Death is, in a very quirky way, like sex. It sells.
And when we are talking about the wonders of cinema, death can obtain an almost spiritual power, digging deep into the viewer’s psyche. In a way, it acquires a life of its own.
And while gore, blood and high-pitched screams represent a much-loved niche in the market, a heart-stopping, dramatic, emotional death scene is a thing of beauty. It sends cold chills down your back. You lean into the moment, reluctant to even blink. Until it finally closes in on you, and you are lost.
Here are four extraordinary examples of the art of death.
Bambi (1942): Bambi’s mother
The profound impact of this death scene, at least for the frail innocence of a child, is truly immense. The death of Bambi’s mother in this Disney classic is constructed in an ingenious manner.
Peace and nature’s tranquillity are suddenly replaced by the heavy and speedy slap of human civilisation, gradually taking over the serene silence of nature with its loud and artificial bangs. There is a characteristic innocence to the scene, exacerbated by the winter snow’s ghostly scenery and Bambi’s youth. The speed of events leaves little space for sensible comprehension or preparation, instead leaving behind a trail of concerned bewilderment and a mother who is never coming back. The closure of this heart-aching sequence of events reaffirms the hovering sense of irretrievable loss. Bambi’s father and his now motherless son, both shadowy figures in the snow’s sparkling purity, make the journey back to a new life of grief and hope.
It is fair to say that there is beauty in this scene. But there is great suffering too. Often, in death on screen, they tend to coexist. Bambi is the embodiment of the genuinely emotional and almost ethereally beautiful death: a scene that will likely live forever.
The Lion King (1994): Mufasa
Continuing the line of probable childhood traumas, we come, painfully and inevitably, to The Lion King. If there could ever be a discussion on a death’s overwhelming influence on the narrative, it is here.
In hindsight, there is something almost Shakespearean about it. The just and merciful ruler losing his life at the hands of his brother, hungry for power and blinded by envy. The drama of this ugly spectacle lingers on the very act of death. The drastic change in height, as Mufasa’s fall signifies the consequent decline of not only his kingdom but his son’s sense of duty as well, and the volume and intensity of the soundtrack paint a scene of profound devastation. Dust and the heavy stamping of an overwhelming mass threatening to swallow little Simba whole predict the hovering tragedy. Then, with one treacherous push, Scar has done the deed.
Simba, notably bewildered by his father’s lifeless body, makes one last desperate attempt to rise him up and make sense of what has happened. A strikingly innocent and extraordinarily humane closure to one the most touching and heart-wrecking scenes in Disney history.
The Green Mile (1999): John
In this masterpiece of acting and storytelling, death is elevated to almost spiritual heights, in an unbearably sorrowful and thought-provoking spectacle of conscious injustice. John’s execution, plagued by the realisation of his innocence, signposts the ugly truth of human nature, clueless in its comprehension of anything outside the borders of its own beliefs.
The gripping tension and suffocating sense of tragedy are exquisite in their impact, emphasised by the striking contrast between John’s sincere, and yet so alien humanity and the spectators’ disgruntled anticipation. His tears of helplessness and his final revelation, building up to the inevitable, paint the picture of a man too good-natured for his place and too different for his own good. The weight of that alone equals a death sentence.
The wave of blindingly white sparks of electricity, engulfing Paul’s (Tom Hanks) expression of regret and remorse, extinguishes another, rather more extraordinary bright light, for whom even his executioners are weeping. The Green Mile, exposes human nature at its ugliest, demonstrating a very different value of death in cinema: one of moral tutelage.
Titanic (1997): Jack
The sorrowful conclusion of this forbidden love between a rich lady and a poor, deeply unsuitable, young artist, blooming somewhere between the decks of ‘the ship of dreams,’ RMS Titanic, has left viewers emotionally vulnerable, confused or damn right aggravated.
Director James Cameron’s impeccable attention to detail managed to create a multi-layered picture of human disaster, hope and hopelessness intertwined with the ugly reality of primal survival instincts and the uplifting empowerment of love. Rose and Jack, desperately clinging to each other and now plunged into the life draining coldness of the ocean, are the embodiment of recklessly sacrificial and unflinchingly devoted love. And, like many of its kind, it is destined to be cut dramatically short.
It is one of the enduring mysteries of movie history. Was there enough space on that raft for Jack? Chances are, there totally was. But, among the sea of desolating and colourless loss, there needed to be a personification of death. And while he pledged his final plea to Rose, hoping, praying, instructing her to hold on to life, while the colour of his face was slowly dissolving into the freezing waters of their boundless trap, it became painfully clear that that personification was Jack.
Death, with all its chilling and devastating numbers, was a vow to live.