The conventional wisdom is that because film is a visual medium, filmmakers should always take a show-not-tell approach to storytelling. But there are always exceptions to the rule. Sometimes the combination of a good actor and quality dialogue can mesmerize the audience with a simple story and speak volumes about the characters and the images they inspire in the minds of their listeners. No need for flashbacks or any other tricks. Just pure, spoken storytelling.
Here are 10 examples of great storyteller scenes.
Apollo 13 – Leading Jim Home
Apollo 13 masterfully builds suspense by putting the three astronauts aboard the ill-fated spacecraft through a series of disasters that they barely manage to survive. But it also takes the time to show how Jim Lovell’s family handles the stress of knowing he might die at any moment. And the two come together for one brief but perfect moment as Jim’s wife watches an interview in which he discusses a harrowing event that he couldn’t have survived if everything hadn’t gone wrong at the right moment. It provides much-needed hope.
Good Will Hunting – Perfect Imperfections
Good Will Hunting has a number of memorable stories. This is the first one that really pierces Will’s defenses. Dr. Sean Maguire explains what it’s like to be in a meaningful relationship. And he injects humor into it to break through Will’s stoicism and to prove a point. Will isn’t perfect, and he shouldn’t demand perfection from the woman he loves.
The Hunt for Red October – Learning to Fish
There are two brief stories shared at the end of The Hunt for Red October. Jack Ryan and Marko Ramius describe their first experiences learning to fish. The words are few, but the feelings of camaraderie generated by them are voluminous.
Jaws – The USS Indianapolis
One of Jaws’ most famous scenes takes place during a lull in the action. Before plunging into the final confrontation with the great white shark, the three main characters share a moment of levity. First, they compare battle scars. Then Quint suddenly gets deathly serious as he tells his story of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis near the end of World War II. It’s a harrowing tale, detailing the deaths of hundreds of his fellow crewmen at the hands (or teeth) of sharks. And it perfectly sets up the climax of the film and the malevolent threat they are facing.
Jurassic Park – Remembering Petticoat Lane
John Hammond’s vision for Jurassic Park is laid out in every melancholy detail in this sweet scene. He wanted to make something that would reward people’s faith in the fantastic, but he only succeeded in creating a nightmare.
The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl – Jack’s Escape from the Island
It would have been a profound mistake for the makers of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film to show Jack Sparrow before his experience on the island. We don’t need to know what he was like. It’s much better to simply hear the story as Will Turner does and leave the rest to our imagination. Also, it’s a brilliant way to build up the mystery of how Jack managed to escape from the island before finally revealing it later in the film.
The Princess Bride – Inigo Montoya’s Father
Everything about this scene is perfect. From the way it starts (“Do you always begin conversations this way?”) to the way it ends with a budding friendship (“You seem a decent fellow, I hate to die”), it’s weaving a beautiful tapestry of complex characters. And it does all of this with some dialogue and music.
Quigley Down Under – Cora’s Shame
I don’t have a clip of this scene to share, so we’ll have to make do with the written dialogue. It’s heartbreaking to learn just what made Cora go crazy.
Cora: That little girl is so darling.
Quigley: She sure is.
Cora: Not as darling as Roy Junior.
Quigley: God Almighty, lady, not another Roy. I don’t know about you, but my stomach thinks my throat’s been cut.
Cora: Roy was hunting sage hens when the Comanches came. I grabbed the baby and a pistol, and I hid in the root cellar out back. The Indians tore up our sod house. I was real quiet, but then the baby started crying. I tried to shush him and suckle him, but he just wouldn’t stop. One Comanche, I remember, he acted real drunk and wore my green apron. He must have heard something. He started hollering and coming closer. So I put my hand gentle-like over my baby’s mouth. “Don’t cry. Daddy’ll be home soon.” The Indians found us, but they just laughed. They was drunk, didn’t want to hurt anybody, and rode away. At sundown, Roy came home, but I was still afraid to come out of the cellar. I was afraid of what he’d do when he saw I’d smothered our son. I ought to find some way to mend this petticoat. Look at that. Roy… he just buried the baby, put me in the wagon, and we went 70 miles to Galveston without stopping. He never said a word. Put me on the first ship he found. It was headed to Australia. Then he said, “Don’t want no woman that would kill my son to save herself.” And he turned and he walked away, and he never looked back. I know, ‘cause I watched to see if he would.
Thankfully, we do get to see her redemption when she conquers her fear and refuses to kill another child to save her own life.
I wish I had a clip of Quigley turning around to look at her as he rides away from her on his horse, but sadly I couldn’t find one.
Return of the Jedi – C-3PO and the Ewoks
Who says a storytelling scene needs to be in English? C-3PO once told Luke that he’s not much of a storyteller, but he proves he has grown as a character because he’s now able to relay the entire Star Wars saga to a group of primitive Ewoks in their own alien language.
The Three Musketeers (1993) – Tragic Love Story
Again, I don’t have a clip of this scene, but the dialogue by itself is still great. After escaping the clutches of the Cardinal, D’Artagnan and the three musketeers hunker down for the night at an inn. Athos is acting gloomy, so D’Artagnan tries to cheer him up. Instead, he gets a sad lesson on love that he’ll never forget.
D’Artagnan: Athos, why don’t you come join us?
Athos: You fight like a man. See if you can drink like one.
D’Artagnan: I’ll drink anything you put in front of me.
Athos: Famous last words. What should we drink to?
D’Artagnan: Let’s drink to love.
Athos: To love. Let me tell you a story about love, D’Artagnan. I knew a young man once – a Count – who feared he would never fall in love. One day, he met a woman. This woman was more than beautiful. She was intoxicating, mysterious – everything he’d ever dreamed of. He felt his heart would burst if he couldn’t have her.
D’Artagnan: What happened?
Athos: The poor idiot married her.
D’Artagnan: Isn’t that what people do when they fall in love?
Athos: Shut up and listen to me. They were riding through the forest one day. She was thrown from her horse and knocked unconscious. When he rushed to her side, he noticed a mark on her body – something he’d never seen before, something she’d managed to keep hidden all this time.
D’Artagnan: What was it?
Athos: The brand of the fleur-de-lis, the mark given to those who are to be executed for murder. The count was crushed. The woman he loved – his bride – had betrayed him. She’d lied to him. When she came to, she swore that she’d been falsely accused of these crimes, but he didn’t believe her. He rejected her for her lies and for her past. Then he banished her from his province. When the guards came to take her away to be executed, she was still professing her undying love. Soon after, the count realized how much she had meant to him, but it was too late. His betrayal was far greater than hers could ever have been. He gave up his title, his land, everything he believed in, never to be seen or heard from again. All because of love.
Painting a Picture
It’s great that filmmakers have so many tools at their disposal to tell great stories. They don’t have to always rely on flashbacks to hold the audience’s hand. Sometimes they can trust their actors to say a few words that paint quite a picture.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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Excellent examples that bring back so many memories.
The first scene that came to my mind was Tony Wendice outlining his murderous plan to Swann. Always a pleasure.
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Thank you. I should totally go on a Hitchcock marathon sometime to brush up on all those great films. I recently rrwatched The Birds, and it was just as great as I remembered.