More than mere contenders: Cinema’s emotional heavyweights

By Levar Polson

When I think back to the first film that made me cry, I remember a visceral experience more than a light teary event. I was about five or six when my dad, watching what seemed to be a boring old film, made me sit still for longer than five minutes and watch it with him. The film was “The Champ” (1979) and it starred Jon Voight as a washed-up, prize-fighter, struggling to reclaim his glory days while being a single parent to his young son.

Maybe it was the film’s father/son relationship that led to me relating the on-screen events to my own relationship with my dad. It was a significant moment.

People remember the films that make them cry.

Since “The Champ”, there have been numerous films that have made me cry. As much as I mock the term, I’m often referred to as a “man’s man”, whatever that means. But I’m quite comfortable to admit that cinema, when at its most poignant, has driven me to shed a tear or two.

I never cried when Mufasa died. As poetic as the love between Jack and Rose may have been, not a single tear of mine was shed when the Titanic eventually sank. Similarly, when E.T’s call finally connected, I didn’t weep for Elliot, I was just happy for the dude who got to go home. None of these films aroused the sentimental emotions in me that they did for many others.

It’s clear that crying at events captured on film happens for personal reasons, and I could regurgitate studies on the release of Oxytocin and other neurotransmitters that trigger emotional responses in us when we empathetically relate to others. But catalysts aside, it’s my belief that the effects of crying at sad events in cinema, leads to an almost cathartic release that is different to crying at sad events in any other context. We know that as much as a cinematic film may be extremely realistic or based on real events, it’s not ‘real’. Therefore, although a film may trigger something in us that connects in emotionally intimate ways, the fact that it isn’t ‘real’ offers a subliminal optimism after the end credits roll.

Speaking about the universal appeal of “Forrest Gump” as a ‘tear jerker’, director Robert Zemeckis stated that “the best of these films offer a mixture of spectacle and emotion”. I’d agree that the ones that have stirred my inner emotions most of all are those that use this balance well. For some reason, maybe owing to that initial encounter with “The Champ”, the films that have managed to create this feeling in me, have involved boxing.

There’s just something about great boxing films that resonate with audiences. In actual fact they shouldn’t really be referred to as ‘boxing films’ because other than the fact that they are centred around people who are in some way involved in the sport, films placed under this category often belong to a range of separate genres.

Take “The Hurricane”. Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Ruben Carter is equally as much a legal drama, centred on the theme of racial tensions as it is a boxing epic and it bears little resemblance to Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky”. Similarly, “Million Dollar Baby” is a film that focuses its attention more on paternal love and a critique of family structures, with boxing playing a symbolic role in its narrative. Yet the film is altogether separate in tone and style to “Raging Bull”, which blends a neo noir aesthetics with themes of domestic violence and corrosive inner-turmoil.

However, like “The Champ”, they all centre on human struggles. This isn’t some kind of cinematic fluke; “Cinderella Man”, “The Boxer” “The Fighter” and “Girl Fight”, have all managed to provoke something raw in their audiences, which set them apart emotionally. Amid the brutality of blow for blow bouts, ‘boxing films’ at their best are enigmatically beautiful. And, ultimately, beauty resonates on a very human level.

Many regard Arnold Schwarzenegger’s portrayal of the Terminator in “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”, as his best ever on-screen role. Ironically, although he plays a cyborg, it’s one of his most human performances. One of the films’ poignant moments, takes place when the Terminator asks John Connor why we humans cry. It’s a question that leads the child in difficulty when trying to find a clear-cut explanation. The films’ dénouement occurs when after completing his mission, the Terminator states, “now I know why you cry, but it is something I can never do”.

To cry is to be human. And to cry at the films that move us is to experience personal moments that may seem silly, but should be embraced as small reminders that your humanity remains intact.

Levar Polson is Not So Reviews’ Film & TV columnist

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Filed under Film and TV

2 responses to “More than mere contenders: Cinema’s emotional heavyweights

  1. Jenn xo

    The Champ :'( Omg, childhood

    Epic tears. I’m not really big on boxing movies on the whole but this movie was amazing and their relationship was so adorable. You should also watch the original if you haven’t already, equally as epic.

    I cry at any movie with an emotional scene, I admit I even cried at Titanic. Not many guys will write about what moves them.

    Lovely article

  2. Thank you!

    A friend recently told me that it “takes a real man to cry” but I never thought of it that way. Maybe cinema is just the best emotional/therapeutic outlet for me.

    I have actually seen the original ‘Champ’, although I definitely preferred the latter one. I definitely think Rick Schroeder’s performance as T.J is much better than the earlier counterpart, kid was an amazing actor!

    I recently watched the documentary “4 little girls” and was feeling a tear coming on, but i kept it in check this time!! :D

    Thank you for your feedback, was much appreciated.


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