Is this the saddest movie ever made?
Boxing tearjerker 'The Champ' is routinely shown to patients undergoing psychological tests
Published 27/09/2011 | 05:00
Film-fans may argue but science has spoken. And the award for Most Heart-Wrenching Movie Scene of all time goes to the closing moments of 1979's The Champ.
Some people love a good cry with a box of tissues and a sad movie. But if you are not in the mood for an emotional punch to the gut, it is probably best to avoid what scientists have decided is the saddest movie scene of all time.
A remake of a 1930s classic, The Champ stars Jon Voight and the then nine-year-old child-actor Ricky Schroeder and tells to the story of a broke, washed-up boxer called Billy Flynn, who tries to make a comeback.
Its final scene, which sees Flynn (spoiler alert!) die in the ring in front of his young son, has been judged to be the saddest movie scene of all time.
It truly would take a heart of stone not to be affected by the sight of little TJ (Schroeder won a Golden Globe for his performance) sobbing as he hugs his dying father and wailing; "Champ, wake up, Champ! Hey, don't sleep now. We got to go home. Got to go home, Champ!".
And since US research psychologist Robert Levenson identified the scene as the saddest ever, scientists in the US and Europe have used it -- and others -- in a range of psychological experiments.
Following Professor Levenson's lead, researchers have hit upon using movie scenes as the most ethical and effective way of causing patients and research subjects to feel everything from extreme sadness to fear and joy.
The latest edition of the US magazine The Smithsonian confirms that The Champ is virtually the industry standard for evoking sadness in psychological research programmes worldwide.
Initially, researchers used the scene to help them understand what, exactly, triggers the emotion of sadness in people and to measure empathy levels -- ranging from those who will cry at the drop of a hat to those few hard-hearted individuals who remain unmoved even by the emotional power of the young Ricky Schroeder, crying for his dying father.
The Champ has been used in studies to see if depressed people are more likely to cry than non-depressed people (perhaps surprisingly, they are not).
It has helped determine whether people are more likely to spend money when they are sad (they are) and whether older people are more sensitive to grief than younger people (older people did report more sadness when they watched the scene).
Scientists in Holland have used the very same scene to study the effect of sadness on people with binge eating disorders.
As expected, the scene from The Champ did make their patients cry. But the sadness they felt was not found to increase unhealthy eating.
The idea of using movie clips to evoke emotions ranging from sadness and despair to greed and happiness in laboratory settings was first hit upon by Professor Levenson at the University of California in 1988.
Over a period of years, Levenson and his team collected 250 film-clips and whittled that list down to 78 scenes which they showed to 500 viewers to determine their emotional responses.
After seven years of fine- tuning the technique, they published a list of 16 short film clips that are able to provoke a specific emotional response, ranging from anger, fear, disgust and laughter to sadness.
As well as using well known film scenes, scientists also use montage clips, such as waves breaking on a beach at sunset, or abstract shapes and colours, to illicit other emotions in subjects.
This research has now been cited in more than 300 scientific studies.
Professor James Gross, who was a graduate student working with Professor Levenson when he started his research into the effects of films on emotions, says they were fascinated by the usefulness of certain scenes for research.
"Films have this really unusual status," says Gross.
"People willingly pay money to see tearjerkers -- and walk out of the theatre with no apparent ill effect.
"As a result, there's an ethical exemption to making someone emotional with a film."