The 70s saw the debut of cross-genre classics, some of the most iconic Best Picture winners in history, the rise in relevance of war films and a new age of more aggressive visual and filming styles that set a new bar for cinema for decades to come. Narrowing down the best moments of this awesome decade of film was no easy task. From a shortlist of 25 candidates, all from different films, I managed to narrow down the list to just ten iconic scenes to continue my countdown to the best moments ever in film. In a decade featuring some of the greatest and most revolutionary cinematic achievements there’s a lot to cover. So let’s get down to it. These are my picks for the Top 10 Movie Moments of the 1970s.
For this list I looked at famous movie moments that premiered on the big screen from 1970 through 1979. During this decade heavier themes like possession, war, the criminal underworld, and vigilantism became popular movie tropes while a famous boxer made his big screen debut, a caped superhero ushered in a whole new genre and the first true blockbuster changed cinema forever all giving us great scenes that have stood the test of time. This is part of a series of lists spanning the decades of film which will all culminate to my picks for the Top 20 Movie Moments of All Time at the end of September. The top FOUR moments of every list will be considered for the ultimate list later this month.
For the sake of this series iconic moments are considered any brief or extended moments in a single project that have left a lasting impression on viewers. These can be monologues, one-shots, or several minutes of filming as long as everything is set in one place and takes place in succession before changing to a new setting, idea or perspective.
It’s time to explore a list featuring some of the absolute best movie moments ever conceived from a decade filled with some of the greatest movies ever made. There are bound to be some awesome moments from this decade that you may enjoy but didn’t make the cut, so I want to know what is your favorite movie moment from the 1970s? Feel free to tell me in the comments below and be sure to check back all throughout the month of September to see my other lists spanning the decades. Also feel free to go back to my previous lists of Classic Movie Moments, Movie Moments of the 50s and Movie Moments of the 60s to catch up on what you’ve missed so far.
10. The Speech and the Flag, “Patton”
Let’s start this list with a legendary opening from an iconic Best Picture winner. The 1970 film “Patton” earned numerous awards at the Oscars including a Best Actor win for George C. Scott who refused the award after being honored for his portrayal of the titular real-life general George S. Patton. This iconic scene is a big reason why Scott earned the award as it features Patton, decorated in his uniform, standing in front of a large American flag giving an inspired speech to unseen soldiers as they prepare for World War II. It’s a scene often referenced and imitated for its American Flag backdrop alone and at just over 6 minutes long it’s also one of the best monologues in film as well with Patton arguing the significance of war and how, in his opinion, American’s crave the thrill of battle. It’s a no-holds-barred berating of harsh truths and opinions that immediately defines an iconic but controversial American in a film that never truly lets up as it continues on with his story. You may not have actually SEEN this moment but you know it well as the snapshot of Patton complimented by the flag is as iconic as movie snapshots get.
9. Tree Line Napalm Bombing, “Apocalypse Now”
Maybe not the most popular pick from this film but for me it’s the most memorable scene in this Best Picture winner released in 1979. “Apocalypse Now” is filled with quotable lines and awesomely detailed shots directed by the great Francis Ford Coppola but this scene featuring Robert Duvall’s Colonel Bill Kilgore serves as a perfect snapshot of the casual yet chaotic nature of the Vietnam War. The entire moment takes about three minutes to get through and sees Kilgore order a napalm strike resulting in a line of explosions that light up a tree line meant to obliterate enemy forces. It’s followed by Kilgore taking in the smell of napalm and uttering probably the most well-known line in the entire movie “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”. While others take cover Kilgore watches on like a spectator at a firework show and revels in the joy of war and bombing his foes. It’s an awesome character scene and a great look at an American soldier in the thick of Vietnam. It also showcases one of the most spectacular explosions in film, one that revolutionized how that special effect was used and was even one of several famous war scenes referenced in the opening of “Tropic Thunder”.
