I mentioned a while ago that I was going to write about death in movies, and here it is. You probably don’t need me to tell you that this isn’t going to be very much fun, but it’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a while so here it is. Instead of talking about the general portrayal of death in films, I’m going to talk about three specific films that really affected me in this regard. Those films are Saving Private Ryan, Aliens, and The Grey. There will be spoilers for these movies, so be aware of that also.
A quick clarification. The title of this piece is meant to be FIGURATIVE, NOT LITERAL. I stress this in the wake of the horrible shooting in Colorado at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. I have never been in a situation like that and I pray to God I never will. My purpose in writing this is not to try to make light of a tragedy, it’s to explore something meaningful to me that films have helped me think about. Though I suppose you could say that the Colorado shooting brought some of these thoughts more to the forefront of my mind.
Besides, I don’t think there’s anything I can say about the shooting that Christopher Nolan hasn’t already said himself: “I would not presume to know anything about the victims of the shooting but that they were there last night to watch a movie. I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me. Nothing any of us can say could ever adequately express our feelings for the innocent victims of this appalling crime, but our thoughts are with them and their families.” I wanted to share that quote from Nolan because he really is a class act, and like I said, there’s nothing I could really add that Nolan hasn’t already said himself far more eloquently than I would be able to.
Now that I’ve said all that, let’s move on to the actual films I’m going to talk about here. First up is Saving Private Ryan. This is already a fairly infamous movie, both due to its extremely graphic violence and the fact that it somehow lost the Best Picture Oscar in 1998 to Shakespeare in Love, which was good but not that good. Saving Private Ryan is one of those movies that is amazing but that I’ve only managed to actually watch all the way through maybe twice. There’s a lot to say about this film, from the fact that the opening D-Day invasion scene is so realistic that WWII veterans who saw it had flashbacks, to the fact that Vin Diesel of all people is in it, and so much more. But there is only one scene I’m going to focus on here, a scene that has haunted me since the first time I saw it and remains indelibly burned on my memory.
This particular scene happens during the final battle of the film. One of the outnumbered American soldiers (I think his name was Mellish) is holed up in a wrecked building and is attacked by a German soldier. The Mellish’s friend has been shot in the throat and lies gurgling on the floor while Mellish desperately fights the German soldier in hand-to-hand combat. It’s an almost unbearably tense scene, and the desperation inherent in both combatants is elevated by that other soldier, lying on the ground choking on his own blood while all of this is going on.
But the worst part comes when the German soldier gets the upper hand, and starts slowly, agonizingly, moving a knife towards Mellish’s heart. Mellish pleads with the German soldier, imploring him to stop, but the knife slowly, inevitably, pierces Mellish’s chest and you can see, you can feel the life ebbing away from him. His body shudders as the blade goes in deeper, with the German soldier whispering to him hauntingly the entire time. I don’t speak German, but according to IMDB this is what the German soldier says as Mellish dies: “Give up, you don’t stand a chance! Let’s end this here! It will be easier for you, much easier. You’ll see it will be over quickly.”
I have a high tolerance for violence in movies, as you may have gathered, but all of this combines to make a scene that is nearly impossible for me to watch. Steven Spielberg films it in such a way that he makes you feel Mellish’s death almost as much as if you were actually there. It’s also remarkable that Spielberg manages to humanize the German soldier who kills Mellish, as he could easily have come off as a soulless monster. But he’s just a soldier too, doing his duty like everybody else. There are other agonizing death scenes in the film, but this is the one that made the biggest impression on me.
Next up is Aliens. Now I know that the inclusion of this film here may seem odd, since it’s an 80’s sci-fi action flick directed by James Cameron, but stick with me. There’s a scene late in the film where Sigourney Weaver’s famous heroine Ripley and the few survivors of previous alien attacks are fleeing from yet another alien attack, and one of them, a Marine named Vasquez, falls behind. The Marine sergeant, Gorman, tells the rest of the group to keep going while he goes back for Vasquez. It’s basically a suicide mission, as Vasquez is too badly injured to walk, and Gorman soon runs out of ammunition. Knowing the situation is hopeless as the aliens are closing in, Gorman pulls a grenade, looks at it, and activates it.
