Because of the nature of this article, it is impossible to give a spoiler alert for specific films. By simply naming the film, the spoiler is already done. So readers are hereby warned. I have made sure, however, that the most recent film I have used is from 2008 and so these are all films you have had a chance to see.
There is a definition of the difference between comedy and tragedy, which I think comes from the marvellously named Northrop Frye. It goes something like this: tragedy says ‘everybody dies’ and comedy says, ‘ah well, life goes on’. In tragedy, everybody (usually) does not die. We always have our Horatios, to ‘draw his breath in pain’ and recount the story of what happened. In cinema, likewise, Horatios abound; survivors of massacres and shoot-outs, who live on older and wiser, like on-screen audience members. Think of The Wild Bunch (1969) and Deke Thornton, played by Robert Ryan. He is the only original member of the gang to survive. Their bloody finale is a battle he witnesses, but does not participate in. His arrival also retroactively justifies their suicidal decision. Had they survived, they would have been forced into a fratricidal showdown with Deke and his bounty hunters. As is also the case in Red River (1948), a third party antagonist allows a much more painful family quarrel to be sidestepped.
Westerns and War Movies
When everybody dies in a Western, it is partly because as a genre its ruling theme is one of loss and decline. They Died with Their Boots On (1941) is still startling to watch today as Errol Flynn’s cavalry unit is wiped out. However, that was the portrait of a massacre, a massacre that itself went on to both erase and justify other much larger, much more destructive massacres: a genocide in fact. Once upon a Time in the West (1968) begins with death – the three waiting gunmen are dispatched with brilliant abruptness – continues with death – the massacre of a family and sundry hired guns – and ends with the death of the three male protagonists: Frank is killed on camera, Cheyenne’s death is indicated through the soundtrack and Harmonica’s is implied – he has in fact been dying from the very first shoot-out. As in The Wild Bunch, an old masculine way of life has died as civilisation and a new female-dominated space persist. Claudia Cardinale survives to run her business, perhaps to tell the tale, but probably secretly relieved not only that her tormentor is gone, but likewise her quasi-rapist saviours.
The West needs its men to die. Likewise war films demand high body counts, and the death of the main protagonists can be almost total. Of course, death is valued and figured differently in different genres. In a war movie, like Saving Private Ryan (1998), the meaningless deaths that begin the film are substituted with the meaningful sacrifices that conclude the film. Captain Miller’s last words insist that his death and the death of practically his whole squad be given meaning and in that way somehow redeemed. ‘Deserve this,’ he tells Matt Damon’s Private Ryan, and obviously in doing so the audience, whom Spielberg and historian Stephen Ambrose explicitly wish to remind of the heroism and sacrifice of the ‘good’ war. We are all being reprimanded. Even bad wars (Vietnam, Somalia) can be turned into life lessons. Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) both succeed in turning their whey-faced young innocents into hardened real men, usually via the meaning(ful)less deaths of their comrades in arms. But here we stray. People die during a war, lots of people, but not everybody. In fact, as with Saving Private Ryan, war movies see events from the perspective of survivors.
Although not a war movie as such, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List approaches the Holocaust from this perspective. And here this emphasis threatens to distort the actual subject. If all you knew of the world was gained from watching Schindler’s List, one could be forgiven for thinking that as bad as the Holocaust was, it wasn’t difficult to survive as long as one had a kindly Nazi to hand. Spielberg’s lucky Jews even survive the gas chamber – being led to a shower room which, despite a false alarm, is actually a shower room. Compare this to the little seen The Grey Zone (2001), directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Here, the Jews who make up the subject of the film are not lucky, nor innocent. The sonderkomando are prisoners who are responsible for seeing to the day-to-day mechanics of the gas chambers and ovens under the watchful eye of the German guards. It is they who usher in the prisoners from the train to the bathhouse; they who calm fears with lies, and they who lock the doors and then loot and burn the bodies. A Jewish pathologist working with Mengele is given special treatment, but anguishes over his decisions. Quarrelling with a fellow prisoner, he says he might bring something good out of all this and is rebuffed. ‘You give the killing purpose,’ the prisoner (played by Daniel Benzali) growls. Giving meaning to death is the most immoral reaction. The same prisoner, in organising a revolt, makes it clear that his aim is not escape, but sabotage. Survival, rather than being an imperative, becomes morally dubious. As Vasily Grossman writes of a sonderkomando in the same situation: ‘he was dimly aware that if you wish to remain a human being under fascism, there is an easier option than survival – death.’
