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The Top Ten Greatest Indiana Jones Scenes

The complete Indiana Jones collection arrives on Blu-Ray today for the very first time, causing fans like me to rejoice. Few sets of films deserve the high-definition treatment as much as Steven Spielberg’s incredible adventure saga, and to finally have these classics in the best format possible is a dream come true.

indiana jones and the raiders of the lost ark
Image via Paramount

The complete Indiana Jones collection arrives on Blu-Ray today for the very first time, causing fans like me to rejoice. Few sets of films deserve the high-definition treatment as much as Steven Spielberg’s incredible adventure saga, and to finally have these classics in the best format possible is a dream come true.

In honor of the release, I have put together a list of my ten favorite scenes in the Indiana Jones trilogy. I say trilogy not because I hate Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – I actually think it’s a decent, if extremely flawed adventure film – but because the first three installments have more memorable set pieces, standoffs, and character moments than I can count, and Crystal Skull, well…doesn’t.

No matter. The original trilogy provides more than enough fun to go around, and that’s what we’re celebrating today. These are the Ten Best Scenes in the ‘Indiana Jones’ Series.


Honorable Mention: Indy Shoots the Crazy Swordsman in Raiders 

While this fifteen-second standoff is too brief to make the main Top Ten list, it absolutely deserves mention as the funniest, most audacious moment in the franchise. While chasing Belloq’s men through the streets of Cairo, an exasperated Indiana Jones encounters an unnervingly enthusiastic swordsman. We think Indy will pull off a cool stunt with his whip to disarm the man, but instead, he wearily guns down the assailant in one shot.

It’s a tremendous moment of action movie perfection, and the behind-the-scenes story is fascinating. It turns out Harrison Ford had been instructed to a complicated whip stunt and disarm the guy, but as he – like much of the cast and crew – was sick from local food poisoning, he suggested taking a simpler route, and film history was made.

10. The Anything Goes/Shanghai Chase Opening to Temple of Doom

You’re going to see a few more ‘opening scenes’ on this list, as each of the first three Indiana Jones films begin spectacularly. Temple of Doom may be the odd man out here – as it is in most respects – with an introduction that includes a lavish song-and-dance number, Indy in a suave white tuxedo, an encounter with Shanghai gangsters, and a massive 1940s shootout. It plays like Steven Spielberg’s pitch reel to direct a James Bond movie, and is a completely counterintuitive introduction to an Indiana Jones sequel.

Fitting for Temple of Doom, the most baffling entry in the franchise, don’t you think?

Yes, a film as off-the-wall wacky as Temple of Doom deserves an opening this cuckoo-bananas. It’s the perfect way to start the movie, and remains one of my favorite scenes in the entire series. As strange as it may be, the introduction is so self-assured and confident in its own zaniness that I cannot help but love it. Every time I watch Temple of Doom, the scene gets me pumped, even if it has literally nothing to do with the rest of the movie. 

9. The Origin of Young Indiana Jones in Last Crusade

Flashing back to show us a young Indiana Jones should not, by conventional logic, work. Lesser characters have had their mysticism removed by dramatizing their childhood years, and Indy – an icon so completely defined by Harrison Ford’s rugged, irreplaceable presence – should be no exception.

But Spielberg fully commits to the bit, building a legitimately interesting origin story that seems completely in line with the Indy we know and love. One cannot, of course, credit the late River Phoenix enough for his work here, as he bravely steps into Ford’s shoes without missing a beat. I can actually believe this boy would grow up to become the Indiana Jones. It’s a little slice of movie magic, one the franchise is infinitely richer for.

And unlike the Temple of Doom opening, this prologue actually ties in directly to the plot and themes of Last Crusade. It establishes Sean Connery’s character, Henry Jones Sr., as a loving but neglectful father, and shows what kind of relationship Indy had with his Dad as a boy. Last Crusade is a wonderful movie, and this tremendous opening sequence starts it off on the right foot.

8. The Mine Cart Chase in Temple of Doom

Say what you will about Temple of Doom, but there’s absolutely no denying that the film’s climactic mine cart chase is one of the most stunningly choreographed action sequences of Steven Spielberg’s career. Originally planned for inclusion in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the mine cart chase is one of the earliest ideas Spielberg and George Lucas had for the franchise, and the final version does indeed come off as the kind of tightly woven, utterly ludicrous action set piece that could only exist in the world of Indiana Jones. 

There are better chases in this series – we shall discuss some of them in a little bit – but none that feel quite as dangerous or harrowing as the mine cart chase. Taking place on old, worn out rails, in the midst of a vast and horrifying cavern, in carts that look as though they could fall apart at any minute, all above deep expanses of nothingness…Indy has faced death many times, but never like this, and when one adds in all the fighting and jumping between multiple carts, you have one of the most intense, exciting action scenes of all time.