8. A Romanic Flight, “Superman: The Movie”
While it wasn’t the FIRST superhero movie 1978’s “Superman: The Movie” is one of the most important and essentially founded the idea of superheroes and comic book characters on the big screen as a genre all its own. The film’s tag line “you’ll believe a man can fly” and not only do we see the hero himself fly through the air we also see one of the most romantic scenes of the 70s as Superman takes a flight with Lois Lane over the city of Metropolis. We all feel as amazed as Lois does watching this scene and while their romantic connection has yet to truly blossom by this moment in the movie this moment establishes their chemistry. Sure it doesn’t stay in one place as my rules state but it focuses squarely on their experience which is good enough for me. It’s the first time Superman flies with someone simply for fun. While almost any of Superman’s flying scenes could have made this list and all of them are memorable in their own ways the one of him and Lois Lane sharing a great personal moment feels the most amazing and magical and is still among the most used highlights of this movie whenever anyone talks about how important and influential the film has become over the years.
7. The Philly Fist Pump, “Rocky”
Honestly I could put the entire montage from the 1976 must-see Best Picture winner on this list but let’s face it there’s only one moment in that montage pretty much everybody knows. Sylvester Stallone became an overnight sensation as the titular boxer in this flick which sees Rocky prepare to take on the far superior fighter Apollo Creed. To prepare for the bout Rocky trains hard thus debuting the modern version of the film montage that has sense become a cliché. The end of this montage though sees Rocky completing his long-distance jog and arriving at the top of the lengthy staircase of the Philadelphia Museum of Art thrusting his fists into the air in victory feeling like he’s on top of the world. Who hasn’t tried to mimic this moment in real life? The moment is so iconic that a statue commemorating it was erected in Philly and the steps today are a popular tourist attraction known as “The Rocky Steps”. The scene has transcended the film itself to become a symbolic moment of inspiration for anyone trying to reach new heights even against seemingly impossible odds.
6. The Chest Burster, “Alien”
The 70s were an important era for mixing genres of film with 1979’s “Alien” being one of the decade’s best. A science fiction horror film directed by Ridley Scott, “Alien” is a masterpiece and showcases one of the genre’s most iconic moments with the famed chest burster scene. This moment is terrifying even still today as we get our first look at how the Xenomorphs reproduce with a baby alien bursting out of Kane’s chest bringing horrified expressions on the cast who in real life were reportedly not informed of exactly what would happen during that scene in order to make the moment more realistic. Many have considered it to be one of the most terrifying moments in all of film and it’s not hard to see why. It immediately establishes the spooky nature of the Xenomorph. In fact it’s the first time we ever get to see any version of the famous alien on screen as the adult form doesn’t arrive until some time later in the movie. Even with all the great moments scattered throughout this franchise this continues to be the one scene everyone goes back to as THE defining moment in the original classic.
5. Feeling Lucky?, “Dirty Harry”
The 1971 action thriller “Dirty Harry” helped establish one of Clint Eastwood’s most iconic roles as the titular San Francisco Police Department Inspector. Early on in the film Harry Callahan foils a bank robbery killing two of the robbers before injuring a third and approaching him in the film’s most iconic and often imitated moment. Callahan calmly stares down the criminal with a gun pointed right at him and delivers a monologue about how many bullets may be left in his gun and asking the robber if he feels lucky enough to not be the victim of a remaining bullet. The scene is one of the most quoted in cinema and is actually often famously misquoted, but either way the moment holds up incredibly well and defines Harry’s personality and his willingness to intimidate even when his target is down for the count. It’s almost one of, if not THE most iconic quote from Eastwood himself and its near impossible not to picture his grin when saying this immortal line. The fact that it turns out he DID know how many bullets were left only adds to the moment.
