The most hreatbreaking movie deaths can be found in My Girl, The Lion King, and Terms of Endearment.
Movies throughout history have shown deaths that are comic, such as Zoolander’s gas station scene, and moving, like Spider-Man‘s Uncle Ben. Yet the tragic deaths stick with us the longest, and the films in this list are the saddest ever to grace the big screen. Included are loyal companions, the truly innocent, and finally, the greatest love story ever told.
10. The NeverEnding Story (1984)
An entire generation is still traumatized by this death, which overshadows everything else about The NeverEnding Story, and even if Atrax is shown to be happy and healthy after the Nothing is defeated, this one will never stop hurting. When Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) is traveling through the Swamps of Sadness, his horse Atrax, becomes overcome with depression and gives up, slowly sinking into the swamp and presumably, drowning in the muck.
Atreyu goes through the stages of grief in just a few minutes, resulting in a heartbreaking scene that still hurts to this day. The only reason it’s not higher is because of the ending, which reassures kids that everything always works out. As the rest of this list of movie deaths will show, that’s a complete lie.
9. Terms Of Endearment (1983)
There’s something about an early 80s movie and truly heartbreaking depictions of death. The 1983 Best Picture winner, Terms of Endearment, starring Shirley MacLaine, Danny DeVito, Jack Nicholson, and John Lithgow, follows the relationship of MacLaine’s Aurora Greenway and her daughter, Emma, played by Debra Winger. At the film’s end, Emma loses her battle with cancer and grants her mother custody of her children as a final act of love and respect.
Terms of Endearment showed a scene that plays out in hospitals around the country on a regular basis, and did so with tact, grace, and award-winning performances from every member of the cast. Emma’s death is so heart-breaking because it’s so normal, acting as a reflection of our regular lives when a loved one is sick.
8. My Girl (1991)
My Girl taught children of the 80s that just because a movie trailer makes something look like a fun movie, perfect for summer vacation, studios lie. What was a movie about Vada (Anna Chlumsky) and Thomas (Macaulay Culkin) navigating awkward pre-teen years together takes a sudden turn when a swarm of bees kills Thomas. The moment comes as a shock, completely changing the tone of the film, not just because of the tragedy of a young life being cut short but because it’s random.
Life doesn’t neatly follow the plot of a movie, and My Girl embraced the chaos and seeming randomness of reality, which makes it a hard watch to this day. On the bright side, the movie’s closing scenes do a great job of teaching kids how to deal with a sudden death, thanks in part to Dan Akroyd’s portrayal of Vada’s father, a funeral director.
7. The Lion King (1993)
The Lion King is Hamlet, and Mufasa’s fall into the gorge being overrun by wildebeests is as tragic as any of the Bard’s plays. Mufasa, voiced by James Earl Jones, does such a good job teaching Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) how to be a King that respects life; the audience feels like their own father has passed away. Scar, voiced by Jeremy Irons, is a classically evil villain that would be twirling a mustache if he wasn’t a lion, making it all the worse that he gets everything he wants with one act of betrayal.
6. Bambi (1942)
One of the first times that Disney killed off a parent, Bambi traumatized children forty years before The NeverEnding Story, setting the template for a tragic movie death. Even though it’s based on a classic book, and everyone knew she wasn’t making it to Act 2, the senseless shooting of Bambi’s mom is still a shock, forcing the young deer to start fending for himself. Part of what makes it so heartbreaking is Bambi curling up, wondering why his mom won’t get back up, as the blood slowly pools under her.
5. Schindler’s List (1993)
Schindler’s List is a tragic film, shot in black and white for maximum effect, with one exception: a little girl’s red jacket. Liam Neeson’s award-winning performance, with his emotional and heartfelt closing monologue about saving “just one more life” hits even harder with the little girl’s death earlier in the film. Completely innocent, the young girl doesn’t understand what is going on, has done nothing to deserve being killed, and yet, is callously executed with no regard.
Innocent lives lost to war are always tragic, but the Holocaust was one of the worst things men ever did to their fellow man, and the movie makes it clear that the little girl’s death represents the worst possible outcome. When she’s killed, all hope is lost.
4. The Green Mile (1999)
Speaking of the death of innocents, The Green Mile leads up to the execution of John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), with prior executions showing how they work and making the final moment all the more tragic. Instead of putting a hood over his eyes, Coffey starts crying, begging for Paul (Tom Hanks) not to leave him alone in the dark. This massive man, accused of being a killer, is scared of the dark.
In that moment, Coffey is human, not a murderer, and it’s his innocence that shines through right before the switch is flipped, and he rides the lightning. The audience and the characters know he’s an innocent man, and that makes the entire scene hard to endure, and a movie death that stays with viewers for years after watching it.
3. Old Yeller (1957)
Old Yeller traumatized a generation of children, and then since they were traumatized, another generation had to watch the movie about a young boy and his loyal companion that has to be put down because of rabies. The farmsteading Coates family takes in Old Yeller as a working dog, with the film highlighting the close bond between the dog and the family, which makes his fate even worse. Defending the family from a rabid wolf is what dooms Old Yeller, making the ultimate sacrifice so that others are safe in a heartrending movie death.
No dog film since Old Yeller has ever hit as hard, not even Marley & Me or Where The Red Fern Grows, though it did start the trend of concerned moviegoers having to know, “Does the dog die?”
2. Titanic (1997)
For starters, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) never should have died. The door had plenty of room for both him and Rose (Kate Winslet) to float to safety. Jack’s death in Titanic left a nation inconsolable and still makes otherwise normal adults tear up.
Other characters are shown passing away, including the elderly couple that remains in bed and goes down with the ship while holding hands, but nothing hits as hard as Jack’s passing, sacrificing himself to save Rose, and catapulting DiCaprio into superstardom. Over 1,500 people died on the Titanic but through the magic of a Hollywood movie, Jack’s death stands out.
1. Up (2009)
The opening scene of Up is the greatest love story ever told, more romantic than The Notebook, When Harry Met Sally, and Twilight (and yes, Up has a better Rotten Tomatoes score than all of those). With no dialogue following the camera’s flash at their wedding, Carl (Ed Anser) and Ellie are shown going through their entire lives. Working, watching the clouds, and spending time at the zoo, Carl and Ellie continually put off the trip of a lifetime….until it’s too late.
The most heartbreaking movie death in history, Ellie eventually drops while trying to climb up their hill. The loving couple never had their trip together. How many people in the theater watching what was supposed to be a fun Pixar film instead saw their greatest fears played out on screen? Death comes for everyone, not on our schedule, which is the most terrifying and tragic part of being human.