Despite what boring people may tell you, movies are important. Aside from providing us with entertainment, they give us a safe space to express our emotions. We share in the victories and losses of the characters on screen and it’s our power of empathy that allows us to not only laugh like fools, but cry like overtired babies. A death of a character can mean many things, but it’s usually the saddest and most tragic ones that stick with us long after the credits roll. As sadness is subjective and, since what one person may find tragic may not even cause a flicker of emotion in another, we’ve collected our entries in no particular order so we can celebrate, or more accurately commiserate, them together.
So, allow us to callously dredge up the character goodbyes that had everyone insisting that they had something in their eyes and present the 17 Saddest Deaths in Movie History.
***WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***
17. The T-800 – Terminator 2: Judgment Day
James Cameron’s badass Terminator sequel may not be the first film that comes to mind when it comes to being emotionally affecting, but the demise of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 has left more than a few people with a lump in their throat in the decades since it was released. Throughout the film, we see the burgeoning friendship between the young John Connor (Edward Furlong) and Arnie. The T-800 starts as John’s protector, but soon become a hulking robot pal and surrogate father figure to him.
The film culminates with a big fight at a steel mill. Arnie eventually gets the upper hand and sends Robert Patrick’s T-1000 to the great scrapheap in the sky by shooting him with a grenade launcher into a vat of molten steel. After John throws the original Terminator’s arm and brain chip into the molten metal, the T-800 concludes that he must die too, to prevent the technology in his body from being reverse-engineered and causing an apocalypse. As he can’t self-terminate, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) sadly lowers him into the molten steel in front of a distraught John. As a parting gesture, the T-800 gives John one last thumbs up before disappearing under the surface. We’ve seen John’s need for another guiding figure in his life and that hole once again becoming a void. The death of the T-800 tugs on the heartstrings considerably.
16. Wash – Serenity
The undeserved cancellation of Joss Whedon’s Firefly remains a sore spot for a lot of sci-fi fans who fell in love with the TV show’s style, setting and characters. They were granted a slice of closure in 2005 when the feature film Serenity was released, promising to tie up some of the loose ends the series left dangling.
The movie is darker in tone than the show and the stakes are upped considerably for the big screen. There are very few punches pulled with Ron Glass’ likable preacher Shepherd Book being one of the early casualties. However, it was when ace pilot Hoban “Wash” Washburne is killed after saving the ship from a dizzying tailspin that showed that Whedon had always had a nastier trick up his sleeve. It’s unexpected and brutal, leaving the crew (and audience) reeling. It’s always sad when a fan-favorite character dies, but the hours fans had spent in the company of the character during the TV series and the movie up until that point meant that it hit home that much harder for a lot of people.
15. Severus Snape – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Severus Snape (the late, great Alan Rickman) is one of the more complex characters in the Harry Potter series. He started as an intimidating Potions master with a dark past and a particular hatred for Potter, but as the movies went on, his true colors were slowly revealed. In Deathly Hallows Part 2, Snape is turned on by Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and killed by Voldy’s pet snake Nagini. This all leads to a final flashback sequence that explains Snape’s motivation and the reason for his mixed feelings towards Harry.
The young and unpopular Severus Snape had been in love with a girl named Lily Evans. However, Lily’s attention was focused more on James Potter, who happened to be Snape’s bully and sworn enemy. After leaving school, Lily and James ended up hitched and with a baby son. In his rise to power, Lord Voldemort and his followers killed all who opposed them and Voldemort soon came for the Potters, killing James and Lily before unsuccessfully turning his wand on the infant Harry. Upon learning of Lily’s death, the grief-stricken Snape vowed to protect Harry and worked out a plan with Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore to keep The Boy Who Lived safe. Whilst there are more shocking deaths in the series, such as Dumbledore’s, Fred Weasley’s, Cedric Diggory’s, Dobby’s and Hedwig’s, the tragedy surrounding Snape’s death takes some beating, especially when it’s hammered home by Dumbledore’s question in regards to Snape’s Lily-shaped emotional baggage :“After all this time?” to which Snape solemnly replies: “Always”.
