10 Heart-Wrenching and Heroic On-Screen Sacrificial Deaths

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Contrary to what a lot of people might tell you, it’s okay to shed a tear or two over TV and movie characters. No, you’re not watching real people struggle through life and death. But that doesn’t change the fact that fiction can pack one heck of an emotional wallop. And nothing hits you harder in the feels than when one character heroically sacrifices his or her life to save others. These are 10 of the most tear-jerking and heroic sacrificial deaths in movie and television history.

By the way, this goes without saying given the content here, but just in case you’ve never seen any of these movies or shows before: we’re going to be spoiling the crap out of them. You’ve been warned.

10. Terminator 2 – The T-800

There are a couple reasons this scene isn’t a little higher up on the list. The first is that, obviously, the T-800 is really just an extremely advanced computer. It doesn’t have real emotions, it doesn’t feel pain, and so forth. It’d be like watching someone take a hammer to your laptop. Yeah, it sucks, but it’s not like you can’t just replace it with an upgraded model. And that brings us to our second point: the T-800 was simply replaced by another version of that particular model in later movies, giving this version’s sacrifice far less permanence.

That said, this was always such a tough scene for any kid who identified with Edward Furlong’s John Connor. And while the T-800 wasn’t a “real” person, he certainly had enough self awareness to understand that the greater good depended on his being destroyed. The world had no future as long as he existed. And say what you will about the thumbs up maybe being a little emotionally manipulative but, let’s be honest: it worked.

9. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 – Snape

Now, here’s a scene that’s a little different from the others on the list. Severus Snape, the conflicted occasional antagonist and secret protector of Harry Potter, isn’t necessarily sacrificing himself here. Instead, his sacrifice goes a lot deeper, and lasts a lot longer than anyone else’s on this list. As pretty much anyone reading this already knows, Snape’s heroism isn’t encapsulated in this one scene simply because the sacrifice he was making lasted nearly two decades.

As Harry discovers, Snape was consistently putting himself in harm’s way in order to both keep the son of his romantic rival safe and to keep the most evil wizard the world has ever known from rising up and seizing power. In a very real (well, real in terms of within the story) way, Snape’s sacrifice didn’t just help to save the wizarding world, but the world as a whole. Every Muggle owes his life to Snape, because once he was finished with Harry Potter, the very next target on Voldemort’s hit list was us non-magic folk.

8. The Flash – Eddie Thawne

For some of you, there’s probably a little confusion because you’re not overly familiar with any shows on the CW, let alone The Flash. But stick with us here, because it absolutely belongs. Throughout the first season of The Flash, it’s slowly revealed that the Reverse Flash (Barry Allen’s nemesis. Duh.) is from the future. He traveled back in time with the explicit purpose of killing Barry Allen as a child, but failed. We won’t get into that, because Doc Brown isn’t around to explain all of the time paradoxes that get created.

Meanwhile, the woman Barry loves is dating a detective named Eddie Thawne. It turns out, the Reverse Flash is a descendent of Eddie, though he takes tremendous pleasure in letting Eddie know that he’s perhaps the most inconsequential Thawne in the family’s history. Fast forward to the end of the season, when it appears that the Reverse Flash is about to murder Barry Allen and everyone he loves. Eddie Thawne, the seemingly insignificant guy everyone kind of writes off, shoots himself – thereby erasing any descendants from the timeline, including the Reverse Flash. He sacrifices his own life for the good of humanity but, more importantly, to save Barry and the woman they both love.

7. Independence Day – Russell Casse

Yeah, we know. Independence Day is cheesy and schlocky and maybe a little overly patriotic. Come on, the movie is named after the Fourth of July. What else would you expect than the movie equivalent of the pledge of allegiance? Anyway, while it’s fun to knock Independence Day in retrospect, that doesn’t change the fact that it was ridiculously fun. And it sure as hell doesn’t change the fact that perhaps the dopiest character in any disaster movie, ever, gets an extremely emotional sendoff.

Russell Casse is really a pretty tragic character, and not just because he’s played by Randy Quaid. He’s a drunk, he’s a laughingstock, his children only barely tolerate him, and he screws up with startling regularity. But as is revealed during the climax of the film, he’s also astoundingly courageous and will do absolutely anything to keep his children safe. So when all hope is lost, he singlehandedly turns the tide by flying his jet into the alien ship, destroying it and not just saving his children but also showing the US military how to defeat the aliens once and for all. It’s okay to admit that you get a little teary eyed when he looks at the photo of his kids and finds the resolve to do what needs to be done, by the way. We sure as hell do.

6. Armageddon – Harry Stamper

Staying with the “corny ’90s disaster flick” genre, we come to Armageddon. Not to be confused with Deep Impact, which told basically the same story but with far less Aerosmith involved. Yes, the premise is pretty absurd, to the point where even Ben Affleck points out how dumb it is to train drillers to become astronauts rather than the other way around on the commentary track. And don’t even get us started on Steve Buscemi’s “space dementia.”

