Top 10 Most Painful to Watch Military Deaths

The military has been presented on film in many ways, in many wars, and with many points of view. This top 10 looks at a few brave souls who died for the “cause”.

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Sometimes the build-up is prolonged, the music reaches a crescendo, there’s often last words like “It’s better this way” and “be there for mum”. Sometimes it is instant and over in a second, other times it is long-lasting, the heartstrings pulled so tightly tears burst from the eyes. Sometimes it is unexpected and shocking, other times it is bloody and violent, forcing you to turn away. Sometimes it is sad, sometimes it is relieving. Sometimes we care, other times we don’t. Sometimes it is significant, other times it is inconsequential. Sometimes we see it, sometimes we don’t.

Filmmakers have portrayed the military death countless times throughout cinema’s history. Looking back it is interesting to see what distinguishes them and how filmmakers have, through controlled point of view, adapted our emotions to feel a certain way. At face value, any death would be considered a moment of sadness but consider rejoicing over the “bad guy” succumbing to the hero, or the faceless destruction of enemy forces in films about World War 1 and 2, or Vietnam, for example.

The following ten scenes definitely leave a lasting impression…

10. Jorge “Poncho” Ramirez – Predator (John McTiernan, USA, 1987)

Poor Poncho. In John McTiernan’s Predator he has most of his bones broken by a huge swinging tree stump to the chest. Surviving for a few moments Arnold Schwarzenegger is powerless to stop the crippled soldier from succumbing to a fatal blast of the alien creature’s shoulder-mounted blaster.

9. Bubba – Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, USA, 1994)

In saving the lives of many American soldiers wounded during a battle in Vietnam, Forrest can’t arrive in time to save his close friend Bubba who passes away on the battlefield.

8. Private Vasquez and Lieutenant Gorman – Aliens (James Cameron, USA, 1986)

The two marines sacrifice themselves to protect the mission. Not only do they manage to kill a bunch of aliens in the process of blowing themselves up, they inadvertently cause one of the characters to fall down a ventilation shaft meaning main character has a new rescue mission on her hands. It all makes for very exciting cinema.

7. Nick “Goose” Bradshaw – Top Gun (Tony Scott, USA, 1986)

Fighter pilot Goose’s death is always an affecting moment in Top Gun as he’s set up as the only person who really understands Maverick and appears to be the over-confident pilot’s only true friend. With grandiose posturing and protracted score that relates his death directly back to his wife and child, Goose’s death brings on the tears – every time.

6. Obi-Wan Kenobi – Star Wars (George Lucas, USA, 1977)

More paramilitary than military, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s death at the hands of Darth Vader never fails to affect audiences, even if they’ve seen it countless times before.

5. The Cow – Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1979)

Not directly related to the military but sacrificed during a military conflict and in a film about the Vietnam war, the cow’s beheading in Apocalypse Now has always left a lasting impression on me.

4. Irwin Wade – Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1999)

The medic imbedded within the group search for Private Ryan is fatally injured during a fire-fight to secure a small German outpost. His fellow soldiers desperately try to save his life but they realise it is too late. In his final breaths Irwin requests an overdose of morphine in order for him to die in the least amount of pain.

3. Sergeant Elias – Platoon (Oliver Stone, USA, 1986)

In one of the most iconic images from cinema’s recreation of the Vietnam war, Willem Defoe succumbs to a hail of bullets in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. The image of Defoe’s death mimics an actual photograph taken during the conflict of a solider by Art Greenspon in 1968.

2. Private Gomer Pyle – Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1987)

Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant anti-war film sees Gomer Pile take his own life after constant bullying from his fellow trainees and commanding officer.

1. Private Stanley “Fish” Mellish – Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1999)

A scene that has always stuck in my mind since I first saw it is Mellish’s death in Saving private Ryan. I think it is one of the most powerful sequences in Spielberg’s World War 2 epic. It is the agonising wait as the German soldier slowly pierces the American’s heart, eventually killing him that not only distinguishes itself as a powerfully shocking image but a metaphor for the futility of war. Both men have one goal in the sequence – the kill the other. There is no quarter given, and there can only be one victor. But the one who walks out of that room has no time to savour such an outcome, as he is quickly thrown into the next kill zone. That the German soldier ignores the feeble Upham, who fails to arrive in time to help Mellish, is further acknowledgment of the sheer wastefulness of war and the overwhelming fear all those that fought in it had to endure.

