Just like in real life, there's no more dramatic an event in film than death. Sure, there are literally hundreds of movies where death is cheap - slashers where one-dimensional characters are violently offed by a psycho, crazy action flicks where dozens of nameless henchmen are blown away by the heroes and comedies where death itself is actually the punchline.
But my above statement is still the rule and not the exception when it comes to film in general. The fact is that, tragic and unfair as it almost always is, death is a necessary part of life and it exists to give life meaning. In most movies it's much the same and sometimes it's the death of a character that really gives that film meaning.
When it's done right, a movie death can be extraordinarily powerful and affecting to the audience, getting us all to genuinely feel something for a fictional character. Of course there are plenty of movies out there based on true events with characters representing real people and when one of them dies it should be all the more impactful. But the truth is, that's far from always the case.
This list, for the most part, deals with movie deaths that are memorable for the depth of emotion they evoked rather than the spectacle some generate.
note: While I’m sure I could find all these scenes on youtube and link them for you, I feel that viewing any of them outside the context of a full viewing of its respective film would be doing a huge disservice to the film as well as yourself. So go watch these movies, hepcats.
5. Wicked Witch of the West - The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1939) What a world, what a world
Here is the black sheep of this list as it's the death of the movie's main villain and it's hardly a character the audience is ever made to identify with or feel sorry for. What exactly causes it to remain one of the most iconic deaths in all of cinema is difficult to say. Here we have a movie adaptation of a beloved children's fantasy book, which is also a musical. Not only that, but the death of the main antagonist seems a little unimaginative after all the strange and interesting stuff Oz had to offer. I mean, water? Really?
But it’s still memorable anyway. The movie, as opposed to the book, leaves out a lot of the more dangerous elements sent Dorothy and her companions's way (the deadly field of poppies, the wolf attack etc.) so when they’re finally faced with the Wicked Witch de l’Ouest it’s actually a little jarring. Our heroes don’t seem to be any match for her power (“How about a little fire, Scarecrow?”). But then - whoops! Dorothy spills a little H20 and the green hag is toast. She melts into the floor, wailing her disbelief at it all and maybe, just for one brief moment, we do feel a little something for her. After all, she wanted vengeance for the death of her sister which isn’t completely unreasonable. But she’s still a cruel tyrant, enslaving the Winkies and terrorizing the...West, I suppose, and she’s getting what she deserves.
While not particularly spectacular to behold or emotionally compelling to absorb, the Witch’s death still just has that indescribable something that makes it memorable, even after all these years.
4. Obi-Wan Kenobi - Star Wars (1977) Strike me down and I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine
It felt like we were only really just beginning to get to know the old Jedi warrior when he was cut down by Darth Vader. Even more devastating was that for some reason he actually allowed himself to be cut down. The last two of their order engaged in a titanic struggle of Good vs Evil, with the old master facing his long since corrupted student and then just out of no where Ben completely drops his defences.
He’d informed Vader during the fight: “Strike me down and I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine,” and we’re left wondering what that could mean. The dark lord of the Sith made no mistake in using the opening and finishing his opponent but really, despite the fact that he’s incapable of registering a facial expression, we can sense that he’s just as perplexed as we are. Why would Kenobi just give up?
We’re given a hint of why as the last thing Obi-Wan does before raising his light sabre is look at Luke and smile. He knows who Luke is. He knows what he can do. At this point, we don’t. Luke had only just begun his training and already he loses his mentor, the one person he knows of in the universe who can make him a Jedi. Ben is also the one person who seems willing to tell him the truth about his father (ha), unlike his aunt and uncle, who are also gone by this point. But in one instant, he’s gone.
Luke doesn’t even have time to absorb his loss either as he’s being shot at by storm troopers with Han and Leia yelling in his ear. Obi-Wan hasn’t even left a body somehow, something which must confuse the young Skywalker all the more. But it’s just as well because he has to get the hell off the Death Star right at that moment. “Run Luke, run!” urges the old Jedi’s voice inside his head. At this point Luke can only conclude that it’s his imagination.
During the film’s climax at the Battle of Yavin, Ben’s voice speaks to Luke once more, telling him to trust his instincts to make the crucial shot to destroy the giant battle station. In the aftermath of the explosion he tells Luke: “The Force will be with you. Always.” And so will he.
3. Old Yeller - Old Yeller (1957) He was my dog...I'll do it
Who says a memorable death has to be that of a human character? And while anyone can name all sorts of significant animal character deaths in film like Bambi’s mother, Mufasa or Nicodemus, those are all animals given human characteristics. But an animal doesn’t need human characteristics to make an emotional impact. Case in point: Old Yeller.
Walt Disney once said: “For every laugh, there should be a tear.” I don’t feel I need to explain that. Old Yeller is one of the finest examples of this sentiment as anyone who’s even heard of the movie knows it’s a real tear-jerker.
What a lot of people who have actually seen the movie forget is that initially, Travis doesn’t even like the dog. On their first meeting he tries to drive him off after the retriever inadvertently causes a fence to get knocked down. From that point on, the story is all about how the two develop an intense bond. Old Yeller shows himself to be loyal, loving and heroic and he and the boy become inseparable.
