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Tournament of Sadness: Round 4

This is the fourth in a series of posts I will be writing to determine the most depressing movie we have in the library’s film collection. I will be watching 16 devastating movies in the coming months — feel free to join in the “fun” and share your feedback!

Illustration by Dan Wyke:


Round 4: Sad Animals

Old Yeller (1957)

Things you will encounter in this movie: the dog dies.

The other day I was describing the documentary The Champions to a friend, and just in mentioning it I made myself get teary-eyed. For those unfamiliar with the film, it follows the lives of the pit-bulls rescued from quarterback Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring and the kind folks who are dedicated to rehabilitating them and giving them gentler lives. I practically cried throughout the entire movie — both due to the unbelievable sadness surrounding the atrocities of dog-fighting, and the touching turnaround for some of these brave pups. (I’m getting misty as I type this).

So you can imagine how I felt about having to watch Old Yeller. When I first proposed this project last summer I was flooded with all manner of sad animal movies: Bambi, Marley & Me, The Yearling, The Last Unicorn…the list goes on and on. Most of these are children’s movies, and I understand why they’re important — they’re helpful for introducing young viewers to concepts like death, mortality and grief. I get that and appreciate that. But as an adult viewer I do not want to watch a movie where the dog (or another charming, beloved animal familiar) is going to pass away in the saddest way possible. Kids are resilient and can handle these kinds of stories. Apparently I cannot.

In short, Old Yeller made me cry like the giant, non resilient, adult baby that I am. In this very sweet Disney classic, young Kevin bonds with a dog, the dog is awesome and rescues his adopted family from a wolf attack, the dog gets rabies and Kevin has to put him out of his misery. If you are anything like me, I suggest you bookmark the website Movies Where the Dog Dies to avoid viewing experiences such as this one.

Score on a scale of 1 – 5, with 5 being the most depressing.

Hopelessness: 3

Existential Dread: 3.5

Despair: 4

Total: 3.5 tears

The Elephant Man (1980)

Things you will encounter in this movie: exploitation, loneliness, alienation, bullying, humanity.

First of all, I realize that including Elephant Man in this category may seem like a cheat, as the most iconic line from this film is, “I am not an animal. I am a human being!” I couldn’t find any other category to place this movie in, though, and decided that I also did not want to watch two movies where the beloved family pet dies. So here we are.

I had not seen this film before, and am now glad that I had an excuse to seek it out. It’s moving and wonderfully acted, as well as being beautifully shot in black & white (by David Lynch of all people).

A man named John Merrick is the titular “Elephant Man”, born disfigured and forced into performing as a sideshow attraction for a seedy flimflam man named Bytes. Bytes treats Merrick as little more than an animal, frequently locking him in a cage or beating him, all while exploiting his birth defects for profit.

All of this would be horribly depressing without the interference of Anthony Hopkins’ Dr. Frederick Treves, who encounters Merrick among the bearded ladies, Siamese twins and floating embryos at a London sideshow. Initially he is simply curious about him and offers Merrick respite in his hospital after discovering that his employer/keeper has beaten him. Eventually sensing a gentle intelligence in Merrick he invites him to stay under his care permanently.

The now refined “Elephant Man” becomes the talk of London, a favorite curiosity and cause among the rich and elite. Dr. Treve’s housekeeper feels protective of Merrick and warns the doctor that, “If you ask my opinion, he’s only being stared at all over again.”

Ultimately this film turned out to be not nearly as depressing as I feared it would be. While there is some poor human behavior on display here (I can think of two particular vignettes that are horrifying to watch), there is also a great deal of kindness and care. Through the careful attentions of a handful of people, John Merrick is able to experience dignity for the first time in his life. It’s a sad film for sure, but not without its hopeful moments.

Score on a scale of 1 – 5, with 5 being the most depressing.

Hopelessness: 3

Existential Dread: 3.5

Despair: 3.5

Total: 3.33 tears

Happy viewing (?),


For the Family That Cries Together

Checkout Old Yeller today!

Tara is a Librarian in the Music, Film & Audio Department, and loves to make film & book recommendations. Some of her interests include gardening, cookbooks, foreign films, comedy albums and devastating literary fiction.

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