14. Han Solo – Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Very few film series have had the cultural impact that Star Wars has had. It’s a pop culture phenomenon that people have continued to love and obsess over since the late 1970s. Almost everything about them is iconic, from the characters to the music. Star Wars means an extraordinary amount to people. Fans were delighted when it was announced that the original cast would return in JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens and if YouTube reaction videos are anything to go by, there were even tears shed when Han Solo showed up in the trailer.
During the final battles, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) confronts his wayward son Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and, after a moment of possible reconciliation, Kylo runs him through with his lightsaber, marking the end of an era to people who had grown up watching their childhood hero. Despite having an unwelcome hole made in his chest, Solo manages to touch his son’s face in a loving, fatherly way before he falls into the abyss. It’s easy to understand the process behind this decision. Harrison Ford couldn’t, nor did he want to, play Han Solo forever and, much like the rest of the film, it serves as a passing of the torch from the old generation to the new. Doesn’t stop it from hurting though.
13. Spock – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
The Wrath of Khan is widely considered the best Star Trek film ever made. As a reaction to the people who found the slow, ponderous pace of Star Trek: The Motion Picture a little much, the decision was made to amp up the excitement and drama. In addition to containing some great performances from Leonard Nimoy and Ricardo Montalban, it has one of the most emotionally charged scenes in the series’ history. When Khan is defeated, he sets off the Genesis device, which has the power to reduce everything within its range to subatomic particles. The crew of the Enterprise try to flee, but realize they can’t get far enough away from the device’s blast area with a damaged warp core.
Spock (Nimoy), bravely ventures into the warp core, despite warnings that the high levels of radiation will kill him. He fixes it and allows the crew to escape with their lives at the cost of his own. Learning what happened, Kirk (William Shatner) rushes down to find his friend slowly dying of radiation poisoning. Separated by safety glass, Spock gradually stumbles to his feet and is told that his plan worked. Spock delivers the now famous “I have been, and always shall be, your friend” line before giving the Vulcan salute and slumping down dead. If the actual death scene doesn’t get you, Spock’s funeral will. Kirk makes an eloquent speech, but his voice cracks with grief when talking of his fallen friend. Whilst the character would return in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, it still doesn’t take anything from Spock’s noble sacrifice at the end of the second film.
12. Thomas J. – My Girl
My Girl is a touching tragicomedy released in 1991, starring Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis and Macaulay Culkin. Culkin plays Thomas J. Sennett, a fragile young boy with every allergy you can think of. The movie centers around his friendship with Anna Chlumsky’s Vada as the two kids hang out and grow closer together, with a budding innocent romance forming.
Tragedy strikes when Thomas J. returns alone to the woods they were playing in earlier to find Vada’s lost mood ring. He’s successful, but he runs afoul of a hornets’ nest, with a swarm of the buzzing jerks mercilessly stinging him. Thomas J., being allergic to stings, dies, with a final shot of his glasses laying on the forest floor. The death of an innocent boy is always hard to take, but Thomas’s demise ranks as one of the toughest of the tough. Vada’s reaction to seeing Thomas J.’s open casket is a difficult watch too as she starts wailing about how Thomas J. can’t see without his glasses.
11. Bruno and Schmuel – The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
What do you get when you cross The Fox and the Hound with a Holocaust setting? Well, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and guaranteed floods of tears from audiences. The movie tells the story of two boys from the opposite sides of the fence, both socially and literally. Asa Butterfield plays Bruno, a young German boy with a high ranking Nazi officer father. Bruno starts talking with Schmuel (Jack Scanlon), a young Jewish boy held in a concentration camp. Neither child understands the enormity of the situations they find themselves in and the two become friends in spite of the literal and social constructs that keep them separated.
