As a young reader I used to get quite upset when the hero or heroine was killed off in some of my best remembered books, and, as I grew older, it seemed the death toll continued to mount.
It was the same with my favourite movie stars too. When some of my favourites, like Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Jimmy Cagney, June Allison, Ingrid Bergman (pictured left) or Trevor Howard bit the dust I positively mourned their passing – well, for all of half an hour anyway!
After a while I twigged on that it wasn’t for real and that they’d soon be back again in other movies, riding the range, righting wrongs, killing baddies and rescuing damsels in distress. Errol Flynn went through a bad patch. No sooner had he died heroically in The Charge of the Light Brigade than he was back again as the ill-fated General Custer in They Died with Their Boots On.
John (The Duke) Wayne led a charmed life for decades before dying gallantly in Reap the Wild Wind, and then as Sergeant Stryker, a World War II hero, and in his last movie The Shootist. Ironically, he portrayed an aging Western gunman dying of cancer – a fate which befell him in reality not long afterwards.
Jimmy Cagney made a habit of spectacular exits. Remember his last words “Look Ma, top of the world” before being blown to bits in White Heat? Then he faked cowardice at the behest of priest Patrick O’Brien so that impressionable youngsters wouldn’t be tempted to follow him to the electric chair in Angels with Dirty Faces. He was quite a hoofer too, but I digress.
My own favourite would have to be Ronald Coleman’s whispered aside as he went to meet Madame Guillotine and lay down his life for a friend during the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities. “It is a far far better thing I do than I have ever done. It is a far far better rest I go to than I have ever known.”
You have to be brave, or unlucky, or downright foolish, or belong to the right side to have a good death in a movie. Like Leonardo DiCaprio (Jack Dawson) in James Cameron’s epic Titanic. The remaining 1,500 unfortunates scarcely got a look in as they plunged to their doom. Same with the 300 Spartans who perished at the Battle of Thermopylae, even though, historically, their sacrifice was not in vein.
Who spares a thought for the Indians (Native Americans) who were gunned down in all those old Westerns, or the Zulu warriors who queued up to die while attacking Rourke’s Drift in Zulu, or the gallant enemy crew of Das Boot, or the millions of German and Japanese soldiers who ended up on the wrong side in all those World War epics?
In filming terms they’re as eminently forgettable as the hundreds of luckless victims of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone. No, you have to be a Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, A Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous, or one of the leading actors in The Alamo.
I feel there should be an element of surprise, or shock, when a leading character snuffs it in a book or movie. I mean if you went to watch Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc, or Mel Gibson playing William Wallace in Braveheart you couldn’t have been too taken aback when they came to a sticky end. Not even Hollywood could alter history to that extent.
Of course, sometimes writers kill their main characters because they’re bored with them, or want to try something else. Sherlock Holmes came to a sticky end when he plunged over the Reichenbach Falls, only to re-emerge by popular demand three years later when his author was offered ridiculous money to bring him back. And who can forget Patrick Duffy (right) portraying Bobby Ewing’s fantastic re-birth in Dallas, having missed an entire series because wife Pammy had dreamed the whole thing?
Closer to home, the death toll in my own novel Role of Dishonour, due for release in the fall, is fairly high – though scarcely of Schwarzenegger or Stallone proportions. I gave considerable thought to those characters I should kill off, and those I would keep around to fight another day.
The lesson, I believe, is simple. If, as an author, you like your hero or heroine and have further thrills and adventures in mind for them, don’t be too quick to have them come to an untimely end.