When you think of the saddest movie in history, the choice you come up with likely depends on factors like your age, gender and, of course, which movies you’ve seen. For movie-goers in your reporter’s generation, Bambi is certainly right there near the top. According to the scientific community, however, the saddest movie in the world is director Franco Zeffirelli’s 1979 remake, The Champ.
A tale about an aging boxer trying to make a comeback, The Champ is not exactly known as a classic. Rotten Tomatoes only gives the flick a 38 percent approval rating. But the climax of the movie — which shows a 9-year-old Rick Schroder weeping over the death of his father in the film, “The Champ,” (played by Jon Voight) — has long been used by scientists in studies about sadness.
According to Smithsonian Magazine‘s Richard Chin, The Champ was first used for scientific purposes by University of California, Berkley, psychology researchers Robert Levenson and James Gross in 1988. The pair were trying to find movie scenes that elicited only a single emotion at a time. After reviewing hundreds of possible contenders, and running tests on more than 500 undergraduate volunteers, Levenson and Gross found that the scene from The Champ evoked sadness exclusively more often than any other film they screened. (Bambi, they found, was a close second.)
Since Levenson and Gross published their findings in 1995, the three-minute clip from The Champ has been cited in more than 300 scientific articles. And it has been used by other scientists, as a humane way to evoke sadness in test subjects, for a wide variety of studies, including things like testing the ability of computers to detect human emotion, whether depressed smokers light-up more often when sad (they do), or whether men find sad women more sexually attractive (they don’t).
“I found it very sad. I find most people do,” says Jared Minkel of Duke University, who tested the emotional responses of sleep-deprived individuals. “The Champ seems to be very effective in eliciting fairly pure feeling states of sadness and associated cognitive and behavioral changes.”
Does The Champ make you sad, too? The YouTube version doesn’t allow embedding, so watch it here.