7. The Ritual Human Sacrifice in Temple of Doom

Here is a scene that belongs on this list solely for its utterly unforgettable nature, even if many of us would probably like to forget it ever happened. Temple of Doom has plenty of disturbing sights to offer before Indy, Short Round, and Willie witness the Kali cult partake in human sacrifice, but nothing could quite prepare you for what Spielberg had in store. The wicked Priest does not just sacrifice his victim: He uses magic to rip out the man’s still-beating heart and lower him into a pit of boiling lava, where he spends his last waking moments engulfed in flame.

What on earth is the deal with this sequence? How did Steven Spielberg, one of the most endearing directors of fulfilling, heartwarming storytelling, direct a sequence this cruel, violent, and utterly sadistic? The same question could be applied to the entirety of Temple of Doom, what with the child slavery, voodoo magic, and negative Indian stereotyping, but the human sacrifice scene epitomizes everything strange about this baffling sequel. Was Spielberg depressed? Did he just feel sad and bitter through the entire production? What compels the man who directed E.T. to graphically dramatize the forceful removal of a bloody, beating heart?

There is no way to make a list like this and not include the human sacrifice scene. It is simply too iconic and influential, even if it may stick in our minds for the wrong reasons. The scene, along with graphic imagery in the Spielberg-produced Gremlins, is largely responsible for the creation of the PG-13 rating, and is often the first thing viewers think of when they hear the title Temple of Doom. It isn’t just the most notable scene in a highly surreal sequel, but one of the single most shocking and audacious sights ever seen in a major blockbuster release.

6. Indy and Marion Below Deck in Raiders

“It’s not the years, honey. It’s the mileage.”

Steven Spielberg has directed in a myriad of genres, tones, and styles, but there is at least one clear constant across all his work: The man has always been a romantic at heart. Nowhere in the Indiana Jones series is this more apparent than when Indy and Marion share a tender moment below deck in Raiders.

As Marion tries tending to Indy’s wounds, our battered hero continues to act like a bit of a petulant child – in context, the iconic line quoted above is more a sarcastic quip than a romantic one-liner – until Marion breaks through by kissing his wounds. It’s one of the most effortlessly effective romantic moments in blockbuster film history, one that draws its power from a deep, intuitive understanding of these characters. Indy doesn’t suddenly become a suave romantic, nor does Marion express her passion by swooning. Their actions here are consistent with their own gruff and fiery personalities, which is why the exchange feels so genuine.

It defines the deep and discerning love Spielberg so clearly has for every character he creates, and is not just one of the best moments in his Indiana Jones franchise, but in his filmography at large.  

5. The Opening of the Ark in Raiders

A stunning conclusion to a truly great film, this spectacularly violent sequence is a master class in optical effects, art design, and film score. John Williams’ brilliant, unsettling music mixes with Spielberg’s horrifying visuals to create a deadly set piece that remains awe-inspiring thirty years later. No matter how many times I see the film, I can never quite fathom the sheer intensity of this scene, or, indeed, how gruesome the face-meltings still look.

What I find so fascinating about this climax is how unconventionally it closes the narrative. In a typical action/adventure film – even in other Indiana Jones films – the story would end with the hero vanquishing the villain in combat. But in Raiders, Indy loses, for all intents and purposes, and it is the Ark itself that strikes down Belloq and the Nazis and sets Indy free.

Even today, the scene plays against genre conventions so strongly that the mass carnage remains surprising. And by refusing to look at the Ark – the object he had been seeking for so long – Indy himself fulfills his small character arc, proving that his intentions really are purer than those of greedy treasure hunters like Belloq. The opening of the Ark is as fulfilling a finale as has ever been constructed, and remains one of the most incredible moments in the entierity of Indiana Jones.

4. The Truck Chase in Raiders

For sheer action set piece perfection, it’s hard to top the truck chase in Raiders. The sequence comes just when it seems Spielberg could not possibly ratchet up the tension any further; Indy and Marion have just been imprisoned in the snake-filled Well of Souls, escaped, decapitated a giant man with airplane propellers, and blown up half of the Nazi base when Indy hears the Ark has been loaded onto a truck, and jumps into action once more.

It’s Indy’s dedication – and Harrison Ford’s wonderfully expressive performance – that lies at the heart of the long and complex truck chase. Indy simply will not stop, jumping from horse to truck, fighting off five or six bad guys, getting shot in the arm and pushed out of the truck, using his whip to fall under the truck and climb back on, grapple his way into the driver’s seat once more, and then ruthlessly run Belloq off the road. Damn. Indiana Jones may be a living God.

