Top Five Tear-Jerkers

I love a good cry at a properly tragic film. (Anything bittersweet or vaguely downbeat, on the other hand, will annoy me intensely). My three favourite films of all time are The Lord of the Rings (in the books I weep over the death of Theoden, in the films it's the moment where that flute plays as Sam and Frodo are struggling up Mount Doom), Gladiator (see below) and Titanic (sob-fest for most of the second half).

A few weeks ago I compiled a list of top tear-jerking episodes of geek TV for Den of Geek, which, naturally enough, got me thinking about Classically-themed weepies. There were fewer obvious candidates than I'd expected, possibly because Classical films tend to put more emphasis on the blood and guts and less on the soppy stuff, but if you have something stuck in your eye, one of these might help to get it out.

5. Jesus Christ Superstar
OK, this one might be the Catholic in me rather than the Classicist, but it still makes me well up. The role of Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar is not always the easiest because it can rather easily be over-shadowed by the potentially more interesting part of Judas. But Jesus gets one big moment in the spotlight - his solo in the Garden of Gethsemane, in which he wrestles with his desire not to get horribly executed. Ted Neeley's performance in Norman Jewison's film version is powerful and impassioned, and ensures that Jesus, as well as Judas, is presented as a conflicted and interesting character.
Tear-jerking moment: Most of the solo is shot with Jesus climbing a mountain, getting higher and higher and yelling at the sky, but as he sings 'see how I die,' the film shows a montage of medieval and Renaissance paintings of the crucifixion which are somehow more powerful than any number of filmed versions.
You might be all right until: 'Just watch me die! See how I die!'

4. Rome, Passover
Julius Caesar kind of had it coming. He fought several civil wars, turned the remnants of the Republic into a dictatorship, terrified one co-consul into hiding in his house for a year and was responsible for death on a massive scale. And yet, there is something moving about the passing, no matter how well deserved, of such a towering historical figure; made all the more emotive in Caesar's case because he was killed by former enemies to whom he had shown mercy and who he had pardoned after the civil war. To top it all, in Rome, we see Caesar's slave Posca, someone who seems to have felt genuine affection and love for the man and was probably the closest person to him, distraught at the sight of his bloody body.
Tear-jerking moment: Posca weeps over Caesar's body and covers Caesar's face with his toga (historically, Caesar supposedly did this himself while dying).
You might be all right until: The shot of Posca weeping over Caesar slides into Vorenus weeping over Niobe (much as that is at least partly his own fault).

3. The Hunger Games
All of The Hunger Games is pretty tragic, given that it's about children being forced to kill each other. But the really gut-wrenching moment is the inevitable death of young Rue, Katniss' ally whose tactics involved mostly running away and hiding (and, er, getting Katniss to do her dirty work for her). The book's version is very affecting, as you feel Katniss' grief with her, but the film version is perhaps even more tear-jerking because we also get to see the reaction to Rue's death in her home of District 11.
Tear-jerking moment: Katniss salutes towards the cameras she knows are all around, and a man who may or may not be related to Rue, mad with grief and anger, starts a riot in District 11. The revolution starts here.
You might be all right until: When Katniss starts crying, so will you.

2. The West Wing, Two Cathedrals
I've waxed lyrical before about how I think this is one of the best episodes of television ever made, and it must rank up with the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth as one of the greatest weepies in series television. Perhaps it's true that the tears will flow most freely in the final scene, as Bartlet walks out to meet the press (in dramatic rain, natch) to the strains of Dire Straits' 'Brothers in Arms,' which has nothing really to do with Classics. But the emotional low point of the episode, in which Bartlet yells at God, in the National Cathedral, in Latin, is also pretty amazing and thoroughly sniffle-worthy.
Tear-jerking moment: Bartlet is the picture of good Catholic respect until the moment the doors are closed and he's alone, at which point he starts calling God a feckless thug.
You might be all right until: 'What was Josh Lyman, a warning shot? That was my son! What did I ever do to yours but praise his glory and praise his name?'

