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By Ken Miyamoto from ScreenCraft · November 23, 2022
We all have our favorite iconic movie scenes — moments that either make us laugh out loud until it hurts, scream in horror, push us to the edge of our seats with adrenaline flowing, or cry tears of joy or reflection as we experience true catharsis.
Those iconic movie scenes we cherish are highly subjective, remembered not as much for their objective significance, but for how they applied to our wants and needs as movie lovers.
And then there are those famous movie scenes that are objectively iconic — visuals that have stood the test of time, as well as geographical and cultural barriers. The types of movie scenes that you recognize even if you haven’t even seen the movie yourself.
With that in mind, here we present some of the most recognizable and classically iconic movie scenes out there (in no particular order)
Orson Welles offered up one of the earliest cinematic mysteries that engaged audiences and kept people guessing through the end — “Why was Kane’s last spoken word, Rosebud?”
Read More: Citizen Kane: A Film of Mythological Proportions!
We pair that with the equally iconic answer to that question (Beware Spoilers!).
Demi Moore and the late, great Patrick Swayze. Only the two of them in their cinematic prime could make messy mud look sexy. The scene solidified their characters’ deep love and passion for one another — later making Swayze’s character’s ensuing death all the more tragic.
At the time of the film’s debut, the scene was considered highly controversial — primarily because of the implied nudity, implied gore, and the blood rushing down the drain. In 1960, such scandalous visuals were taboo. And as Hitchcock presented them, they were highly disturbing.
The scene was a huge twist, showcasing the death of the lead protagonist within the first act of the film.
The famous romantic comedy showcased dialogue that blew the roof off of romantic norms, offering dueling insights into relationships and the constant battle between male and female life and dating perspectives. Harry believes that he would have known if one of his girlfriends faked an orgasm while in bed with him. Sally proves him wrong, leading to one of the most iconic movie lines in cinematic history as well.
Read More: 6 Lessons from Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally…
One of the greatest twists in the history of international cinema — arch-villain Darth Vader revealing that he is Luke Skywalker’s father. The revelation created an added level of stakes and character arc for the space opera’s mythological hero, Luke. From that moment forward in his arc, he struggled with having to possibly face and kill his own father, even as Vader was threatening to rule the galaxy under tyrannical power.
Read More: In His Own Galaxy – Far, Far Away: A Journey Through George Lucas’ Star Wars!
One of the most iconic scenes from not just 1970s revolutionary cinema, but also in the history of movies as a whole. It is also one of the most referenced, homaged, and parodied movie scenes of all time.
In the film, Travis is readying himself to take on the scum of the streets that he encounters during every taxicab shift he goes on. He’s sick of that scum and wants to be ready, willing, and able to take action. As he looks in the mirror with his hidden gun contraption locked and loaded, he practices what he’ll say and do when confronted with that which he so despises.
Read More: Taxi Driver: The Big Apocalyptic Apple!
Steven Spielberg’s science fiction fantasy flick told a fantastical story through the eyes of an average suburban family, broken by divorce. The classic movie scene was first teased in what we feel is a dual selection. Elliott and his new best friend, E.T., fly in the air and in front of the moon. The next iconic movie moment came when the family faced its most difficult and harrowing part of the story. The kids — attempting to free their illegal alien friend from the cosmos — faces a blockade of government agents. Until that is, E.T. uses his powers to free them from the threat.
The imagery, accompanied by one of the greatest movie scores of all time, created instant catharsis, empathy, and wonder. And the image of Elliott and E.T. flying on the bike in front of the full moon is one of the most recognizable images in the world.
Read More: The Hero’s Journey Breakdown: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial!
Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone is one of the most imposing characters in the history of film — but the unique aspect of The Godfather is how the story manages to make Vito and his family the protagonists. They’re all gangsters, thugs, and killers by the end. However, we’re rooting for them.
So when Vito told his godson that he would get the movie studio to cast him in a film by making them an offer they couldn’t refuse, we knew it was going to be an offer that the studio executive should take, or else. And like every great movie scene, it’s been referenced, homaged, and parodied for decades since.
Read More: Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo Delve into The Godfather Screenplay!
While known for his cinematic sentimentality in the 1980s and 1990s, Steven Spielberg first jumped onto the Hollywood scene with gritty suspense thrillers. Jaws became a global box-office hit that created the summer blockbuster. By this point in the story, we finally were able to lay eyes on the threat — one that was hidden from us (and the characters) until that point.
While it feels like a masterful stroke of cinematic storytelling, it was actually birthed because of the fact that during the production, the shark never worked. This created an unintentional opportunity for Spielberg to show the audience that what we don’t see is often scarier than what we do. Until we finally lay eyes upon this gigantic threat.
Read More: The Hero’s Journey Breakdown: Jaws!
You won’t get through a montage of famous movie scenes without the visual of Rocky running up the stairs of the Philadelphia Art Museum. The moment was the culmination of the equally iconic scene of the Rocky training montage, accompanied by the music of Bill Conti.
In the story, Rocky tried to run up these stairs early on in his training. He failed. But during the final training montage, he accomplished the feat, showing the audience that he was finally ready to take on Apollo Creed.