While the length and complexity of the sequence alone place it in the pantheon, it’s Spielberg’s flawless direction that puts this among the greatest chase scenes of all time. He exercises remarkable control in cinematography and editing, even in the most hectic portions, and stages each stunt with total plausibility. John Williams’ score is at the height of its sweeping power, and since it all comes at the end of an absolutely non-stop second act, the entire sequence is remarkably satisfying. The truck chase is a true masterpiece, one that would seem impossible to top… 

3. The Tank Chase in Last Crusade

Impossible, at least, until Last Crusade rolled around, and Spielberg blew his work on the truck chase out of the water with the even more intense, impressive, and edge-of-your seat tank chase. It seems counterintuitive that a chase set at such low speeds would be more exciting than the non-stop high-speed truck frenzy, but the rhythm Spielberg creates in this tank chase is unlike anything I have ever seen.

Movement is still a major component of the action – Indy must reach the tank on horseback, and escape before it careens into the canyon – but due to the slower speeds, strategy is much more crucial to Indy and his team’s success. The fact that Indy has a whole team with him – including his father and Sallah – also shakes up the dynamics, making this a much more multi-faceted chase than anything the franchise had attempted before.

The result is a glorious piece of well-organized mayhem, as all the pieces move in tense, wondrous harmony while the tank slowly approaches the cliff. It is one of the most incredible, unique action sequences I have ever witnessed, and certainly the best to appear in the Indiana Jones series.

2. The Canyon of the Crescent Moon in Last Crusade

“He choose…poorly.”

This is the longest sequence on the list, encompassing everything that happens inside the Canyon of the Crescent Moon, where Indy must work through a series of trials before meeting the Last Knight and discovering the Holy Grail. It is tough to single out any individual part of this sequence as the most memorable or powerful – though Donovon’s disintegration, and the Knight’s wonderfully sarcastic retort, is certainly a candidate – which is precisely what makes it the second-most amazing stretch in the Indiana Jones franchise.

There is so much to love during this part of the film. Each trial Indy encounters is creative and tense, and constantly places the character under new light. Ford has as much, if not more excellent dramatic material to play here than in the rest of the series, and he sells every moment flawlessly, from the triumphant to the defeated. This is also where Indy’s relationship with his father comes full circle, and features some outstanding work from Sean Connery as well.

When the Last Knight shows up, and the challenge of the Chalices is put forth, the sequence truly kicks into high gear, ending Last Crusade – and the Indiana Jones trilogy as a whole – on a spectacular note. Last Crusade holds a special place in the hearts of fans for paying closer attention to character and theme than its predecessors, and it’s this climax, where Indy must make a series of character-defining decisions, that cements the three-quel as one of the high marks of the franchise.

1. Indy and the Golden Idol in Raiders

I thought long and hard about which Indiana Jones scene is truly the best, which one most clearly encapsulates everything that makes the character and franchise so iconic, but the answer, as it turns out, was staring me in the face all along.

The opening scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark – with Indy working his way through a series of deadly traps, swapping out the Idol, escaping a massive boulder, getting ripped off by Belloq, and expressing his undying hatred of snakes – are not just the most iconic moments in the entire franchise, but a beautifully succinct primer of all that makes Indiana Jones wonderful.

Nearly everything I love about the series is represented in these first ten minutes: The mysterious and atmospheric set design; the freewheeling sense of adventure; Harrison Ford’s confident and compelling performance; John Williams’ brilliant, distinct music; the list goes on and on. Whenever I sit down to watch Raiders, this opening sequence just floors me. If anything, Spielberg’s expertly tight construction just becomes increasingly apparent the more one watches.

The opening to Raiders is a work of blockbuster art, not just my personal favorite scene in all of Indiana Jones, but one that should serve as a guide to all wishing to introduce style, setting, and character as efficiently and effectively as possible. Indiana Jones was always destined to be an iconic big-screen character, and one only need watch the beginning of Raiders to know why.

What are your favorite Indiana Jones moments? Are you excited to finally see these classics on Blu-Ray? Will you use the ‘Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ disc as a drink coaster? Sound off in the comments! 

About the author

Jonathan R. Lack

With ten years of experience writing about movies and television, including an ongoing weekly column in The Denver Post's YourHub section, Jonathan R. Lack is a passionate voice in the field of film criticism. Writing is his favorite hobby, closely followed by watching movies and TV (which makes this his ideal gig), and is working on his first film-focused book.