Sir Ridley Scott is rare even among legendary directors. Having cut his teeth in the world of advertising, his finest films mix breathtaking visual flair with a commercial, crowd-pleasing appeal most auteurs would give their clapperboard for. And so, to celebrate County Durham’s greatest export’ we present to you six unforgettable scenes from six phenomenal Ridley Scott films.
Ridley Scott’s infamous xenomorph sure knows how to make an entrance - namely, by bursting out of John Hurt's chest and into cinema history. It’s a genuinely shocking scene, even 41 years on, and back in 1979 made good on the directorial promise Ridley Scott had shown in his stylish historical debut, The Duellists (1974).
But how did Scott craft such an aggressively startling moment? Well, by genuinely shocking his unsuspecting cast. As Sigourney Weaver (Ripley) relates, the script for Alien massively downplayed the scene’s horror potential with the direction “This thing emerges”.
What they didn’t know was that Scott had directed his crew to fill the fake Kane torso with a mixture of animal organs sourced from a butcher’s and a whole lot of stage-blood squibs set to explode. And explode the assembled mess did, just as the cast leant in to tend to their stricken crewmate.
So the shock you see on the cast’s faces – that’s real. Veronica Cartwright, who played Lambert the Nostromo’s navigator, got a face full of blood and heavens knows what else, and promptly passed out, and Scott successfully captured reactions of raw animal fear from the crew of the Nostromo that continue to sear themselves into viewers’ retinas to this day.
Blade Runner (1982)
One of the things that separates legendary directors from merely good ones is an openness to moments of greatness in others. Another is an ability to use problems and adversity as springboards to great art. They combine in the backstory to one of the most quoted scenes in one of the all-time greats of sci-fi cinema, Blade Runner.
Ridley Scott’s experience shooting Blade Runner was far from smooth. It was the director’s biggest film to date, featuring one of the hottest young stars of the day. And while Scott had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve, the film’s backers were getting increasingly antsy.
All this is prelude to the night when the final scene between replicant leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) was to be shot. Speaking to Rotten Tomatoes back in 2017, Scott relates how he’d learnt that he was due to be fired from the film at 3am when, at 1am, Hauer asked to see him.
When the actor said that he’d rewritten Batty’s planned (and much lengthier) speech, an exasperated Scott was all set to throw his hands in the air. However, Hauer insisted and proceeded to perform the dying replicant’s poetic summation of life and loss – a gloriously moving 50 seconds that, filmed with Scott’s gorgeous close-ups and flawless set design, has passed into cinema legend.
Thelma and Louise (1991)
Ridley Scott loved Callie Khouri’s screenplay for Thelma & Louise from the get go but initially planned to produce rather than direct it. How lucky then, that none of Scott’s picks for director could take the job. The resulting buddy road film was a critical and commercial smash that helped to create space for female-led films to come.
And, it’s anything but a museum piece; a quaint artefact showing how far we have (or haven’t) come. Cast perfectly, shot beautifully, and with an unwavering focus on Thelma and Louise’s literal and metaphorical journey, this film is as essential a watch in 2020 as it ever was.
Thelma & Louise’s ending is unforgettable, so if you’ve yet to see it, you may want to skip to the next section. After a road trip that – in true Ridley Scott style – starts off slowly and sunnily enough before taking a dark and sudden turn, our on-the-run friends discover that they’ve come to the end of the road. With the Grand Canyon in front of them, cops behind them and no desire to relinquish the freedom they’ve found together, Thelma nods to the abyssal drop and utters those immortal words, “Let’s just keep going…”
Geena Davis (Thelma) and Susan Sarandon (Louise) play the moment perfectly – love, sadness and exhilaration play across the friends’ faces as they realise there’s only one way to end their journey together. They embrace, hold hands, and Louise accelerates her 1966 open-top Thunderbird over the edge of the Grand Canyon and into oblivion. Scott’s decision to freeze-frame the airborne car and fade to white mid-jump is genius – an ending that affirms the women’s curiously triumphant and empowered final act, however bittersweet.
In Gladiator, Ridley Scott saw an opportunity to revive the sword-and-sandal epic popularised decades before by the likes of Ben-Hur (1959) and Spartacus (1960), but with a greater degree of realism. Consider that opportunity well and truly seized. For better or worse, Gladiator’s immense box office success ushered in a new age of historical epics.
Played with industrial-strength intensity by a never better Russell Crowe, betrayed Roman general Maximus’s identity reveal to Joaquin Phoenix’s sadistic, upstart Emperor Commodus is an open invitation to get major-league goosebumps. This is a powerful moment that hits the audience hot on the heels of a thrilling gladiatorial battle.
It all comes together so well that it’s hard to believe now that Crowe initially refused to say the iconic line, “And I will have my vengeance in this life or the next”, written by screenwriter William Nicholson. Speaking to the Daily Mail in 2017, Nicholson relates how Crowe told him, “Your lines are garbage, but I’m the greatest actor in the world and I can make even garbage sound good.” We’re not going to weigh in on whether it’s the script or the performance that makes this scene a classic of modern cinema – we just know we can’t get enough of it.
Black Hawk Down (2001)
Whether depicting a dystopian Los Angeles (Blade Runner), ancient Rome (Gladiator), or the war-torn Somali capital, Mogadishu in 1993 (Black Hawk Down), Ridley Scott is a master of immersive world building. His ability to conjure a believable sense of place and put the viewer in the midst of it all is second to none.
Inspired by real events, Black Hawk Down tells the story of one of the most intense periods of close combat experienced by the US military since the Vietnam War – events triggered when a US mission to capture a Somali warlord unravelled with the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters and their crews over Mogadishu.
The sequence depicting when the first of the Black Hawks to get shot down (call sign Super Six One) has its tail rotor shredded by a rocket-propelled grenade, forcing its crew to crash land in a dusty city square, is a masterclass in editing. Cutting expertly between hair-raising aerial shots, POV shots from within the helicopter, POV shots from the streets up at the roof-skimming chaos, and reaction shots of mission controllers back at base, the exhilarating and crazily tense sequence lasts just one minute and 30 or so seconds. However, as the Black Hawk’s main rotor gouges dust clouds and splinters to a stop, and a pin-sharp, top-down aerial shot morphs into a fuzzy surveillance feed, you’ll swear time has all but stopped.
American Gangster (2007)
Ridley Scott understands the cinematic power of sudden and/or shocking moments of violence. Executed well (pun 100% intended), these are moments that speak volumes about the characters involved and that stay with you long after the lights go up.
2007’s biographical crime film, American Gangster tells the story of Frank Lucas, a Harlem NYC gangster who, towards the tail end of the Vietnam War, commanded immense wealth and power by smuggling pure heroin into the US in pallets accompanying the coffins of dead servicemen.
Played with unsettling brilliance by Denzel Washington, Lucas is portrayed as a composed and charming man capable of sudden acts of utter ruthlessness when his interests are threatened. In this scene, Washington’s Lucas talks earnestly about what it takes to be successful in business to his lieutenants as they wait for their food in a restaurant: “Honesty, integrity, hard work, family…”
But then Frank spots Tango (Idris Elba) walking up the busy street, and Tango owes Lucas money. Frank excuses himself, confronts Tango and calmly holds a gun to his head. It’s a deeply uncomfortable moment but, not unlike Tango himself, we feel confident that in a busy street in broad daylight Frank will make his threat and let Tango go on his way. But he doesn’t. Frank shoots Tango dead and, with the supreme calm and confidence that comes from knowing nobody would dare rat you out, he returns to the restaurant, his food, and the faces of his stunned crew. “Where was I?” Brilliantly shocking.