Indomitable Human Spirit: 5 Scenes that Showcase the Best of Us

I think every now and then we could use a scene that showcases the indomitable human spirit.

Every morning when I go to the gym I listen to motivational speeches set to music. It’s a little preachy and I don’t necessarily ascribe to its effectiveness, but I’ve come to enjoy it. I think because it gives me a little boost. A little pick-me-up. These scenes do the same thing.

The following are not necessarily the top five movies that showcase the indomitable human spirit, just five scenes that effect me. I welcome you to share your favourite scenes in the comments below.

Apollo 13

In this scene we don’t see the efforts that helped the astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert land safely, we see the results of the collective efforts and hopes and prayers that helped bring them home.

Earlier we saw members of NASA hold numerous strategy meetings, sleep in shifts on the floor, work to fix the CO2 filter, and simulate how to power up the computer with insufficient power. And we saw the crew freezing from lack of heat, arguing with each other, and making a risky course correction without any navigation computer.

All those efforts are what brought us to this scene. Everyone has done what they can, and now all they can do is hold their gaze skyward and hope and pray that what they did was enough.

It’s as if the astronauts being so far away has bridged the distance between us as people. And in that moment, as we move from the eyes of reporters, officers, and peers, to the eyes of mothers, wives, sons, and daughters, we all share the same hope that these men will return safely.

This scene doesn’t show it, but just a few moments prior, Jim Lovell’s teenage daughter was watching the broadcast a few feet away from her family. But the tension becomes too much and she nestles against her mother like a child. Because when we are we are powerless we have nothing to hold onto but each other and the shared belief that everything is going to be all right.


Last Samurai

(click to view video)
(click to view video)

“He is defeated. He must accept his shame.” This is what we are told about the samurai. In defeat, a samurai must kill himself. On the opposite end of that spectrum is Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), the incarnation of never giving up in a fight. Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) recognizes this in Algren and brings him to the samurai camp.

It is here where Ujio (Hiroyuki Sanada) comes across Algren sparring with wooden swords. Ujio tells Algren to put the sword down in Japanese. Even though Algren doesn’t speak Japanese he understands perfectly. But Algren can’t put down the sword — it’s not in him.

Each time Ujio knocks the sword out of Algren’s hand, he does it more violently. So much so that the people around them that hate Algren begin to show concern for him each time he gets back up. They’re affected by his drive. Algren’s fighting spirit is so strong that even when he can barely move, laying in the mud with his eyes closed, he still blindly grasps for that sword.



What you don’t see in this scene is just how fearsome and dominating Brandon’s (Joel Edgerton) opponent Koba is. He’s set up as the front runner of the event, as “the greatest pound-for-pound fighter who ever lived.” We see clips of how quickly and effectively Koba defeats his opponents.

Brandon is doing surprisingly well to make it this far in the tournament and his wife finally arrives to support him in the audience only to see that Koba is his opponent.

Throughout the movie Brandon’s struggle is to save his home that is upside down on its mortgage. He and his wife have three jobs between them but it’s not enough, and Brandon starts back into MMA to win some money for it. Eventually Brandon works his way into the Sparta tournament because he refuses to move backwards in his life and give up his family’s home.

Brandon’s trainer’s speech reminds Brandon that he’s fighting for his home and his family. It gives him something tangible he can accomplish with his hands. It takes the thing that Brandon wants the most and puts it behind a seemingly impossible physical task (Koba). But in Brandon’s mind there isn’t any choice, he wants his to keep his home so badly he’ll go through any obstacle. To make the impossible possible, because Brandon refuses to accept any other outcome.



The game Vincent (Ethan Hawke) and his brother Anton (Loren Dean) play is chicken. The game is simple, each man starts to swim away from the shore. The first one to give up because they are too tired and scared to continue, loses.

When they were boys, Vincent always lost; not just because he had a heart condition, but because he believed the heart condition made him inferior. One day, just before Vincent ran away from home he challenged his brother to chicken and won. The victory changed Vincent and allowed him to believe in himself and his dreams.

