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June 1, 2012

“Films Must Have a Happy Ending”: Wrong

by Howard Suber

The press, audiences, and people in the film industry itself all seem to believe that, to be a success, a Hollywood film must have a happy ending, but as the list below demonstrates, this is not born out by the evidence. While comedies and musicals generally end happily, a very large proportion of the most memorable popular films (those that were popular in their own day and have remained popular) do not. The endings of the vast majority of memorable popular films consist of Pyrrhic victories, in which the central characters have gone through such trauma, loss, pain, sacrifice, and suffering that calling their final state “happy” would be a maddeningly insensitive joke.

The Declaration of Independence and every politician who invokes it may speak of the “pursuit of happiness,” but happiness has nothing to do with being a hero; in fact, happiness is something heroes learn to live without.

Here are some memorable popular films that do not have a happy ending:


American Graffiti

Annie Hall

Apocalypse Now

Bonnie and Clyde

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid



Citizen Kane                     

A Clockwork Orange

The Deer Hunter

Doctor Zhivago

Double Indemnity

Dr. Strangelove

E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial

Easy Rider


The French Connection

From Here to Eternity

The Godfather

The Godfather: Part II

Gone with the Wind

The Grapes of Wrath

High Noon

King Kong

Lawrence of Arabia

The Maltese Falcon

The Manchurian Candidate

Midnight Cowboy

Mutiny on the Bounty


On the Waterfront

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest




Pulp Fiction

Raging Bull

Rebel Without a Cause

Schindler’s List

The Searchers


The Silence of the Lambs

A Streetcar Named Desire

Sunset Boulevard

Taxi Driver

To Kill a Mockingbird

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre



The Wild Bunch

Copyright (c) 2012 Howard Suber

– Excerpted from The Power of Film.

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