Movie Deaths That Broke Us
Some movies make you laugh, some make you cry, and some leave you sobbing into your popcorn as the credits roll and the cinema staff begin sweeping up the aisles. There are lots of factors that go into making a movie a true tearjerker, from an atmospheric score to enemies banding together in the face of insurmountable odds, to being based on a true story, but one sure-fire way to get people to switch on the waterworks is with a heartbreaking character death. Here are the 10 movie deaths that broke us the hardest.
10. Emma Greenway – Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment
Terms of Endearment is a 1983 family dramedy starring Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine, following the relationship between mother Aurora Greenway and daughter Emma across 30 years of their lives. Though the pair are constantly at odds throughout Emma’s childhood, when Emma grows up and discovers the challenges of motherhood, marriage and running a household, she increasingly relies on her own mother for support.
However, the tragedy of the film lies in the fact that the worse Emma’s personal life gets, the better her relationship with her mother becomes. So when Emma finally succumbs to the terminal cancer that has been plaguing her, she does so with a knowing look to Aurora from across the room, and even entrusts her own children to Aurora’s care in the ultimate gesture of love and forgiveness.
9. Bubba Blue – Mykelti Williamson in Forrest Gump
Benjamin Buford “Bubba” Blue isn’t the only person to die in Forrest Gump, but his death is definitely the most impactful. It is Bubba that convinces Forrest to get into the shrimp business, and it is Bubba who fights next to him in Vietnam, the pair of them joined forever by their shared experience of being treated as outcasts and misfits.
Bubba is killed in action but has just enough time to deliver a heartbreaking message before he passes on. As he dies in Forrest’s arms, he quietly pleads that he would like to go home. Thankfully, despite the tragedy of Bubba’s death, Forrest does ensure his legacy, by becoming the captain of a shrimping boat and starting a business in his name.
8. Ajax – The Never-Ending Story
In The Neverending Story, Atreyu has to overcome a whole host of obstacles in order to keep the world from being overtaken by The Nothing. By far, the one with the highest stakes is the Swamp of Sadness, as without a constant stream of positive thoughts, people are dragged down into the sucking mud and killed.
Atreyu is an expert at thinking happy thoughts, but his horse Ajax must be some kind of nihilist, as it’s not long before he begins to sink, his beautiful white coat obscured by horrible, deadly mud. The whole scene is made even more heartbreaking by Atreyu’s desperate cries, encouraging the horse to make it to the other side of the swamp.
7. Hooch – Turner and Hooch
Turner and Hooch revolves around the relationship between Tom Hanks’ police investigator Scott Turner, and Hooch, the Dogue de Bordeaux with whom he is paired up to solve a murder. Though their relationship is hardly enviable to begin with, the two get closer and closer as the movie goes on, until they are practically inseparable and trust each other completely.
Unfortunately, this bond is Hooch’s undoing, as he sacrifices himself to protect Turner and bring the corrupt police chief to justice. Turner, having gone from finding the dog a total nuisance to considering him his best friend, is unsurprisingly heartbroken, leaving the audience to be just as crushed. The only silver lining is that Hooch leaves behind a litter of puppies, one of which looks and acts exactly like him.
6. Neil Perry – Robert Sean Leonard in Dead Poets Society
1989’s Dead Poets Society has an outsized reputation in the film world for being one of the most simultaneously life-affirming and depressing movies ever made. The film follows a group of male high schoolers as they are each irrevocably changed by their poetry class, learning to overcome their shyness, be less selfish, or just finally get the girl.
However, the most heart-rending plot thread of the movie centres on Neil Perry, an unassuming boy with strict parents, who discovers a love of the stage. Encouraged by his professor, Neil performs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and gives an enchanting performance that leaves him blissfully happy. However, his parents pull him out of school in response and, with the threat of military school and a life spent as a doctor, Neil sees no other option but to end his own life.
5. Thomas J. Sennett – Macaulay Culkin in My Girl
With his unruly blonde hair, wire-rimmed glasses and sweet, innocent demeanour, My Girl‘s Thomas J. Sennett (played by Macaulay Culkin) is about as cute as a kid can be. Thomas spends the whole movie building a beautiful friendship with the spunky and rebellious Vada Sultenfuss, culminating in a solo adventure into the forest to find a mood ring that Vada has misplaced.
While there, Thomas accidentally kicks a beehive and is swarmed by bees, and subsequently dies of an allergic reaction. The cause of death might seem a little silly, but the aftermath of Thomas’ death is truly heartbreaking. Vada falls into hysterics by the coffin, screaming that Thomas is not wearing his glasses and needs them, because without them he can’t see.
4. Andrew Beckett – Tom Hanks in Philadelphia
Tom Hanks is the master of the tearjerker, so it’s no surprise that multiple films of his appear on this list. In 1993’s Philadelphia, Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, a lawyer suing his company for wrongful termination. After dealing with workplace discrimination due to his sexuality and HIV-positive status, Beckett is forced to find representation, which comes in the form of the initially homophobic Joe Miller (Denzel Washington).
Beckett eventually wins his case, but his health deteriorates sharply along the way, and he begins to succumb to his illness just as Joe realises how much he values their friendship. Hanks’ sensitive and nuanced performance as he quietly tells his partner that he is ready to go, has made Philadelphia an era-defining film.
3. Hillary Whitney – Barbara Hershey in Beaches
Beaches is one of the great sleepover movies of the 80s, best paired with a pint of ice cream and waterproof mascara. Though many critics have called its story beats calculated and unearned, it’s hard to deny the chemistry between Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey, as they play two women who orbit each other for years of their lives.
Midler plays New York actress C.C. Bloom, while Hershey plays heiress and lawyer Hillary Whitney. The two fight and make up several times following an inseparable period as children, but everything changes when Hillary gives birth to her daughter, and is simultaneously struck down by heart problems. Hillary dies at the beautiful beach house where she and C.C. reconcile, and C.C. takes over caring for Hillary’s child, telling her stories about the times they shared as children.
2. Jack Dawson – Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic
There aren’t many movie deaths as iconic or as romantic as Jack’s death in Titanic. No amount of debate about the physics of balancing two people on a floating door, Jack’s odds of surviving the freezing water or endless theories about improving the stability of the floatation device, can take away from the romantic melodrama of Jack clinging to Rose and clinging to life before eventually falling away into darkness.
The tragedy comes from the fact that Rose and Jack’s joint life together was just about to start when they were scuppered by a tragedy that was bigger than them both. Thankfully, we know that they do reunite after Rose spends 84 years missing her one true love, and that they get a happy ending either in heaven, or Rose’s imagination.
1. John Coffey – Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile
The Green Mile is set on death row, so it is perhaps not surprising that there are a number of casualties across the movie’s runtime. However, none are so heartbreaking as the death of John Coffey, a wrongfully-accused man who has the otherworldly ability to heal his cellmates, a gentle nature, and deep distress at the inherent cruelty of the world.
Despite convincing the prison officers of his innocence and improving the lives of those around him with his ability to work miracles, Coffey requests to be put to death, having remained convinced that the world is a terrifying place. In two final twists on an already tragic scene, Coffey requests to watch Top Hat with the officers as he has never seen a movie before and begs not to have a bag placed over his head during his execution, as he is afraid of the dark.