4. The Turning Head, “The Exorcist”
Possibly the most legendary horror movie brings one of the scariest scenes in cinema history to this list. Released in 1973, “The Exorcist” became the first horror movie to earn a Best Picture and it’s because of scenes like this that left a huge impact on the psyche of anyone who watched it. In one of the film’s most famous scenes a pair of priests is attempting to perform an exorcism to free the Pazuzu possessed Regan. Angered by this attempt, Pazuzu performs numerous acts but one stands out above them all as we see Regan’s head turn completely around. Now there are many scenes in this movie that have etched themselves in horror history as iconic and scary moments, including that awesome stairs scene which some would argue is even scarier, but it’s the turning head moment that has resulted in countless imitators and scene-specific merchandise and is often considered among the most creatively frightening horror movie scenes ever. Honestly “The Exorcist” is chock full of amazing horror moments that are worth checking out and any one of them could have fit here on this list. If you haven’t seen this iconic movie yet you’re missing out because the turning head is only the tip of the iceberg.
3. “You Talkin’ to Me”, “Taxi Driver”
“Taxi Driver” is an unquestionable vigilante classic. The 1976 thriller helped further catapult Robert De Niro into superstardom after he won an Academy Award for “The Godfather Part II” and it also brought to life one of the most quoted and famous movie scenes of not just the 70s, but of all time. De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a disillusioned taxi driver who decides to take justice into his own hands. One scene shows Bickle preparing to take on the scum of his neighborhood trying out a new spring loaded gun up his sleeve. He looks into a mirror talking to himself as if he was the enemy, practicing the tough words he will share with his opponents with the time comes. The scene then works into the incredibly quotable “You talkin’ to me?” line that pretty much everyone knows by now and uses to sound tough and intimidating even if only to themselves. It’s an incredibly simple moment that delves into Travis Bickle’s psyche and shines light on some of the more human aspects of a character preparing to take on the burden of justice for himself. Many films have shamelessly borrowed from this scene but “Taxi Driver” will always be the origin of one of the most famous and overused quotes in cinema history making this moment truly iconic.
2. A Visit with the Don, “The Godfather”
Many consider the 1972 film “The Godfather” among the best of all time. The Best Picture winner is near flawless in execution and part of that success can be attributed to the legendary performance by Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone, possibly one of the most iconic movie characters in history. “The Godfather” doesn’t waste any time establishing itself or Vito either as the opening scene shows Corleone hearing requests during his daughter’s wedding. A man asks Corleone to kill someone as a favor and the Godfather denies the request casually berating the man for expecting something from him when it’s clear the only reason for their friendship was to benefit from Corleone’s status as a crime boss. We learn everything we need to know about Vito in this scene. He’s casual but intimidating. He’s considerate and courteous but stern and direct. Money is not enough to eventually earn his assistance in the killing, it’s respect. The scene debuts the iconic and memorable performance that earned Brando an Oscar and even the adlibbed addition of a cat which Brando simply found on set and decided to use in the scene adds a little something to Corleone showing a gentle side of an aggressive and intimidating human being. It’s quite simply the best scene in one of the best movies ever made.
1. Bigger Boat, “Jaws”
The 1975 Steven Spielberg classic “Jaws” is considered to be the original blockbuster mixing action, suspense, and pretty brutal kills with a movie monster that very well could exist in real life. The interesting part about this is due to limitations in the effects and technology Spielberg made the creative decision to show the shark as little as possible to the point where this movie moment that tops today’s list is the first time we get to actually see the shark in all its glory instead of just a fin. Roy Schneider’s Martin Brody is laying down the chum line when from out of nowhere Jaws finally surfaces showing the sailors and the audience its size and shape for the first time on screen. The massive shark startles Brody so much that he backs away from the edge of the boat into the cabin where he tells the captain, Quint, that he’s “going to need a bigger boat”. Thus an iconic scene and moment were forever etched in pop culture with Brody’s one-liner immediately becoming a saying for something being a larger problem than originally thought and the shark becoming one of the most iconic movie monsters of the time. Pretty much everyone knows this iconic scene and the buildup, character reaction and one-liner have all contributed to making it among the best and most well know cinematic moments ever.