Music is ubiquitous in film. If a filmmaker wants to punch up a scene, they often rely on a great soundtrack. This creates many memorable moments. But sometimes it works best to switch off the music for a period of time, even during an action sequence. Here are 10 spectacular action sequences that have little or no music in them.
1. Aliens – Power Loader Fight
The music in Aliens, much like the action, rarely lets up in the second half. But for a brief moment near the end, the two diverge and we get one of the finest action sequences ever put to film sans soundtrack.
Scary music abounds as the Alien Queen makes her presence known on the Sulaco after the heroes thought they were finally safe. The Alien Queen rips Bishop in half, chases Ripley off, and then tries to grab Newt. But when Ripley returns in a power loader, the music falls silent, as if slashed off by the epic conflict about to unfold. It’s mother against mother in a desperate battle for the fate of mankind. James Cameron was wise not to insert music into this scene because it works perfectly without anything like that intruding on its emotional impact.
2. Dirty Harry – Ask Yourself One Question
The Dirty Harry movies aren’t really known for their music. The score is often jarring and uncomfortable, much like the movies themselves. I watched all five of them for the first time this past week, and I might have more to say about that experience in the future. For now, I’ll just say that one of the best scenes in the series features almost no music.
The first time we see Inspector Harry Callahan in action in Dirty Harry, he blows away several thieves before delivering one of the most famous lines in cinema history with his discussion of the number of bullets fired and the power of a certain handgun. It’s a great introduction, and it has a perfect payoff at the film’s climax. There’s a little music playing on a car radio, but other than that the scene is bereft of a normal soundtrack.
3. From Russia with Love – Train Fight
James Bond movies are famous for their bombastic scores, which frequently accompany incredible action sequences. That’s part of why we’ll never see a movie like From Russia with Love ever again. It manages to maintain a high level of tension while keeping its stakes at a bare minimum. There’s no plot to take over the world or kill a million people, at least not in the near future. Its stakes just involve a personal grudge against Bond and a special device that could help with espionage.
The lack of music in the train fight between Bond and a SPECTRE henchman who’s been tailing him through most of the film adds to its brutal and frightening atmosphere. The same type of dread was recreated in The Spy Who Loved Me, though to a lesser degree.
4. Jurassic Park – T-Rex Attack
When you hire John Williams to do your movie score, you pack as much of his music as you can into every moment. Unless you’re Steven Spielberg and you’re willing to take a chance on groundbreaking special effects and models to carry a scene. It’s not that music is unnecessary to turn a good T-rex scene into a great one. Just check out the “must go faster” chase and the velociraptor chomp-fest for expertly used Williams music.
But for whatever reason, Spielberg had his favorite composer go silent the first time we lay eyes on the T-rex. And it works beautifully. The intensity is already at the breaking point, and the absence of Williams’ majestic score makes the violence more visceral and the anxiety more palpable.
5. Raiders of the Lost Ark – Bar Shootout
It’s rare for an Indiana Jones action sequence to play out without any fanfare. The only one I can think of happens early on in Raiders of the Lost Ark. John Williams brilliantly leads into the action with a tension-raising piece of music, but as soon as the shooting starts, he leaves Indy alone to fight for his life against a bunch of armed goons.
I think that helps to set the bar scene apart from the rest of the film. There are better action sequences before and after it, but this one lacks a lot of the mystery of the South American jungle, the playfulness of Cairo, or the excitement of the truck hijack. But what it has is a real sense of brutality and danger that isn’t always present when the music is there to reassure us that Indy will be okay.
6. Sergeant York – Battle Scene
Like the Raiders of the Lost Ark scene above, there’s a lot of music during the buildup to the “over the top” battle scene in Sergeant York. But as soon as the enemy starts firing, the soundtrack falls silent. And it doesn’t start again until Alvin York almost single-handedly triumphs over a huge number of German soldiers.
Up until this point, the movie has mostly been permeated with whimsical music representing York’s Tennessee home and family. Once he gets drafted into the army, we hear less and less of that upbeat music, and it gets hardened into a more militaristic tune. It all comes to a head in this scene where we hear brief glimpses of York’s old familiar song before it gets swallowed up by the sounds of duty and gunfire.
7. Speed – Hard Right
Nearly every high-speed moment of Speed’s plot is driven forward by an exciting score. One notable exception takes place when the bus (that can’t go under 50 MPH) misses a soft turn and is forced to make a hard right. The music is entirely absent as they try this desperate maneuver.
The bridge jump is the film’s real showstopper, complemented by a pulse-pounding score that slowly ramps up. But I still like this quiet and somewhat understated moment that forces everyone aboard the bus to work together to survive an increasingly dangerous situation.
8. Star Wars – Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader
The first Star Wars film is packed practically wall to wall with memorable music. Right after our heroes make several death-defying escapes from stormtroopers aboard the Death Star, their mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi enters a conflict he doesn’t intend to survive. This is the first lightsaber duel ever put to screen, and it’s dripping with internal conflict and deeper meaning than the mere clash of futuristic blades.
The fact that the music is mostly absent from this fight helps us realize that this isn’t the usual act of heroism we’ve gotten accustomed to from Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and the like. This is an act of sacrifice to buy time for the heroes to escape, as well as to put a cap on a good man’s long life of fighting evil.
9. They Live – Fistfight
John Nada has seen the truth about the prison he and everyone else lives in. And he wants his friend Frank Armitage to see it, too. Unfortunately, it’s never easy to convince someone to swallow a bitter pill. That’s the conflict at the heart of their big fistfight in They Live.
I don’t remember music playing a pivotal role in any action sequence in this movie. But it is noticeably absent during arguably the movie’s most pivotal part – when Nada has to convince someone else that he’s not crazy but totally rational. I’ve noticed a pattern in all of these scenes. The lack of music increases the brutality. We feel each punch and kick as it lands much more viscerally than we would if it was softened by orchestral chords.
10. Tron – Lightcycle Battle
There are sound effects galore over the course of Tron’s famous lightcycle battle, just no music. Tron’s soundtrack is an acquired taste. I personally love it, but I totally understand why others might hate it. I don’t mind the lack of a score during this sequence, however, because it’s such a mesmerizing experience. Things happen so fast that we need to be hyper-focused on the visuals to keep track of what’s going on.
The rest of the film’s music is already so synthesized, it would get lost in the digital-sounding engines, explosions, and other sound effects bombarding our ears. We do get a nice musical piece over the chase scene that follows this one, and it works well. But the filmmakers were wise to only introduce it after we had had time to get used to how the lightcycles operate in this strange computer world.
Feel free to let me know your favorite music-free action sequences. Did I foolishly leave out Flash Gordon and The Godfather? I hope I won’t get the silent treatment if I didn’t include your favorite.
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If you’d like to support the Deja Reviewer, please consider donating a few dollars to keep this site going strong. I’ll even send you an original joke if you do! Try it, and prepare to enjoy a good chuckle.
Great post! The absence of music can help to build the tension. You have to have a capable team of director, dp and editor who understand how blocking, framing and editing can create rhythm too.
Some these examples – especially Raiders and Aliens – show how the composer can add other emotions like relief or grief when the action is established.
To add the words of Miklós Rózsa: ‘in film, nothing is as loud as silence.’
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Well said! Thank you.