Top 20 Most Epic Classic Movie Moments
VOICE OVER: Matt Demers
WRITTEN BY: Matt Demers
These epic movie moments continue to define cinema decades after they were first seen. For this list, we're looking at the most impactful and awe-inspiring sequences across all genres of film up to the year 1979. Our countdown includes “Apocalypse Now”, "The Exorcist", "King Kong", “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope", and more!
Top 20 Most Epic Classic Movie Moments
Welcome to WatchMojo and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 Most Epic Classic Movie Moments!
For this list, we’re looking at the most impactful and awe-inspiring sequences across all genres of film up to the year 1979. Since we’ll be talking about major moments, a spoiler alert is in effect!
Which epic instance is permanently etched in your movie memories? Be sure to let us know in the comments!
#20: Bond, James Bond
“Dr. No” (1962)
When it comes to epic onscreen introductions, a certain secret agent with a penchant for dangerously beautiful women, outclasses them all. Yep, Ian Fleming’s gentleman spy is given quite the auspicious intro in the inaugural 007 franchise film – “Dr. No.” Sitting tableside at a high-stakes game of baccarat, it’s not so much what our tuxedo-clad “double O” does, but rather what he says that makes this moment so iconic. Cigarette in mouth, the suave intelligence officer is asked his name by fellow gambler, Sylvia Trench. The infamous response—you know the one—would go on to be a much-celebrated character hallmark, right up there with his preferred Martini preparation.
#19: A Super Rescue
It’s hard to imagine a time when superhero blockbusters weren’t top of the entertainment food chain. But back in 1978, the comic book film genre was nearly non-existent. This, of course, made that year’s live-action Superman adaptation a risky one. And with CGI being also all but non-existent, the filmmakers were tasked with showcasing The Man of Steel’s super attributes using more practical means. In turn, the film’s helicopter rescue sequence—where Supes takes to the skies—became one of immense importance. Further elevated by John William’s magical score, our crimson-caped hero not only saves Lois Lane from a dire fate, but delivers on the film’s tagline - truly making us believe a man could fly!
#18: The Great Speech
“The Great Dictator” (1940)
A true giant of the “silent era” of filmmaking, Charlie Chaplin has over 30 films to his name. But, it’s actually the star’s first on-screen speaking role that marks his most epic movie moment. That moment, of course, was the speech that concluded the political satire, “The Great Dictator” – a film that sees a Jewish barber stand-in for a notorious tyrant. Chaplin would drop his slapstick comedy style for the closing scene and speak directly to the world. In a passionate plea for goodwill, the speech condemned the likes of Hitler and Mussolini, calling for everyone to unite in peace. Talk about breaking the silence!
#17: “Ride of the Valkyries”
“Apocalypse Now” (1979)
A film bursting with literal shock and awe, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” certainly has no shortage of rousing moments. But perhaps the most striking sequence in the Vietnam War epic comes when the ruthless Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore leads a blitz on a Viet Congo-controlled village. What makes the scene really standout is the playing of Richard Wagner’s operatic masterpiece - Ride of the Valkyries. Blasting from Kilgore’s helicopter-mounted loudspeaker, the opera tune is seemingly synchronized with the fiery carnage— and the unhinged Colonel appears to relish every second of devastation. It’s horrifying, but this is a man who loves the smell of napalm in the morning, after all.
#16: “You Talkin’ to Me?”
“Taxi Driver” (1976)
Our guess is that Robert De Niro had no idea what an impact these four little words would make. Delivered in Martin Scorsese’s psychological thriller, “Taxi Driver,” this phrase would become not only ingrained in the pop culture lexicon, but also the go-to phrase for all future impersonations of the actor. All these years later, “You talkin’ to me?” remains firmly cemented in our collective consciousness. Of course, it’s more than just those words that make the scene epic. It’s here that we witness our unstable protagonist, Travis Bickle, threaten imaginary foes while standing in front of a mirror. Deranged and disturbing, the sequence perfectly showed just where Bickle’s head was at. In short - not a good place.
#15: To HAL with Humanity
“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)
The HAL 9000, a “Heuristically Programmed Algorithmic Computer,” is the onboard super AI of the Discovery 1 spaceship in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” HAL, it turns out, is also a maniacal murderer. While on a voyage to Jupiter following the detection of an alien monolith, things go horribly wrong for Discovery 1’s crew – all thanks to HAL’s own secret mission. The epic reveal comes when sole survivor, Dave Bowman, asks HAL to open the space pod doors to let him in the ship. HAL’s defiant response is nothing short of shiver inducing! But, as heinous as the sentient computer’s actions are, we dare you to keep your emotions in check when Dave eventually severs the supercomputer for good.