What follows is roughly five seconds of the most excruciating cinema I’ve ever seen, as Vasquez and Gorman wrap their hands around the grenade and wait for it all to end. Cameron draws out the moment, and like Spielberg, he makes you experience every single nerve-shredding moment of it right along with the characters. The first time I saw Aliens, I almost felt in a way like I too had only a few seconds to live along with these characters. Those few seconds were over in a flash, and yet at the same time felt like they went on forever. It was extraordinary and terrifying at the same time.
Last is The Grey. I wrote about this film a few weeks ago, but I left out some things about it since I wanted to save them for later. So, here they are now. I want to talk about the way this film depicts death. It’s surprisingly intimate, really. After the plane Liam Neeson’s character Ottway is on crashes, he makes his way back to the crash site, where some of his fellow passengers are trying desperately to save a man who has clearly been severely injured. He’s been graphically cut open and blood spurts from his wounds. He’s understandably starting to panic.
The men with him look to Ottway for help. Ottway puts his hand on the injured man’s shoulder and says, very simply, “You’re going to die.” The man is understandably unwilling to accept this, but Ottway manages to reassure him. “It’s all right, it’s all right,” he says. “It’ll slide over you, it’ll start to feel warm, nice and warm. Let your thoughts go. Who do you love? Let them take you…” and the man dies, peacefully. Ottway knows he can’t save the man, but he manages to make the end easier. It’s a remarkable scene, graphic and disturbing yet also beautiful and intimate and heartfelt.
The thing about this film is that it doesn’t cheapen death. Often in films, death is portrayed almost casually. I fully admit that this is especially true of the action movies I love. But The Grey treats it with seriousness and compassion. One of the characters who survived the crash starts taking wallets from the bodies of the dead until Ottway stops him, telling him vehemently that “we’re not looting dead bodies for swag.” The man reluctantly relents, and the group collects the wallets and takes them with them as something to give to their families if they make it back alive, knowing that they probably won’t. The wallets become a reminder of every life lost. At the end of the film, after he has stumbled into the wolves’ den, Ottway takes the wallets out of his backpack and looks through them, seeing the pictures of wives and children that he has heard about but never met, and never will, and who will never see their husbands and fathers again. The film acknowledges that the dead are gone but never forgotten.
A character asks Ottway later in the film if what he said to the dying man in the plane is true. “Does it slide over you? Is it true?” and Ottway says, “Yes.” How does Ottway know this? How could anyone still living know what death is like? I don’t know, but The Grey is a film that brings you closer to knowing.
One more scene, then I’m done. It pains me to even think about this scene, let alone write about it, but here goes. When there are only two characters left, Ottway and an extremely likable fellow named Hendrick, they are struggling along as best they can when the wolves show up again and start chasing them. Hendrick trips and falls into an icy river, where he is swept along by the unforgiving current. His foot gets stuck between some rocks, and his face is just inches below the surface of the water. Ottway tries to free him, to life him up to the air, but he can’t quite do it.
Hendrick drowns, mere inches away from air.
Drowning is one of my biggest fears. The idea of being completely helpless as darkness overwhelms you terrifies me beyond words. The thing about this scene in the film is that it’s agonizing even if you don’t look at it, as Hendrick’s desperate gurgling cries underwater are as heartrending as anything else in the film. It’s made even more unbearable by the fact that Hendrick is the most appealing, reliable, and genuinely likable character in the film, and watching him die so painfully is nearly impossible.
Well, there it is. The closest I’ve ever felt to death at the movies. I’m sorry this post was so dark. I don’t want to depress people, and I don’t want to trivialize something important. I just really wanted to write about this, it’s one of those things I just couldn’t shake. It was difficult to write and probably difficult to read, but it was worth it to write and hopefully worth it to read. I promise to do something more lighthearted and uplifting next time.
I find it truly extraordinary how art is capable of making us feel like we can actually know the unknowable. Life is precious, and I’m grateful to these films for reminding me of that.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.