1. Gladiator
Much like Titanic, I'm generally in tears for half the film in this case. From the slowed-down battle sequence, to Lucilla mourning her father and slapping Commodus then kissing his hand, to Maximus discovering his families' bodies (that's some Oscar-winning snot in that scene) to the deaths of Proximo and the German dude, the whole thing is weepier than Steel Magnolias. And it's all helped along by the great Hans Zimmer's best score (it's since been much imitated, and it may sound quite a lot like Pirates of the Caribbean, but this one was the original). But top crying props must go to the finale, as Maximus goes to the afterlife (a Spanish vineyard, which sounds pretty nice as an afterlife to me) while Lucilla asks if Rome is worth one good man's life while everyone completely fails to care about the very recent death of Emperor Commodus. Totally unhistorical of course, but I'm past caring by this point in the film.
Tear-jerking moment: The surviving male characters (including tiny Lucius) come forward to carry Maximus' body away. Commodus is left lying in the sand.
You might be all right until: 'Who will help me carry him?' Or perhaps, if you hold out a really long time, 'I will see you again - but not yet!'

Bubbling under: The Roman Mysteries, 'The Secrets of Vesuvius' (death of Pliny the Elder); I, Claudius, 'Poison is Queen' (death of Augustus); Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (death of Dobby the house elf); Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, 'The Bitter End' (perhaps surprisingly, death of Batiatus); Doctor Who, 'The Fires of Pompeii' (death of really quite a lot of people, but importantly not of Caecilius and his family).

More Top Five Lists


  1. If it's done well, the biggest Classical tearjerker for me is Cleopatra's death scene, especially if it sticks close to Shakespeare/Plutarch's account. I remember when I was doing my A level Ancient History course, "Antony and Cleopatra" had been on telly quite recently and then our textbook quoted Plutarch's account. I had a very hard time not to start sobbing in class.

  2. I also cried at the end of Gladiator. The music at Maximus's death also made me cry. The music was so beautiful yet sad!

  3. Of the five above, I've seen The Hunger Games and Gladiator, but none of the others (only bits of Jesus Christ Superstar, strangely enough; my favourite film of that story is Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth, which has a haunting soundtrack and an utterly moving performance by Robert Powell, and which contains a number of weepies, if you feel the need to shed some more tears).

    Cleopatra's death scene in Cleopatra is actually pretty moving, I thought; and Marc Antony's is hard to watch, too (but one cannot not watch Richard Burton).

    And how can you stay dry-eyed at Jean Simmons showing the infant to Kirk Douglas at the end of Spartacus? I say you can't.

  4. I love Jesus of Nazareth - and the score is amazing! I guess I've just seen it so many times from such an early age, its impact is a bit reduced. We used to watch it every Christmas and every Easter! But when I was in my early teens, I didn't like Superstar so much, I didn't really get it, so it had more of an impact when I saw it again.

    My favourite death-of-Antony-and-Cleopatra is Rome, and I do well up a bit there. I love Burton, but somehow the Shakespeare/Plutarch/Burton and Taylor version just doesn't get me going in the same way as Caesar's death. I don't know why - maybe a similar problem, having read it first in a Horrible Histories book.

    I'm afraid the end of Spartacus, quite apart from the fact I'm desperate for the film to hurry up and finish by then, just mildly annoys me for being manipulative, putting him up on that cross all symbolic-like instead of having him killed in battle. Why that bugs me when the end of Gladiator doesn't, I couldn't tell you!

  5. I love Jesus of Nazareth - and the score is amazing!

    Isn't it, though? It's fabulous. And the scene that just always sends the chills down my spine every time is the one from Matthew 20:17-19, in which Jesus predicts his arrest and crucifixion to his Apostles, and as he says '... and on the third day, he shall rise again', the music swells up and the fog swirls, and it's just the most amazing thing.

    Almost enough to make me want to not be an atheist!

    I've never seen Rome, but I shall have to try one of these days.

    And I'm sorry you can't get into the end of Spartacus, but, hey. My education was sufficiently horrible that I didn't know better, so the ending didn't bother me. In fact, that film was the first time I ever encountered the story of Spartacus, and it made me want to go read a lot more about him. I know we've talked about this before, but I seem to recall there was some question as to whether he was identified after the final battle, or might have been one of the slaves who were crucified along the Appian Way. Anyway, it always gets me. (And, frankly, it being Jean Simmons doesn't hurt, either.)

  6. Commodus deserves to get left behind in the sand!

    There's quite a lot in the LOTR trilogy to get choked up about. Theoden's scene where he's standing at the grave of his son is particularly emotional, one of the most powerful moments of the entire trilogy.


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