Bruno eventually tries to help his friend find his father and sneaks into the camp, dressed in the striped uniform. He and Schmuel are herded into a chamber and gassed, with Bruno’s desperate parents realizing what has happened too late to save their son. The two boys die holding hands and underline the horrors of the Holocaust with their needless and hugely poignant deaths.
10. Marley – Marley & Me
It’s easy to become apathetic to people dying in films. Most movies have life and death stakes in some form and it’s a regular device to up the drama or tension of something. However, when an animal dies, it’s a whole different story, with some people being positively phobic about it. We don’t see animals die too often, because they are nearly always the innocents in a story. Humans can do bad things and deserve their nasty fates, whereas animals just go around being animals, which is one of the reasons we love them so much. Marley & Me is the tale of John Grogan (Owen Wilson) a newlywed who gets a dog to test whether he and his wife (Jennifer Aniston) are ready for parenthood. From the off, Marley is badly behaved, destructive and disobedient, even getting kicked out of dog training class due to his shenanigans.
The movie is mostly about the Grogan family’s life as they and the dog get older. They soon realize that they have to accept Marley on his own terms. However, like all dogs, Marley gets old and starts to suffer health problems. He almost dies from a twisted stomach, but survives the initial attack. Marley suffers from a second attack and it soon becomes clear that he isn’t going to get better. John decides to have Marley put down to end his suffering. John delivers a soothing speech to Marley as he lies on the vet’s table and tells Marley that despite being called “the world’s worst”, he was actually a great dog because his love for the family was never in question. It’s a legitimately tear-jerking moment and is a painfully realistic cap on Marley’s time with the Grogans.
9. Brooks – The Shawshank Redemption
The Shawshank Redemption is a consistent entry in lists and pieces about the greatest films of all time and rightly so. It’s an emotional rollercoaster of a film and one of the most powerful scenes in it concerns elderly inmate Brooks Hatlen when he is released after spending 50 years locked up in Shawshank State Penitentiary. We’ve seen Brooks’ desire to stay in prison, even going as far as to pull a knife on another inmate in a last-ditch attempt to stay locked up when he finds out he’s to be paroled.
Brooks is released and narrates what turns out to be his suicide note as we see the institutionalized man struggle with life outside of Shawshank. He eloquently and touchingly explains how he no longer feels part of the more modern, bustling “real world”. Things come to a head when he dresses smartly in a suit and carves “Brooks was here” into a beam of the halfway house he’s staying in before hanging himself from the rafters. It’s a gut-wrenching moment and serves to illustrate the mental effect that imprisonment can have on a person, as well as highlighting the injustice of Brooks’ desperate situation.
8. Bambi’s mother – Bambi
Disney have become notorious for their attitude towards killing off parents and it arguably started with 1942’s Bambi. Bambi is a young fawn in line for his father’s role of Great Prince of the Forest. His father is mostly absent doing whatever regal deers do and we see him grow up in the company of his mother, a young rabbit named Thumper and a skunk named Flower.
Things take a turn for the tragic when Bambi’s first winter rolls around and his mother is shot and killed by a hunter. It’s a hefty tonal shift as the film up until that point has been an innocent-as-they-come tale of friendship and discovery. It’s a harrowing scene that forces Bambi and the audience to face some tough realities about the nature of life and death. It’s incredibly sad, but the passing of his mother is a catalyst for Bambi to stand on his own four wobbly feet and grow up to become the sort of stag fit to become the new Great Prince.
7. Ellie – Up
Although Pixar have fallen into the sequel trap of late and released some subpar films, they are still masters of their craft. Up’s opening 10 minutes is a powerful mini-movie that charts how Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) meets his wife Ellie. We’re first introduced to Carl and Ellie as children, bonding over a shared adventurous spirit, but we soon have a dialogue-free montage of the couple falling in love, getting married and building a life together, all accompanied by a great score by Michael Giacchino. The marriage is idyllic at first, but when they decide to have children, Ellie miscarries and the couple are told they can’t conceive. This strengthens their resolve to visit and live in the far-off land of Paradise Falls and they start to save for the future. Unfortunately, life gets in the way and their dream keeps being put on the back burner.
