope bridge, trying to save his friends, so he has only one plan: cut the bridge and hang on to whatever he can. The plan is an extreme risk, but pans out — before it does, the scene is a high point of tension because it feels like Indy wants to die and even possibly bite the big one this time.
8. Tank chase, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
If there’s a problem with the Indiana Jones movies, it’s that some of the action sequences can tend to recall others. It’s a good problem to have, but what do you do for a sequel when you’ve created some of the most memorable action set pieces of all time? That sense of familiarity does come up with the tank chase scene from Last Crusade. Indiana has to fend off a series of Nazis as he tries to get his father and their friend Marcus Brody free of the bad guys’ clutches, all while on a bumpy tank that eventually is tossed over a massive cliff. Even if this scene is reminiscent of another scene we’ll get to soon, it’s still a perfect example of how adept director Steven Spielberg is at staging suspenseful action sequences.
7. Fighting next to the plane, Raiders of the Lost Ark
Sometimes, the best action is hand-to-hand. After Indiana and Marion Ravenwood have escaped essentially being buried alive in Egypt, they follow the Nazis to an airfield where a couple of nameless baddies are getting a plane ready for takeoff. Indy, attempting to commandeer the plane, has to tussle first with the pilot and then with a much bigger, more physically imposing dude. The ensuing fist-fight is bloody and visceral in ways that aren’t often associated with the series. Indy never quite has the upper hand in the battle — his opponent is larger in every way — but he’s able to use the still-moving plane and its propellers as a way to withstand the Nazi’s clutches. Though it’s not the best overall set piece in the series, as fistfights go, this one’s incredible.
6. Shanghai surprise, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The Indiana Jones movies excel at opening sequences. Following up the opening sequence to Raiders of the Lost Ark was next to impossible, but Spielberg tried his best with Temple of Doom. This prequel starts in Shanghai, as Indiana is poisoned by a Chinese gangster and desperate for the antidote while in a swanky nightclub. Eventually, Indy is saved and takes the fight to the streets, where he and his tiny friend Short Round give chase through the busy city before inadvertently boarding, with nightclub singer Willie Scott, a plane a gangster owns. Just like the opening to Raiders, this one keeps going well past when you think it will stop, just to emphasize how relentless the series can be.
5. The truck chase, Raiders of the Lost Ark
Right after the fistfight with a Nazi concludes, Indy learns that the Ark of the Covenant is being transported to Cairo via truck. So it’s up to him and Marion to find and overtake the truck, leading to a sweaty, intense car chase that takes Indy inside, above and below the vehicle in his quest to stop the bad guys at any cost. What makes the scene so special is what makes the entire movie so special: Indiana Jones is a hero, no question, but he’s far from infallible and keeps getting thrown for a loop by opponents. Here, he’s tossed out the window of a car, only to hang onto its undercarriage while being dragged on a dirty road. He’s eventually triumphant, but Indy has to all but sacrifice his life to get there.
4. Meeting a young Indiana Jones, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
A lot happens in the first section of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to a young version of the hero. More specifically, a lot of the mythology about Henry Jones, Jr. is established over just one day we get to see. But even though it's more than a bit goofy, the scene in which we learn how Indy gets his scar, a propensity for a lion-tamer’s whip and his fedora is still plenty entertaining. It’s 1912, and Junior is in the Boy Scouts when he spots a group of thieves trying to steal a historic cross. He takes it upon himself to acquire the object and alert the authorities, being chased through the desert, onto a circus train and back to his house where he’s foiled. But the scene, anchored by the late River Phoenix as a young Indy, is thrilling even if Harrison Ford is nowhere around.
3. The mine-cart chase, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
What works in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is often at war with what doesn’t work. The film has some of the most intense action sequences in Steven Spielberg’s filmography. It’s not just that there’s so much to choose from, but that the director barely gives audiences a chance to breathe once the action gets rolling. Check out the third-act chase where Indy and his friends Willie and Short Round (who are the most annoying characters in any of these films, though your mileage may vary) ride a runaway mine cart down an underground track to evade a group of murderous cult members. The cart scene was originally part of Raiders, but makes a lot of sense as a thrilling set piece in Temple of Doom, even if Indy’s scene partners are way obnoxious.
2. The reveal of the Ark of the Covenant, Raiders of the Lost Ark
Even in the first Indiana Jones movie, Steven Spielberg didn’t shy away from grossing out audiences. Throughout the film, both good and bad guys are on the hunt for the Ark of the Covenant, a Jewish religious artifact of significant value. The Nazis want it because Hitler loves the occult, whereas Indiana wants it to preserve it and keep it away from cruelly prying hands. In the end, on a remote island, the Nazis are able to open up the Ark while Indy and his old flame Marion Ravenwood are tied up. But opening up the Ark is a bad idea for the Nazis, who are then attacked and destroyed by the spirits who lie within. The death scenes are almost gleefully, cartoonishly gory — faces melt off and heads explode — and the lean on practical effects to achieve this makes for a perversely entertaining climax.
1. Opening sequence, Raiders of the Lost Ark
In all of cinema history, there are genuinely few sequences as thrilling, as exciting and as suspenseful as the first 15 or so minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Though audiences in 1981 may have recognized Steven Spielberg’s name as director, and no doubt knew Harrison Ford as Han Solo, the opening stretch of this movie had to introduce an entirely new hero in a much different set of circumstances. We meet Indy as he travels through the jungles of South America to locate a rare golden idol, after traversing countless booby traps designed to kill any interlopers. After acquiring the idol, the temple in which it’s housed self-destructs, and though Indy’s able to escape, he’s beset by a rival archaeologist and natives, all before finding a snake in his escape plane. It’s an exhilarating, relentless and wonderfully tense sequence that sets the stage for the entire franchise.
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