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A Field Guide to the Movies That Make Us Cry
By: Mike McGranaghan
Jun 2, 2014
A Field Guide to the Movies That Make Us Cry
Has roughly 125 minutes left to live.

Movies have the power to make us laugh, make us feel fear or excitement, and make us think. They can even make us cry. Oh boy, can they ever make us cry. It’s kind of amazing how you can walk into a movie feeling perfectly happy, only to walk out two hours later a blubbering mess.  Movies that seem specifically designed to turn on the tear ducts of audience members are commonly referred to as “tearjerkers,” and Hollywood has a long history of cranking them out. Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, released in 1921, may well have been the very first tearjerker, and The Fault in Our Stars looks to be the latest.  A careful analysis of the genre shows that most tearjerkers fall into one of five distinct categories, which we’ve digested for you here. When filmmakers want to emotionally wreck people who have paid hard-earned money to watch their art, these are the sure-fire ways to do it.

The Doomed Relationship Tearjerker (a.k.a. The Nicholas Sparks Tearjerker) — These movies are all about two people falling madly in love, only to have fate cruelly, tragically intervene. Love Story is one of the most well-known examples. You remember that one, right? Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw fall in love, and then she is diagnosed with a disease that makes her look more beautiful the sicker she gets. Once she cannot possibly get any more beautiful, she dies. Titanic is another well-known example of this type. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio share a magical romance before their ship hits an iceberg and sinks, killing Leo. (The moral of the story: ice is kind of an a-hole.) And let us not forget Dying Young, which tells you right there in the super-depressing title that someone’s going to bite the dust — and soon. Author Nicholas Sparks has perfected the Doomed Relationship Tearjerker; many of his novels have been adapted for the screen, and he’s written a few original screenplays as well. In fact, it’s pretty much a guarantee that someone will die in a Sparks story. After all, what could be sadder than finally meeting one’s true love, only to have them contract some hideous disease (A Walk to Remember), contract a different hideous disease (The Notebook), or get buried alive in a South American mudslide (Nights in Rodanthe)? Not to be sexist, but Doomed Relationship Tearjerkers are generally seen by women, who gather together in groups to share “a good cry.” Men never seek out a good cry.

The Sports Tearjerker — Unless it involves sports, that is. Sports tearjerkers give men a culturally-acceptable excuse to let out the emotions they’re typically taught to hide. Crying at A Walk to Remember will get a man labeled “wimpy,” but crying at Brian’s Song is A-OK, even though both movies are about people dying of cancer. Truth be told, Sports Tearjerkers often use athletics to touch on other, deeper subjects. Brian’s Song hits on the idea of not getting the chance to fulfill one’s potential, Field of Dreams incorporates father/son dynamics, and Rudy is all about getting to prove your worth after a long period of failure. Such issues are encoded into male DNA, so when addressed meaningfully, men will be coerced into the Ugly Cry.

The Dead Animal Tearjerker — Some people can see movies in which hundreds of people die and never shed a tear; show them one dead animal, though, and they completely pull a Pharrell Williams. These people often have better relationships with their pets than they do with other human beings. Dogs are the most common creatures to croak in this category: Marley & Me, Hatchi: A Dog’s Tale, Old Yeller, and My Dog Skip are all fine examples of man’s best friend crossing the Rainbow Bridge onscreen. Other animals die less frequently, but with no less an impact. The Yearling and Charlotte’s Web spring immediately to mind. And let’s not forget Bambi’s mom! Animals are innocent, which is why their cinematic deaths are so powerful. Also, anyone who’s ever lost a beloved pet undoubtedly has a button pushed in a big, bad way when viewing a Dead Animal Tearjerker.

The Historical Tearjerker — Real-life events often elicit tears because we know these things really happened. Sometimes we even know people they happened to. Saving Private Ryan, with its famous “earn this” line, honors the brave soldiers who died defending the American way of life during WWII, i.e. our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers. Same goes for the Vietnam drama Platoon. Whether you know/were related to anyone who was killed in the Holocaust or not, it’s almost impossible not to weep at the knowledge of six million unjustly lost lives at the end of Schindler’s List. And when the screen dramatically cuts to black in the final seconds of United 93, the tragedy of 9/11 comes flooding right back. Reading about history in school textbooks could often be dry; seeing historical events recreated onscreen makes them more emotionally relatable, and thus more tear-inducing.

The Innocence Lost Tearjerker — One of the undeniable facts of life is that we start off completely pure and are slowly exposed to the harsh realities of the world. So naturally, any movie that tackles that idea is going to get people bawling. Toy Story 3 ended with the now-grown Andy giving away all the toys that once meant so much to him. Given that the series spent three movies anthropomorphizing those toys, it’s especially devastating for the audience. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is about a little boy who befriends the universe’s most adorable alien, only to discover that the government would like to kill it. My Girl and Bridge to Terabithia are about children dealing with the death of other children. (This is probably the saddest concept in the whole world.) That brings us to Beaches, one of the most well-known of all tearjerkers, in which Bette Midler realizes that a part of her childhood dies along with her lifelong friend Barbara Hershey, and she’s inspired to sing the most maudlin song ever written as a result. Growing up can feel scary. These tearjerkers make us cry by reminding us of our own bits of innocence that have been stripped away.

Tearjerkers will continue to be a regular occurrence in cinemas for as long as movies exist. They allow us an emotional release that’s healthy. They remind us of our humanity. They help keep tissue companies in business. Most of all, they touch our hearts in the strongest way possible, and that’s a big part of the magic of movies. Now, could someone please pass the Kleenex? I’m getting a little verklempt just thinking about this subject.