Steven Spielberg is one of the most powerful and talented directors of all time. And that isn’t an easily garnered reputation. He’s even been a prolific producer, funding and supporting incredibly memorable movies without even picking up a camera. As a director, he’s probably made the movie that defined your childhood, or inspired you to join the industry. Spielberg’s work appeals to the masses, but he always infuses it with creativity and sincerity. His consistent work with John Williams has resulted in some of the most iconic sequences ever put to film. So, let’s review his most adrenaline-pumping, innovative action scenes of all time.
10 Ready Player One: Planet Doom
This is a very recent film, and so it can’t rank very high, regarding “iconic” in the traditional sense. Consequently, it's likely a pretty controversial selection. However, the final battle in this movie has an unprecedented plethora of pop culture and thrills. The trick of the movie’s source material was to place an extreme monetary value on our nostalgia. In this way, our knowledge of otherwise useless information is now the basis for a priceless treasure hunt. Ready Player One delivers Gundam, Mechagodzilla, and the Iron Giant all in one scene. What more could you ask for? Also, the overwhelming chaos could have easily gotten out of control. But Spielberg’s deft hand ensures that we can follow everything perfectly well.
9 E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial: Bike Chase
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a classic family movie, and inspired the Amblin logo for a reason. It’s essentially about a friendly alien that helps a young boy cope with his father’s abandonment. Spielberg is one of a very few that can truly capture the wonder of childhood. Alongside one of John Williams’ most memorable scores of all time, this scene literally soars. The entire group of kids are fleeing on their bikes, near the end of the movie. When they reach two armed policemen, E.T. helps them fly away. It may not be the most raucous action sequence, but it’s certainly iconic.
8 The Last Crusade: Young Indy
There’s no question that we truly lost River Phoenix too soon. The opening scene for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade provides the perfect origin for Indy. The showdown with the animals make perfect sense, earning Indy’s scar and fear of snakes. And the kinetic energy of the moving train is just the right kind of throwback to classic serials. But the motivation of the scene is what’s so engaging about it. Without that simple foundation, any action scene is just excess. It’s easy to imagine why there was eventually a show all about a young Indiana Jones.
7 War Of The Worlds: The Intersection
Some were unhappy with this modernized update of the classic H.G. Wells story. The teenager in the film is certainly extremely frustrating, and his survival completely unlikely. Perhaps the family melodrama didn’t sit very well with some. Or Dakota Fanning’s incessant shrieks. But there’s no denying the incredible sense of style that Spielberg maintains in all of his movies. The first time the Tripod emerges, the CGI is remarkably convincing. The heat beams are visualized in a very appealing way. Also, John Williams’ booming score is definitely intimidating. Spielberg captures the ensuing panic and chaos tremendously well, with human ashes everywhere.
6 Minority Report: Everybody Runs
Minority Report was based on a Phillip K. Dick story, and this adaptation perfectly encapsulates the entire sci-fi genre. It has Hitchcockian elements of the wrongfully accused man, combined with immense world-building. The entire concept of pre-crime is interesting, and the villain’s plot is very clever indeed. Thematically, it plays with free will versus fate, ethics, infidelity, and grief. John’s tragedy makes him a very sympathetic character. So, when John ends up on the run—just like one of his perpetrators—we’re completely invested. The visual effects for the Maglev cars is stunning, and the scene plays out akin to a real-life platformer. The jetpack sequence that follows is surprisingly hard-hitting, as John takes advantage of the clunky and erratic tech.
5 Saving Private Ryan: Final Battle
This was the battle to defend the bridge, and definitely an incredible piece of artistry. Spielberg went out of his way to make this movie feel like an old school documentary. The intentional grain is one thing, but the numbing sound effects are extraordinarily accurate and immersive. The scene begins with someone accidentally blowing themselves up, attempting to disable a tank. And all of the haphazard encounters that follow feel very realistic. However, the most memorable moment is undeniably the slow death by knife, while an ally shamelessly cowers in fear. The victim begs for his life as the German kills him, drawn out to agonizing lengths.
4 Temple of Doom: Minecart Chase
This Indiana Jones sequel was a strange blend of kid-friendly silliness and edgy bloodiness. The movie suffers terribly from completely irritating sidekicks. Somehow, Spielberg leaned into the excess of it all, dipping into a cartoonish tone which the other installments avoided. However, this scene is definitely iconic. The claustrophobia adds to the inherently thrilling speeds of the minecarts, as the heroes flee some goons. The lava pit was a random but nifty addition to the scene, and Willie finally contributes something. Indy comes up with some creative obstacles to hinder the enemies, and the punchline about water is genuinely funny.
3 Saving Private Ryan: D-Day
This battle was truly one of the longest, most shocking, moving portrayals of war anyone had ever seen. The gore of the slaughter is relentlessly visceral. At one point, someone’s entire face is revealed to have been completely caved in. The over-the-shoulder camerawork consistently generates a very genuine intensity. Spielberg manages to capture both the tragedy and bravery of the assault. And the pacing is spot-on, sustaining high tension and escalation without succumbing to redundancy. This was one of the most famous battles in history, and Spielberg still managed to depict it with befitting respect, honesty, and even thrills.
2 The Last Crusade: Tank Chase
Despite being not much older than Harrison Ford, Sean Connery played his father perfectly. Their chemistry is undeniable, and the resulting comedy is unexpectedly rewarding. This selection involves an extensive chase set in the desert. It’s one of the most rollicking chase sequences ever put to film, endlessly creative and hilarious. In the middle of everything, Indy shoots three men with a single bullet, and glances at his gun. Little nuances like that are balanced with big, boisterous action like a vehicle getting stabbed onto the barrel of a tank. What’s really moving is that Connery’s Jones is finally revealed to be sentimental after all, when he thinks Indy died. It’s the perfect end to one of Jones’ most spectacular, innovative, white-knuckle chases.
1 Raiders Of The Lost Ark: Truck To Cairo
Raiders of the Lost Ark is arguably one of the best action-adventure movies ever made. Indy is basically a superhero, with his mild-mannered alter ego being a dull professor. And yet, he’s a very relatable protagonist because of his imperfection. Spielberg constantly subverts expectations with Indy’s action, as he faces various injuries and abrupt obstacles. Indy chases after The Ark of the Covenant, which has been secured on a truck. With incredible practical effects and stunts, thrilling John Williams music, and great comedy, this is one of the best action scenes ever created.