#14: A Head-Spinning Exorcism
“The Exorcist” (1973)
Considered one of the scariest films EVER, “The Exorcist” certainly has no dearth of unsettling sequences. The most epic, however, comes when poor Regan MacNeil is at the height of her possession by the demon Pazuzu. After some unspeakable (and un-showable) acts, our preteen victim is forced to do something truly demented. In front of her would-be saviors, fathers Merrin and Karras, a helpless Regan is made to turn her head a full 360 degrees. Add in a terrifying rotten grin, and there is little wonder why theatregoers reportedly passed out in theaters when it was first released. Decades later, it’s still making us feel a little faint!
#13: Beware the Crop Duster
“North by Northwest” (1959)
What happens when you drop Cary Grant in the middle of a field and send an old-fashioned crop duster after him? Why, one of the most suspenseful scenes in film history, that’s what! This epic chase goes down in Alfred Hitchcock’s celebrated thriller, “North by Northwest.” It’s here that Grant’s ad man character goes on the run following an unfortunate case of mistaken identity. The airplane scene particularly stands out in part because the pilot is kept anonymous, making the situation all the more ominous. Leave it to Hitchcock to turn something as mundane as a crop duster into a deadly weapon. Then again, he’s also the one who made us fear birds!
#12: Rain Dance
“Singin’ in the Rain” (1952)
What could be more fun than singing in a downpour, tap-dancing in puddles, and swinging around lamp posts? Well, if 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain” is to be believed, not much else. This Gene Kelly musical comedy has long been admired for its happy/feel-good nature. The film boasts many memorable song and dance routines (looking at you “Make ‘Em Laugh”), but it’s of course the titular sequence that stands as perhaps the most playful moment in all of cinema. With love on the brain, Kelly’s Don Lockwood wasn’t about to let some rainy weather spoil his sunny disposition. Just remember that next time YOU get caught in stormy weather!
#11: Hello, Technicolor
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
From the clicking of some magical slippers to the “melting” of a certain Wicked Witch, (xref) it doesn’t take a man behind a curtain to tell us that “The Wizard of Oz” is brimming with epic occurrences. The most magical of all, however, is seeing innocent country-girl Dorothy emerge from her dreary farmhouse and enter the technicolor splendor of Oz! A technical feat for the time, the filmmakers expertly transported our heroine from drab sepia tones to awe-inspiring color in one fell swoop. We can’t help but think that the expression of astonishment and wonder on Dorothy’s face matched that of moviegoers!
#10: Beware the Shower
When it comes to horror films, Alfred Hitchcock’s thrilling masterpiece, “Psycho,” changed the game in a big way. And it’s all thanks to one epic scene… in a shower! Not only is the iconic motel bathroom sequence remembered for its brutal nature, but it also shocked audiences by killing off the film’s main character… at the midway point! Paired with one of the most haunting scores in cinema, Hitchcock took painstaking steps to make the scene absolutely perfect. 77 camera angles and 5 days later, the results speak for themselves, as Janet Leigh’s onscreen demise is now permanently etched in horror film history. Good luck rinsing this movie murder from your memory!
#9: The Chariot Race
One of cinema’s most exciting chase scenes doesn’t include any form of motor vehicle, but rather horse-pulled chariots. It all goes down in the biblical epic “Ben-Hur,” which sees Charlton Heston’s Judah take part in a revenge-fueled chariot race. What we get is a truly intense high-speed chase full of high stakes and even higher amounts of damage. This is all pre-CGI, of course, and the scene required thousands of extras and five weeks to accomplish – not to mention some highly skilled stallions that had to be exercised and trained. The adrenaline-fueled result was certainly worth it though, as it remains, to this day, quite the heart-pounding sequence.
#8: Mexican Standoff
“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (1966)
If you are looking for the epic showdown of all epic showdowns, then look no farther than the Civil War-era Spaghetti Western, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” The film’s final graveyard faceoff is today considered a masterclass in building cinematic tension. With Clint Eastwood as the "Good" facing off against Lee Van Cleef as the "Bad" and Eli Wallach's the "Ugly," the trio meticulously position themselves in a suspenseful standoff where all will be settled - including who gets to take home the buried treasure. And let’s not forget the role Ennio Morricone's iconic score played in the high drama. It’s a scene that has often been imitated, but never once had its epic outcome duplicated.
