News Thoughts

The Saddest Movie Scene of All Time?

The Smithsonian magazine recently reported that The Champ (1979) contains the saddest movie scene of all time.

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:

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):

I’ve Tried So Hard to be Good
The Elephant Man at

Then there is this scene from Terms of Endearment (1984) – spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it:

Emma’s Goodbyes
Terms of Endearment at

Then of course, there is the pivotal flashback scene from Sophie’s Choice (1982), which deserves a category all of its own (major spoiler warning for that one).

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)

DVD & Blu-ray Film of the Week Reviews

DVD Pick: The Elephant Man (Special Edition)

The DVD highlight of the week is this special edition re-release of The Elephant Man – the superb 1980 period drama about the life of Joseph Merrick.

Based on the real story of a man so disfigured he was dubbed ‘the Elephant Man’, it explores how he was taken in by a doctor and his struggle to be recognised as a dignified human being in Victorian London.

Notable for being director David Lynch‘s second feature (after Eraserhead) it features a raft of excellent performances from the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Michael Elphick, Hannah Gordon and Freddie Jones.

However, in the lead role John Hurt is mesmerising, despite being buried under a lot of (quite brilliant) make-up which took hours each day to apply.

Although he would go on to have considerable success as an actor – often in supporting roles – this perhaps remains his greatest screen performance.

It is also a moving study of an individual struggling to come to terms with deformity and being a social outcast.

Another interesting aspect of the film is that it was produced by Mel Brooks, who became instrumental in getting the film made after his wife Anne Bancroft gave him the script to read.

When viewed in the context of Lynch’s career it has may seem different to his darker films such as Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart or Mulholland Drive but it demonstrates his early skills as a filmmaker and his taste for the fringes of society.

The extras include the following:

  • Joseph Merrick – The Real Elephant Man: An highly informative 20 minute featurette on the real life of Merrick introduced by Jonathan Evans, an archivist of Royal London Hospital Museum. He describes the historical context but also explores the differences between the film and Merrick’s actual life. One of the most interesting snippets is that Merrick sought out his career in a freak show as a way to make money and that he was not such a victim as the film presents. It also speculates what disease Merrick was actually suffering from, a question that continues to baffle medical historians.
  • Interview with John Hurt: In a 20 minute interview, the actor describes various aspects of his experience playing the role: how he based his physical movements on a corkscrew; the unlikely success of the film in Japan; working with fellow actors Anthony Hopkins, John Gielgud, Michael Elphick and Hannah Gordon; the difficulty of the shoot, how he completed all of his work in between making Heaven’s Gate in two parts (he notes that the whole of The Elephant Man cost less than the prologue of Heaven’s Gate!); the studio exec who didn’t know how to sell the film and how he kept some of the props from the film.
  • Interview with David Lynch: Another revealing 20 minute interview, this time with director David Lynch. He reveals several things about working on the film such as: his struggles after Eraserhead when he couldn’t find financing for his own script called ‘Ronnie Rocket’; how the pitch for The Elephant Man immediately appealed to him; the initial resistance to the project from studios; how Anne Bancroft loved the script and gave it to her husband (and producer) Mel Brooks; how Brooks loved Eraserhead and supported Lynch throughout the production; the origins of the script; the ‘beyond-the-beyond great’ cast who Brooks helped recruit; the importance of veteran cinematographer Freddie Francis in shooting the film in black and white; the makeup for Merrick, which Lynch actually worked on in a garage Wembley for a time before makeup artist Chris Tucker took over; how Hurt underwent 6-8 hours of makeup every day to become Merrick; the importance of visiting an old Victorian hospital and how only wants to work on digital film.

It also contains the original theatrical trailer:

Overall the extras are very good without being spectacular but this remains an excellent film, well worth checking out if you don’t already own it.

> Buy the DVD from Amazon UK
> The Elephant Man at the IMDb
> Find out more about the real Joseph Merrick at Wikipedia