Old Yeller’s death is of course most memorable because he doesn’t just grow old or get sick but instead contracts rabies after defending his family from a wolf. Caged in the aftermath, it’s devastating seeing what’s become of this beloved animal and the audience knows as well as the characters that there is only one sensible and compassionate thing to be done: put Old Yeller down.
It’s Travis who insists on shooting his best friend after his mother says that she’ll take care of it.
Katie Coates: There’s no hope for him now. He’s sufferin’. You know we gotta do it.
Travis: I know Mama. But he was my dog...I’ll do it.
I’ll leave you with one more quote from the film that very much sums up the lessons it teaches.
“Now and then, for no good reason, life will haul off and knock a man flat.” - Jim Coates, Travis’s father.
2. Albus Dumbledore - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) Severus, please
I did a lot of thinking over this one but I just kept coming back to it. Eventually I realized not only would it have to make the list but it would have to rank high. History will judge if this film truly ranks among the others but its pivotal moment surely resonated with a generation in powerful fashion.
One advantage Half-Blood Prince enjoys over its list contemporaries is that it is the sixth installment in a seven part story, which is represented by eight separate films. By this time we’ve become more than just familiar with Dumbledore (played by two different actors), we’ve slowly gotten to know him pretty well despite his sometimes aloof and mysterious nature. And just like Harry, we’ve become accustomed to the idea that he’s always going to be there. Despite the amount of difficulty and danger Harry and his friends so often faced on their own over their years at Hogwarts, they still had the assurance that their beloved headmaster was protecting them. Even before Harry was aware of his existence or his own personal history, Dumbledore was there keeping him safe. Right from the very beginning. And now that things look their absolute darkest, with Voledemort returned to full power and supported by an army of fanatics, their great, wise champion is suddenly gone forever.
Much like Obi-Wan’s death, we see the old master more or less allow himself to be killed. The difference here is that Harry doesn’t really seem to pick up on this fact. Dumbledore’s reasons are also a little more complicated than the old Jedi’s but his actions still come down to one thing: just as Obi-Wan believed in Luke and knew he could defeat Vader and the Empire, Dumbledore believed in Harry.
The aftermath is absolutely heart-wrenching as we see all the students and teachers gather around the body of their fallen mentor, protector and friend. The music reaches a crescendo of devastating sorrow while everyone raises their wands to dispel the evil image left in the sky by Dumbledore’s killers.
Although the movie is barely a year old as of this writing, I honestly believe that the death of Dumbledore will go down as one of the great ones in all of cinema.
1. Roy Batty - Blade Runner (1982) Tears in the rain
Coming back around to the same twist that the death of the Wicked Witch of the West had, Roy Batty’s death in Blade Runner is actually the death of the film’s main antagonist. But by the time it’s all over, we’ve come to realize that he wasn’t a true villain and that his actions, while destructive and amoral, are still somewhat understandable.
Throughout the film, Batty, an android with a built-in four year lifespan, is on a quest to discover if there is any way to extend his time. As the narrative mostly follows Deckard as he hunts down Batty and his compatriots, we don’t actually learn Batty’s intent for some time. Originally it just seemed as though the replicants had gone haywire, causing death and destruction that serves no purpose. The last thing we’re going to do is empathize with them. But somewhere along the way, that starts to change. Batty is on a quest for answers and they’re the same answers that we as humans have been searching for throughout our entire existence.
While Batty is a creation of man and knows what his intended purpose is, he’s still a sentient being who yearns to find meaning. Once informed by Tyrell, his creator (“It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker”) that nothing can be done to extend his life, Batty appears to have some sort of spiritual epiphany. In his grief and outrage, he murders the man who gave him life. But then there is still Deckard, the man who has been hunting him and his comrades, to be dealt with.
Tracking the two remaining replicants to the delapidated building where genetic designer J.F Sebastian made his home, Deckard disposes of Pris rather easily before being confronted by Batty. What follows is more of a hunt than a battle, with Deckard proving no physical match for Batty, who seems to be highly deranged at this point. It all comes to a head on the rooftop, with Deckard, in his bid to escape his superior nemesis, attempting to jump from the building to the next. Again his human form lets him down as he barely makes the jump and ends up clinging to a rain-slicked gutter. Batty effortlessly makes the leap and crouches watching Deckard struggle to save his life.
Batty has come to the realization that his life was an artificial life and to most humans, is worthless. Just when he’d come to accept that but believe in himself as a worthwhile living thing, he must also accept that his time is over and nothing can be done about that. He crouches and watches the man who’d hunted down and killed all his friends before finally coming for him desperately trying to hold on. His enemy is losing his grip and soon he will fall. With his last act, Batty reaches for Deckard’s arm and hauls him safely onto the roof. Deckard sits in fear and confusion as the last remnants of life leave Roy. Not looking at him, Roy says, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe: Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion; I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time; like tears in rain. Time to die.” He bows his head and closes his eyes. A dove he’d been holding takes flight once his grip relaxes. Deckard blearily watches it fly into the dawn sky.
Apparently, actor Rutger Hauer ad-libbed the “tears in the rain” part. It only further adds to what I won’t hesitate to call the most moving and beautiful death scene in all of film so far. Not bad for an android.