That said, you can’t argue that the end of the film isn’t an emotional gut punch. Much like in Independence Day, all hope seems to be lost. The fate of thew world is sealed. But then Bruce Willis does Bruce Willis things, which during this stretch of his career meant saving the day. The more emotional scene is probably his last conversation with his daughter, as he says goodbye just before sacrificing his life to get the job done and keep her safe. But it’s still stirring as hell to watch that final sequence as he detonates the nuke and sees images of his daughter flash through his mind just before the moment of his death.

5. The Fellowship of the Ring – Boromir

Sometimes, it’s better to watch the extended “director’s cut” of a movie. Despite the versions being released to theaters already clocking in at around three hours, there’s just so much that needed to be cut from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Perhaps no characters suffered more than Boromir and his brother Faramir from these editing decisions. Boromir becomes a much more fleshed out character in the extended editions. His motivations become clearer with regard for his actions through the first movie.

But that doesn’t make his death any less heroic. Tempted by the One Ring – as nearly all men are – the generally heroic Boromir is nearly turned into a villain in its presence. Once he’s clear of its power, however, he realizes his mistakes and immediately begins to atone for them. As an army of orcs swarm Merry and Pippin, Boromir enters the fray and singlehandedly fights off dozens in an attempt to save their lives. Ultimately, his efforts fail and the two hobbits are taken by the orcs. Not all heroic acts are successful. But in a scene like this one, it’s still plenty devastating to see his courage in the face of overwhelming odds.

4. Lost – Charlie

Speaking of enormous kicks to the feelings, we come to Charlie Pace. The misfit, drug-addled, former rock star on the series Lost got what turned out to be the most heroic death in the entire run of that show. If you never watched Lost, it’s going to be difficult to explain exactly how we arrive at this point in the show. Let’s be honest, the whole thing got way too convoluted for its own good. But the quick version: in season three, a boat arrives at the island. The people on board claim to have been sent by Penny, the wife of another castaway on the island, Desmond.

Desmond and Charlie find themselves in an underwater communications station. Charlie makes contact with Penny, who informs him she doesn’t know the new arrivals. However, just as this happens, an explosion floods the communications room. Charlie is trapped inside, his death imminent. But the formerly selfish, spoiled drug addict makes his final moments count. Rather than simply accepting his fate, he uses those final moments to write “NOT PENNY’S BOAT” on his hand, holding it up to the door for Desmond to see. In doing so, he’s able to warn Desmond and, by extension, the other castaways. In his final moments, he makes his life – and sacrifice – matter.

3. The Iron Giant – Iron Giant

It’s kind of amazing how frequently cartoons make us cry. We’re not just talking about bawling when Bambi’s mom got shot, either. But let’s be honest: nothing can touch the Giant’s sacrifice at the end of The Iron Giant. Arguably, this could well be the most often overlooked classic animated film of all-time. Yes, it’s enjoyed a bit of a resurgence over the last few years. But it’s pretty amazing how quickly it came and went upon being released in 1999.

The anti-war, anti-paranoia story centers on the friendship between a young social outcast and, well, an Iron Giant. The US government becomes convinced the robot must be a Cold War weapon and should therefore be destroyed. A panicked government agent, even after witnessing the Giant save the lives of children, launches a nuclear missile – failing to realize until it’s too late he’s just ordered a small Maine town to be nuked to oblivion. The Giant, understanding what’s about to happen, intercepts the nuke and flies it into space – where it detonates, destroying him instantly. Fortunately, those sad tears are quickly replaced by happy ones. The film ends on a hopeful, uplifting note. Scattered remnants of the Giant are seen inching their way toward each other. Clearly, much like the Giant’s idol, Superman, the fallen hero will rise again.

2. Game of Thrones – Hodor

“Hold the door.” Man, who could have guessed that those three words could have such emotional resonance? Game of Thrones has been filled with blood and death. It’s the kind of show where, if you’re an actor, as soon as you get cast you start looking for your death in the script. So it’s not a shock anymore when a beloved character dies. But that doesn’t make Hodor’s fate any easier to stomach.

Over the first five and a half seasons, Hodor was simply the gentle giant. He was simple, only able to say his own name. And as we learned in season six, it wasn’t even his real name. No one could have expected the origin of the name “Hodor” to be such a game-changer on the show. It turns out, the normal stable boy’s mind was forever altered by Bran Stark – the same boy he grew up destined to protect. The reveal that his entire destiny was to die in order to save Bran was monumental. Somehow, with all of the deaths the show has filmed, Hodor’s sacrifice is by far the most heroic. And considering his fate was never really his own, it was also the most tragic.

1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – Spock

Of course this was going to be in the top spot. Would you expect any different? After all, this is a scene whose message is so powerful (“The needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few, or the one”) that it’s become part of our lexicon. It’s been co-opted by philosophy professors and politicians alike. It’s the most iconic scene in any Star Trek movie, and solidified the Kirk/Spock relationship as one of the strongest in science fiction history.

At the end of Wrath of Khan, the titular villain is on the verge of completing his, well, wrath. As is the trend on this list, all hope seems lost. But that’s when Spock locks himself in the engine room, cutting off the radiation emanating from inside. He’s able to restore power to the Enterprise‘s warp drive and save everyone…except for himself. It’s a moment so moving and so powerful that it actually achieved the rarest feat of all: actual good acting from William Shatner.


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