After many setbacks, Carl eventually manages to buy plane tickets to surprise his wife, but she soon becomes ill and frail and dies shortly after, leaving Carl alone in his house, both of them stubborn remnants of a time being bulldozed out of existence. It’s a beautiful sequence and sets up Carl’s motivation for the rest of the film perfectly. When Pixar really try, they can make sure that there’s not a dry eye left in the theater and Up is a fine example of their emotional trickery in action.
6. Bing Bong – Inside Out
Unsurprisingly for a film featuring characters with names like Joy, Anger and Sadness, Inside Out is all about the emotions. The movie takes predominantly takes place in the mind of 11 year old Riley, a young girl struggling to adapt to her new home in San Francisco, far away from her friends and the life she knew. Inside her brain, an accident leads to Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) no longer being in charge as she and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) are transported to a far off corner of Riley’s mind. With Riley’s emotional state in peril, the pair endeavour to get back to the controls and bring her out of a downward spiral.
Joy and Sadness meet a strange creature called Bing Bong (Richard Kind) on their travels, who it transpires is Riley’s long forgotten imaginary friend. At one point in the movie, Joy and Bing Bong end up in a dark pit where memories go to be forgotten forever. At the risk of being forgotten themselves, they try to escape via a flying wagon, but their combined weight is too much. On the third try, Bing Bong leaps out of the wagon, giving Joy enough boost to climb out of the pit. She makes it and celebrates before realizing that Bing Bong isn’t with her. She looks over the precipice to see Bing Bong cheering her before stopping and fading away into nothingness. Perhaps it’s because it’s not only the loss of a fun character but also the loss of part of Riley’s psyche forever, something we all go through in the transition from kid to adult, that makes his death so affecting. Couple in the fact Bing Bong is a composite character made up of three loveable animals as well as a representation of childhood innocence, a common theme on this list, and all the boxes are checked to have people openly weeping in their seats.
5. Guido Orefice – Life is Beautiful
La vita è bella or Life is Beautiful is an Italian tragicomedy set in 1930s Italy at the height of World War II. Roberto Benigni plays Guido Orefice, a Jewish father who is captured along with his uncle and young son, Giosue, and shipped off to a concentration camp. To spare his son from the horrors of the camp, Guido pretends it’s all a game and that you score points by completing tasks. Boys who are loud, cry for their mothers and complain about hunger lose points and the person who gets 1000 points wins a tank. Guido keeps up the charade to explain some of the camp’s more heinous happenings, such as the reason for the guards acting mean being that they want the tank for themselves.
The film comes to a close when the camp is stormed by Allied forces. Guido tells his wide-eyed son to stay hidden and leaves to find his wife Dora (Nicolleta Braschi). Guido is caught by a guard and led to his execution. As he passes Giosue’s hiding place, he continues playing along and winks at him. Giosue winks back, unaware that his father was being led to his death. It’s such a brave and sacrificial move amid such tragedy that it makes this one for the ages.
4. Mufasa – The Lion King
When Lion King Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones) died at the paws of his traitorous brother, Scar (Jeremy Irons), it proved to be the defining traumatic moment for kids who grew up in the 1990s. It’s no wonder, really, as the years since its release have done little to lighten one of the darkest scenes in Disney history.
In the lead-up to the pivotal moment, we’re presented with an intense scene as lion cub Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) finds himself amongst a massive wildebeest stampede and running for his life. Mufasa manages to scoop his son up to safety before attempting to climb out himself. He’s met by Scar at the top, who speaks the words “Long live the king!” with an icy coldness before throwing Mufasa off the cliff and into the path of the charging beasts. Once the dust has settled, Simba finds his father’s body and soon realizes he isn’t going to get back up. He nuzzles under his dad’s paw to be held by him one final time before Scar approaches and blames the entire incident on him. Scared, confused and grieving, Simba is convinced to run far away from Pride Rock. Not only does The Lion King touch on many children’s greatest fear – losing a parent and protector, but it taught the rough lesson that sometimes heroic people (or lions) simply die. A lot of care and attention went in to setting up Mufasa as a strong leader, who could be both a stern and playful father. Mufasa always turned up in the nick of time to save Simba and Nala and him being gone emphasizes Simba’s lack of a safety net from then on.