#7: The Training Montage
When it comes to the Rocky films, the only thing more epic than the in-ring battles, are the training montages! Yep, Sylvester Stallone and company are responsible for some of the most inspirational training scenes in all of cinema. It is the first film, however, that surely takes the championship gold! Prepping for his one-on-one encounter with Apollo Creed, Stallone’s Rocky Balboa takes to the streets of Philadelphia to train amongst his people. It all culminates in Rocky climbing of the Philadelphia Art Museum steps. In this moment, with Bill Conti’s theme, “Gonna Fly Now,” blasting in the background, it’s clear Rocky’s path to greatness is all but imminent. Cue the goosebumps!
#6: Baptism of Fire
“The Godfather” (1972)
Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” still stands as the mafia film by which all others are measured. And it’s for good reason, seeing as how it gave us an epically brutal, yet affecting, chronicle of organized crime – not to mention Marlon Brando’s iconic promising of an irrefutable offer. But, it’s the film’s ending that stands as one of the most pitch perfect visual metaphors ever put on screen. It’s here that we see Michael Corleone become a literal godfather during his nephew’s baptism, only to simultaneously transition into a mafia Godfather with the coinciding murder of rivals. Shakespeare would be proud!
#5: Monster-Sized Attack
They don’t call him the King of Monsters for nothing! Since the mid-1950s, Godzilla has unleashed quite the path of carnage in his wake. The mammoth monster’s initial appearance is especially intense, as audiences of the time got quite the helping of never-before-seen destruction in the black and white kaiju film. Yep, the massive beast’s 1954 titular debut not only saw him break through electrified barriers and take down military fighter jets like flies, but also unleash a savage firestorm of devastation upon Tokyo. Godzilla’s primary monster-sized assault can best be summed up in just one word—epic!
#4: Exploding Shark
Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” took quite the bite out of the competition when it premiered in the summer of ’75; it changed the box office forever. Spielberg stayed true to his now-trademark teasing ways with the movie, only giving audiences little glimpses of the monster shark throughout. But, come the film’s climax, we get to see the great white in all its menacing glory. It’s also here that police chief Martin Brody, after some initial tribulation, puts an end to the chomping terror with a pressurized scuba tank and a well-placed bullet. Let’s just say if you ever wanted to see an exploding shark – this is the motherload!
#3: The Red Sea Parts
“The Ten Commandments” (1956)
It’s not often you hear about epic achievements in special effects from the 1950s, but that’s exactly what we get in the Charlton Heston-starring biblical classic, “The Ten Commandments.” The scene in question comes when Heston’s Moses raises his hands and parts the Red Sea in two during the Israelites' exodus from slavery– and later causes the flooding defeat of the pursuing army. Using large dunk tanks reportedly filled with water and gelatin, the filmmakers achieved the award-winning visual by having the overflow footage played in reverse. It’s truly a wondrous sight, and one that still holds up to this day. Now that’s some divine ingenuity!
#2: Attack on the Empire State Building
“King Kong” (1933)
An epic adventure of beauty and beast, 1933’s “King Kong” treated audiences to an oversized ape’s worth of awe-inspiring moments. From the immense gorilla-like creature’s capture, to his stunning breaking of the wooden gates, Kong stands as a larger-than-life cinematic achievement. The film’s climax, however, proved most epic, as we see the enraged monster climb atop New York’s Empire State Building with Ann in tow. What follows is a thrilling aerial battle packed with a surprising amount of emotion. The big-time results led film studios to churn out even more grandiose adventures of the creature. And it’s a good thing, or we never would’ve received the 1962 monster battle of all monster battles- Kong vs Godzilla. Of course, that fight is FAR from over…
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
Frankenstein’s Monster Is Alive!
Rhett Butler Doesn’t Give a Damn
“Gone with the Wind” (1939)
Falling in a Nightmare
The Trench Run
“Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” (1977)
More than just any ol’ sci-fi film, “Star Wars” became a cultural phenomenon upon its release in the late ‘70s. Not only did it wow everyone of the time with its groundbreaking visual effects, but it also delivered a classic action/adventure for the ages! The epic-ness hit a high note in the film’s finale, when a small, but mighty, band of Rebel Alliance pilots navigate the deadly Death Star trench in a rather desperate bid to destroy the mega-weapon. Influenced by aerial dog fights in World War 2, George Lucas and his team provided a heart-stopping space assault that ended with our hero, Luke Skywalker, delivering his payload. He saved the day and made cinematic history.