The scene above takes place years later after Vincent and Anton are reunited. Anton is a detective who is investigating a murder at Vincent’s workplace where Vincent works under a false identity. What the scene doesn’t show is a brief earlier scene where we see Anton practicing swimming laps. The implication here is that Anton has never accepted his loss and has still dedicates a portion of his time to being a better swimmer. When Anton says that he wants to prove that he can beat Vincent at chicken, the way his lip quivers betrays just how much that loss to Vincent matters to him.

The competition between the two men is a parable for life. How does Vincent (a physically inferior man on paper) beat someone who may have dedicated the last few years of his life to being a better swimmer?

To answer that question I’d like to share a brief excerpt from one of my motivational workout music tracks. I’ve paraphrased it a bit, but it’s basically the same:

There was a young man who wanted to make a lot of money so he went to this guru. He told the guru, “I want to be on the same level you’re on.” So the guru said, “If you want to be on the same level I’m on, I’ll meet you tomorrow at the beach.”

So the young man got there at 4:00 am. He was all ready to rock and roll. He had on a suit; he should have worn shorts. The old man grabbed his hand and said, “how badly do you want to be successful?” The young man said, “Real bad.” The guru said, “Walk on out in the water.”

So the young man walks out into the water and goes waist deep and he thought, “This guy’s crazy.”

The young man thought, “I want to make money and he’s got me out here swimming. I didn’t ask to be a lifeguard. I want to make money.” So the guru said, “Come out a little further,” and the young man had the water levels up to his shoulders. And the young man thought, “This old man is crazy. He’s making money, but he’s crazy.”

The guru said, “Come out a little further.” The young man came out a litte further, the water was right at his mouth. The young man thought, “I’m about to go back in this man is out of his mind.” But the old man said, “I thought you wanted to be successful?” The young man said, “I do.” The old man replied, “Walk a little futher.” The guru came, dropped the young man’s head in and held him down. The young man began thrashing. The guru held him down. Just before the young man was about to pass out the guru raised him up. The guru said, “When you want to succeed, as bad as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful.”

The first time Vincent beats his brother he realizes that if he can’t overcome this obstacle, he can’t overcome any obstacle. So as he explains in the scene above, he is willing to die to beat him. Before Vincent has even begun actively pursuing his dream of travelling to space, he accepts and understands that he might die trying to beat his brother. Vincent pursues his dream so hard that he is willing to die at every step, every challenge. We see this throughout the film each time Vincent collapses from physical exertion in a heaving mess, and his willingness to proceed blindly into traffic to hide his identity.

And just before Vincent is about to achieve everything he wants he is willing to die in a game of chicken with his brother. Because Vincent pursues everything that way. If your dream is difficult to achieve that’s how hard you have to be willing to chase it. Like you’re willing to die, because without your dreams, life would be a mistake.



Rudy is set up as the example we all look to when we need to dig a little deeper, be a little stronger, and reach a little farther than we ever dared.

Rudy is too small to play football and not smart enough to attend Notre Dame. At least, that’s what he’s been told by his family and friends all his life. But Rudy wants to play football for The Irish more than anything. So he stops listening and starts trying.

As he tries, people discourage him. A quarterback (Vince Vaughan) tells Rudy off for trying too hard in a practice. A linebacker tells him to take it easy or he’s going to get himself hurt. But gradually Rudy’s spirit works its way into the hearts of everyone around him.

All the players on the team enter the head coach’s office and lay their jerseys on his desk, telling the coach that they want Rudy to dress in their place for the final game of the season. And during that game, the linebacker who warned him starts a chant to get the coaching staff to put him in for a final play. Then the quarterback disobeys the coaching staff and runs a play to score a touchdown so that the defensive line (the one Rudy is on) can come out.

Throughout the scene, you can see everyone cheering for Rudy: the quarterback, the players, the coaching staff, his friend, his brother, his father, and Fortune, the stadium groundskeeper.

We learn from a previous scene that Fortune was once a player for Notre Dame. He told Rudy that he rode the bench for two years and assumed it was because of his skin colour, so he quit. Since then he’s regretted it and lives a life where he takes care of a stadium he refuses to enter as a fan.

And as Rudy is raised up onto the shoulders of his teammates and the trumpets from the soundtrack hit their highest notes, Fortune looks on and claps as if to say, “that’s goddamn right.” As though his faith in the joy of the game and humanity has been restored. By Rudy.

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