3. Kong – King Kong
It’d be difficult to find someone on the street that doesn’t know how King Kong’s journey from Skull Island to New York works out for the great ape. There have been many different versions and incarnations of the story, dating back to the original film in 1933. However, the version that arguably makes the most out of Kong’s death is Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake starring Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, Jack Black and Andy Serkis’ mo-capped performance as Kong himself.
Kong is captured, taken to New York and breaks free, making a stand by climbing the Empire State Building with Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) in his colossal paw. Biplanes shoot at Kong as he swats at them, but they eventually overwhelm him. As a last act, he gently places Ann on top of the building before his lifeless body falls to the streets below. It’s always been an emotional moment and stands as one of the most famous movie endings of all time, but the combined work of Jackson, Serkis and the ridiculously talented WETA people in bringing Kong to life makes the expected gut-punch all the more brutal.
2. John Merrick – The Elephant Man
David Lynch’s Elephant Man is based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, a man born with what is now thought to be Proteus syndrome, a condition that causes abnormal skin and bone growth, leading to disfiguring tumors all over the body and his cruel nickname. As he lives in Victorian London and is therefore subject to the strange societal attitudes of the time, he’s treated with fear and disgust and seen as nothing more than a circus sideshow for people to gawk at. John Hurt gives a powerful performance as Merrick, managing to capture the sweet but tragic nature of the character perfectly.
One of the only people to see past Merrick’s condition is surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) who reaches out to Merrick and treats him like a thinking, feeling human being, something which poor old John isn’t used to. Treves saves Merrick from a freak show and offers him work at his hospital, with the two becoming close friends. However, Merrick soon finds himself captured and bundled back to the circus. He escapes, but is set upon by several youths before he collapses. He’s taken back to the hospital to recover, but it’s revealed that he’s dying of a lung condition. Merrick manages to thank Treves for his kindness and friendship before he dies peacefully in his sleep. John Merrick stands as the ultimate lesson of not judging a book by its cover and unfortunately also highlights man’s inhumanity to fellow man.
1. John Coffey – The Green Mile
It’s a known fact that no human being has ever been able to read the actual words that make up the credits of The Green Mile as they are always too blurred from the seemingly endless tears. Tom Hanks plays prison officer Paul Edgecomb, a man tasked with overseeing Cold Mountain Penitentiary’s Death Row, nicknamed “the Green Mile”. Paul’s life changes when he’s charged with receiving John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a mentally challenged black man accused of raping and killing two white girls.
As the film goes on, Edgecomb and the other guards warm to Coffey’s good nature and when it transpires that the man has supernatural healing powers, they start to realize there’s been a mistake and it’s one that they’re powerless to fix. We learn of Coffey’s innocence and soon the film becomes a drawn-out parade of injustice as we know Coffey is being put to death. As a last request, Coffey states he’s never seen a movie before. The guards sit him down and show him the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers classic Top Hat. The sheer look of wonderment and awe on Coffey’s face is enough to melt the iciest of hearts, but alas, the film is preparing us for the traumatic finale. Coffey is strapped in to the electric chair by the upset and unwilling guards. The final soul-shattering moment comes when he requests not to have a hood over his face because he’s scared of the dark. The deed is done and the gentle giant is executed. The needless cruelty and unfair nature of Coffey’s death is a hard thing to shake once the movie’s over and it remains one of the saddest deaths ever committed to the big screen.
Can you think of any other deaths that were too sad to handle? Let us know in the comments!