As a film, The Grey Zone insists that everybody dies. Not only the Jews in the gas chambers, but also the sonderkomando who rebel, and the sonderkomando who don’t (they are exterminated and replaced every four months). The film’s coda also informs us that the Nazi commandant is also executed and the pathologist dies. His wife dies in the 70s. This is the opposite of Spielberg’s coda, which is almost tasteless in its argument that Schindler’s survivors have had lots of babies, as if this was a problem that could be solved with arithmetic. The ending of Schindler’s List is comic – life goes on – whereas The Grey Zone refuses to give the killing extra-narrative meaning and is decidedly tragic. Everybody dies, even the survivors will die.
Gangster and Horror
The most common films in which everybody dies are gangster and horror films. In gangster films, the offing of large numbers of principal characters can easily be explained as the old studio imperative that crime mustn’t be seen to pay (but that this must only come at the end after we’ve had our vicarious vice). It did for James Cagney in White Heat (1949), Al Pacino in Scarface (1983) and the runaways of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Going back to Jacobean tragedy for a second, Reservoir Dogs (1992) manages to kill everyone, outdoing Hamlet. Mr Pink (the weasel) appears to escape, but the soundtrack leads us to believe he was likely gunned down outside. Likewise, Mr White gets an off-screen death scene. There is no Horatio, no Deke Thornton. The film has a pleasingly classical completeness. The only speaking role who survives is Mr Orange’s superior officer and I like to think that Mr Pink got him with a stray bullet before himself falling under a hail of gunfire.
The Final Destination, Hostel and Saw franchises depend on the wholesale slaughter of their casts, making the inevitability of their deaths into something like a game. The poster line for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – ‘Who will survive and what will be left of them?’ – runs true for a number of horror films. Going one better are the films that tell you from the very beginning that everyone involved in the incidents related in the film has been killed, or ‘gone missing’. Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is an early example of this. We know everyone has died. All that remains is to see how. Likewise in The Blair Witch Project (1999). Here, Horatio is the camera itself and the tapes or footage left behind. The same device is used in Cloverfield (2008).
Where this isn’t pre-agreed, the death of everyone can come as a shock. The most effective examples of this can be found in The Long Weekend (1978) and Open Water (2003). These are both revenge-of-nature films, and the genre implies that someone will ultimately survive to tell the tale. Both films involve couples rather than groups, and so this might lead to their vulnerability. Both films also imply the indifference of the universe to us, and therefore by extension to our need for narrative comfort. Despite its environmental credentials, 1972’s Silent Running shares a similarly terrifying view of the larger indifference of the universe.
There is a film where everybody really does die. Not just the protagonists – everybody. The main characters, the bit parts, the non-speaking extras, people who never appear on screen and the audience. Dr Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964) is the opposite of Schindler’s List. Whereas Schindler’s List is a tragedy operating in a comic universe, Dr Strangelove is a comedy realised in a tragic netherworld. The implied annihilation is rendered certain by the final shots of mushroom clouds. Even the doomsday machine doesn’t condemn humanity as finally and completely as the sound of Vera Lynn singing ‘We’ll Meet Again’ does. This irony doesn’t work without our accepting our own complete destruction. Other post-nuclear films concentrate on either the fantasy or the nightmare of a splinter of humanity remaining. However unpleasant that might be, life does go on. Dr Strangelove is unique in positing that life does not go on and is even more radically interesting in suggesting that (humanity being what it is) our all ending could be the only happy ending. The often skipped-over subtitle says it all. We love the bomb because ultimately we deserve it. The laughter inherent in Kubrick’s masterpiece is wrought with pain but also indicative of relief. Finally, life does not go on.
Some of the ideas in this article were developed with the aid of a discussion thread at film-philosophy.com and I would like to thank the film scholars who made suggestions and participated in that thread.