Read More: The Hero’s Journey Breakdown: Rocky!
In the greatest romantic epic of all time, James Cameron showcased visual masterstrokes by recreating the experience of being on the doomed Titanic. The moment of seeing the ship in the film for the first time was presented as a thrill, as we experienced the emotions that Jack Dawson likely had laying eyes upon the grandeur of the U.S.S. Titanic setting off to sea for the first time — building to the moment where Jack puts up his arms in triumph and exclaims, well, watch for yourself.
The moment was later revisited as Jack and Rose finally embraced romantically in the very same location as king and queen of their shared world at that moment. Jack had been pining after Rose, to no avail. Until she finally realized that her life as she knew it wasn’t what she wanted any longer. She wanted to be with Jack.
The most iconic movie scenes don’t always need a lot of character arc context to make a lasting impression. Sometimes we’re just shown something that we’ve never seen before. That is what was accomplished when we first saw what we now refer to as “bullet time” in 1999’s The Matrix. Thankfully, we’re also given a little character arc, as this is the moment where Trinity finally sees that Neo has the power Morpheus thought he had.
Read More: The Hero’s Journey Breakdown: The Matrix!
Perhaps not as well-known by anyone born in the 21st Century — but the classic scene from the original greatest romantic epic (until Titanic came along), Gone with the Wind, is found in pretty much every cinematic history montage. The use of the word “damn” was considered quite controversial in 1939, even though the word had been uttered in previous films before it.
Much like Gone with the Wind, Casablanca is an iconic film that doesn’t resonate as much with younger audiences anymore. However, anyone that has a love for cinema has seen this great movie moment and knows that it at least meant something to many within the generations born in the 20th century. Within the context of the story, this is the moment where the otherwise grizzled protagonist finally showcases some emotion and romance. We finally know he truly cares.
The iconic movie line was never in any of the drafts of the screenplay. It has been attributed to a between-the-takes comment Bogart said to Bergman as he taught her poker. The line is uttered four times throughout the film.
Bogart originally used the line in the 1934 film Midnight, eight years before the debut of Casablanca.
Look, let’s be honest. The Jurassic Park sequels, including the Jurassic World installments, never surpassed the original. It was never even close. Why? Because they could never recreate the wonder that this iconic movie scene offered — the truly magical moment that dinosaurs came to life in the most realistic way ever seen onscreen. Even almost thirty years of advancement in CG technology couldn’t top that moment when Dr. Grant and his peers lay eyes on dinosaurs for the first time. And the scene is just as impactful as it was in 1993.
Speaking of moments of cinematic magic and wonder, this famous movie scene gave audiences the thrill of seeing something they had never seen onscreen before. While the special effects don’t hold up (come on, it’s been almost 100 years), the wonder is still there to this day. And perhaps more significant is the iconic status it holds in cinematic history.
Another iconic staple that has stood the test of time. This is one of the greatest twists in the history of cinema, brilliantly developed for the screen by one of Hollywood’s greatest writers, Rod Serling.
Throughout the whole film, we believe that we are on a planet of, well, apes — in a world where apes advanced further than humankind. The roles have been flipped. Humans are the mute ones living in the jungle, while apes represent the superior race. That alone was a grand-enough concept to carry a whole film — until our protagonist ventures off in search of the truth, only to realize a terrible revelation.
Read More: The Story Behind The Screenplay: Planet of the Apes!
Amidst numerous sequels, prequels, and spin-off streaming series, the original Star Wars still stands the test of time. There’s perhaps no greater wonder than the opening visuals of an endless star destroyer in pursuit of a rebel ship. From the outstanding special effects to the character designs of those inhabiting those ships, George Lucas truly brought us to a galaxy we had never seen before. We knew who the good guys and the bad guys were from the get-go. And coming into the story amidst a space and blaster battles still drops jaws to this day.
The sign of a great memorable movie scene is one that is often quoted and referenced. Everybody knows the line, “You can’t handle the truth.” Sure, younger audiences may not know where it came from, as far as the context of the complete movie it was presented in. But they know it.
You’ve got Jack Nicholson’s greatest monologue, attacking the underrated performance of Tom Cruise as his character tries to get a confession out of Nicholson’s tyrannic and fanatical Marine colonel. It’s powerful on multiple levels — and memorable for all.
Read More: The First Ten Pages: A Few Good Men!
Even though it was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, the film was only a moderate hit at the box office. It is now considered an iconic classic — one of those movies that once you start watching it amidst channel surfing, most can’t stop until the end. And it’s the end that offers one of the most cathartic and satisfying end movie scenes of all time.
We think Andy’s going to kill himself. He asked for rope, mind you. His best friend Red couldn’t believe his peers gave it to him. The next morning during roll call, when Andy doesn’t exit his cell, Red fears the worst. Andy is gone, yes. But not his soul from his body. Rather, his body from his locked cell. We, along with Red, are shocked to see that somehow Andy has escaped. We slowly see how he did the impossible. And it gets us every time.
These are but a few of the most iconic movie scenes of all time. We chose these particular ones because they represent an iconic status elevated above the rest — the best of the best.
What are your favorites?
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed, and many Lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies