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The Tribute

The Six Best Victories On Film

Against-the-odds triumphant movie moments that had us punching the air

  • Mr Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid, 1984. Photograph by Columbia Pictures/Photofest

In the movies, unlike life, the best man usually wins. Whether they’re rubber-stamped, official victories or merely moral ones, whether they come on the sports field or the battlefield, cinema’s most iconic triumphs tend to be far more satisfying than the temporary or conditional successes of the real world. These are the mano-a-mano moments that make us punch the air in celebration, that appear repeatedly on the Christmas TV schedules, that are re-watched over and over in idle moments on the internet. The final courtroom showdown from A Few Good Men, for example, has generated millions of YouTube views over the years. The six scenes collected below don’t necessarily come from the greatest films ever made, but they represent some of the most memorable, quotable and inspirational wins in cinematic history.

Ben-Hur (1959)

  • Mr Charlton Heston in Ben Hur. Photograph by Collection Christophel/Alamy

Judah Ben-Hur wins the chariot race

A remake of the original 1925 blockbuster, director Mr William Wyler’s swords-and-sandals epic Ben-Hur was – like its predecessor – the most expensive movie ever made at the time. The big budget paid off, as the film won 11 Oscars and became the number one box-office hit of 1959. The film tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Mr Charlton Heston), a Jewish nobleman in ancient Judea, whose boyhood friend Messala becomes the commander of the Roman garrison and curries favour with Rome by banishing Judah and imprisoning his mother and sister on trumped-up charges. Judah vows revenge, makes his way back to Jerusalem and, in the film’s most celebrated scene, defeats Messala in a spectacular chariot race filmed on an 18-acre set at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios. Shot decades before the advent of CGI, the race took five weeks to film using dozens of horses, 40,000 tons of imported sand and 7,000 extras. Messala, fatally trampled at its climax, survives long enough to tell his old friend where he can find his family.

Rocky (1976)

  • Messrs Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers in Rocky. Photograph by akg-images/Album/United Artists

Rocky Balboa loses the fight but reclaims his honour

Washed-up Philadelphian southpaw Rocky Balboa (Mr Sylvester Stallone) unexpectedly gets the chance to fight world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, a Mr Muhammad Ali-alike who sees the bout as a way to demonstrate his casual mastery of the boxing ring. But with the help of a much-imitated training montage and the love of a good woman (with a man’s name), Rocky manages to go the full 15 rounds against Creed, and even knocks him down for the first time in Creed’s career. Creed wins the fight on a split decision, but the moral victory belongs to Rocky, who afterwards roars blindly for his beloved – “Adrian! Adrian!” – to join his celebration in the ring. Rocky the movie was itself an underdog champion, made for just $1m from a script by Mr Stallone (who was barely known at the time), it went on to become the highest-grossing movie of the year, and to win the Oscar for Best Picture. And in Rocky II, Balboa beats Creed in a rematch.

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

  • Mr Mark Hamill in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Photograph by Capital Pictures

Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star

Wins don’t get much bigger than saving the galaxy, and at the climax of the original Star Wars movie, A New Hope, the young trainee Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mr Mark Hamill) does just that, blowing up the Death Star with a little help from Han Solo (Mr Harrison Ford) and the Force. (Specifically, he fires two proton torpedos from his X-Wing fighter, without computer-aided targeting, into a two-metre-wide thermal exhaust port, which leads to a shaft that goes directly to the reactor system, starting a chain reaction that destroys the entire space station. But you knew all that already, right?) The Star Wars series has delivered its fair share of triumphs in the eight movies since then, from exploding starships to lengthy lightsaber duels, but nothing will ever quite match the exhilaration of that first defining space battle in the war to defeat the galactic Empire.

Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)

  • Mr Harrison Ford in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Photograph by Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Indiana Jones shoots the swordsman

Messrs George Lucas and Harrison Ford were also involved in this classic scene from the first Indiana Jones movie, which was directed by Mr Steven Spielberg from a story idea by Mr Lucas. After his paramour Marion is kidnapped in Cairo, our swashbuckling archeologist hero races through the streets to find her, battling local thugs at every turn. When the crowd parts to make way for a master swordsman, who skillfully wields his scimitar in preparation for a prolonged duel, Indy simply pulls out his revolver and shoots the man dead, an unforgettable moment that defined the character as brave, yes, but also smart enough to know when bravery is unnecessary. In fact, the script had demanded a duel, pitting the Arab’s sword against Indy’s signature bullwhip. But Mr Ford had come down with dysentery while shooting in Tunisia, and he wasn’t too keen on the idea of spending three days shooting a fight scene. The actor later said, “I proposed to Steven that we just shoot the son of a bitch.” Mr Spielberg agreed; the rest is cinematic history.

The Karate Kid (1984)

  • Mr Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid. Photograph by LFI/Photoshot

Daniel-san’s winning crane kick

It’s a cheesy, predictable B-movie in many ways, but The Karate Kid contained enough classic moments to achieve longevity with its winning mix of martial arts and high-school genres. The soaring popularity of VHS in the mid-1980s probably helped. Transplanted from New Jersey to California, teenager Daniel comes up against a group of school bullies, trained in karate by a merciless coach at the local Cobra Kai dojo. Japanese janitor Mr Miyagi takes him under his wing and trains him to use karate for good, mainly by performing a variety of household tasks (“Wax on, wax off…”). In the final of the climactic karate tournament, an injured Daniel defeats his nemesis Johnny with a single, knockout “crane kick”, copied in playgrounds across the globe ever since. Director Mr John G Avildsen clearly knew how to stage a satisfying on-screen victory; he was also the man who’d made Rocky.

A Few Good Men (1992)

  • Mr Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men. Photograph by Granamour Weems Collection/Alamy

Mr Tom Cruise can handle the truth

Mr Tom Cruise, at the time probably the biggest movie star in the world, faced off against Mr Jack Nicholson in his late-career pomp in this staggeringly quotable courtroom scene. If the idea of a military courtroom drama doesn’t sound too scintillating, A Few Good Men had a secret weapon: it was the first film to be scripted by future screenwriting giant Mr Aaron Sorkin, based on his own play. The escalating dialogue between Mr Cruise’s Navy lawyer, lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, and Mr Nicholson’s marine colonel Nathan Jessup, is simply unforgettable. As Kaffee presses Jessup on whether he ordered the “code red” hazing of a vulnerable young marine that led to that marine’s death, he loudly demands the truth. “You can’t handle the truth!” the arrogant Jessup snarls, before angrily implicating himself – and making Kaffee’s case.

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