What films based on the military have had an effect on you?

Written and compiled by Rory Fish.

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Castor Reply

    Nice list Rory. You certainly got the big ones in there. Mellish’s death certainly is painful to watch with that big blade slowing stabbing him into the heart…

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    Jaina Reply

    Great list. Bubba’s probably my top one out of them. Never fails to get me to tears.

    There are some pretty gruesome ones in Black Hawk Down. No one in particular, just guys getting blown, literally, to bits!

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    Anna Reply

    Welp, you got #1 right. Ugh, just thinking about it gives me chills.

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    Rodney Reply

    Woody Harrelson on a grenade in The Thin Red Line – terrible film, great moment.

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    David Reply

    Great list with some of the all-time great war films.The most painful scene to watch,not a military one,is the Russian roulette scenes in Deer Hunter.

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    le0pard13 Reply

    Fine list, Rory. My vote would go to ‘Breaker Morant’.

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    Scott Reply

    Nice ot see the COW mentioned! I still have trouble sleeping after seeing that!

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    Jack Deth Reply

    Hi, Rory and company:

    I’ll stay old school and stick with ‘Hell is for Heroes’ for its several painful to watch deaths.

    With Mike Kellin’s painfully being shot low in back while retreating from an aborted patrol. James Coburn’s tripping a mine while carrying a flame thrower on his back that tipped the G.Is hand to the Germans. To Steve McQueen’s Reese’s sudden, suicidal demise while blowing up a German Bunker and its MG-42 on the Siegfried Line with a satchel charge.

    Though mentioning the Caribou being beheaded by a stone blade in ‘Apocalypse Now’ is a nice touch.

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    Pete Reply

    Great list! Elias, Wade and Goose are my faves off it. Thought Guy Pearce’s early bow out of The Hurt Locker was also a pretty great, unexpected one!

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    The Focused Filmographer Reply

    Jaina’s right about Blackhawk Down. there are quite a few particular deaths that do come to mind though in that film.

    You got a lot of good choices in this one. (feels weird calling them “good choices” given the nature of the subject). Saving Private Ryan had some of the biggest memorable ones for me too.

    I’ll add the sniper at the end of Full Metal Jacket along with Heath Ledger’s character in The Patriot as Mel Gibson’s son.

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    mark Reply

    Clean (Larry Fishburne) in Apocalypse Now, lying freshly dead while a message from his mother plays on a nearby cassette player;

    Richard Harris being machine gunned by Richard Burton in The Wild Geese so he won’t get hacked to death by angry African militia on the airstrip;

    The German prisoner having his head smashed in with a baseball bat by Eli Roth in Inglorious Basterds;

    Ivan’s offscreen death in Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) – from the realisation that he’s been beheaded by the nazis to the final frame of the dead tree at the end of the film’s closing dream sequence …. if that doesn’t make you cry, nothing will.

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    niels Reply

    This is a great list and I love your #1 pick because it would probably be my own as well. It’s such a memorable scene, I remember the first time I watched it and how desperate it made me feel. It was as if I wanted to jump into the screen and stop the nonsense.

    I also happen to love your #2 because that is also my personal #2. I think the performance of Vincent D’Onofrio is severely underrated and it is what makes the first half of the film, punctuated by his tragic death, so effective and lasting.

    Good stuff!

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    sati Reply

    Awesome list, especially number 8, I never liked Aliens but this scene was so badass.

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    Ross McG Reply

    what a great fecking post. great idea. great list. one of those that makes me thing, ‘damn, why the smeg didnt i think of that!?’ which is always a good sign. great number one choice. good job Dan.
    right, ill stop praising you now…

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    ruth Reply

    Is that Toby Kebell in the Saving private Ryan photo? I didn’t even know he’s in that film. I’m not a fan of war films so there are a lot on here I haven’t seen yet.

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    Fitz Reply

    Any death scene in Saving Private Ryan belongs on this list. Such a traumatic film.

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    Dan Grant Reply

    Mellish is a great choice for number one and it has left a very indellible impression on me. That scene is brilliant.

    I’m not big on animal violence so i have not watched the cow beheading.

    Some of the other choices are good as well. I think I’d include Captain Miller from SPR as well. “Earn this”.

  18. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Yep, a fantastic list here. SPR, as mentioned, has some of the toughtest deaths to watch. Even Vin Diesel’s was tough to watch.

    Very nicely done.

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