Although you might think that such a claim was the result of a reader poll or a subjective list by journalists, it turns out to have a basis in science.
Franco Zefirelli’s boxing drama starring Jon Voight, Faye Dunaway and Ricky Schroder has a special place in the hearts of scientists, who have used a scene from the film (spoiler alert if you click through) to gauge subject’s emotions.
Richard Chin writes in the current issue:
The Champ has been used in experiments to see if depressed people are more likely to cry than non-depressed people (they aren’t). It has helped determine whether people are more likely to spend money when they are sad (they are) and whether older people are more sensitive to grief than younger people (older people did report more sadness when they watched the scene). Dutch scientists used the scene when they studied the effect of sadness on people with binge eating disorders (sadness didn’t increase eating).
It dates back to research conducted by the University of California in 1988, when psychology researchers were looking for movie scenes that triggered a single emotion at a time.
The emotions and films used to trigger them were as follows:
- Amusement: When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Robin Williams Live
- Anger: My Bodyguard (1980) and Cry Freedom (1987)
- Contentment: Footage of waves and a beach scene
- Disgust: Pink Flamingos (1972) and an amputation scene
- Fear: The Shining (1980) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
- Neutral: Abstract shapes and color bars
- Sadness: The Champ (1979) and Bambi (1942)
- Surprise: Capricorn One (1978) and Sea of Love (1989)
After numerous tests it was found that the pivotal scene in The Champ triggered sadness exclusively more than any other film they screened (Bambi was second).
Since then the three-minute clip has been cited in hundreds of scientific articles and even been used as a humane way to make test subjects sad in other studies.
But of course, emotions triggered when watching a film can be acutely personal and sad scenes can easily lapse into sentimentality.
With that in mind, here are some of the saddest movie scenes I can think of which don’t fall into cliché.
There is the montage sequence from Up (2009):
This scene from The Elephant Man (1980):
Then there is this scene from Terms of Endearment (1984) – spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it:
Any other suggestions?
> Original article in The Smithsonian
> The Champ at the IMDb
> PDF of the original study ‘Emotion Elicitation Using Films’ by James J. Gross and Robert W. Levenson in ‘Congition and Emotion’ (1995)