When I was a high school senior, we were assigned Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Though that was many years ago now, I clearly remember bemoaning the assignment with my classmates. I cursed my choice to be ambitious and take an Honors English course instead of hanging with the rest of the seniors in regular old English — where they were reading more contemporary novels like Shawshank Redemption and 1984.
However, as I began reading Dickens’ masterpiece, I fell in love with the intrinsic storytelling, the drama of the period and most of all, the characters. One character in particular had me crying into my bowl of Cheerios as I read the final lines of that novel, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
Such were the last thoughts of Sidney Carton, the scruffy, down on his luck anti-hero, as he bravely mounted the stairs to the guillotine. He gave his life in place of Charles Darnay, so the woman they both loved would be happy.
It was a gut-wrenching read, but solidified Sidney Carton as one of the most selfless characters in literary history.
Selfless sacrifice has been a widely-used archetype since the the beginnings of written history. You can find it in the Bible. It’s also in the account of the Greek soldier Pheidippides, who ran 25 miles from the Greek coast to the city of Marathon to announce a Greek victory over the Persians. He keeled over and died immediately afterwards. Sucks for him, but hey, he inspired a race. And I’m sure the anxious Athenians waiting for news were pretty darn grateful for his commitment.
Makes one pretty grateful for Siri.
But I’m not here to talk about books or history. I’m here to talk about movies and television. Both media have their own sacrificial archetypes. Let’s take a look at the memorable characters who moved us to tears with their acts of selflessness.
Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader (Star Wars)
Once upon a time, Anakin Skywalker was a cute and innocent pod racing slave with a mad crush on an older girl who just happened to be the Queen of Naboo. As he got older, it became clear that Anakin probably could have benefited from a few anger management classes. And maybe he should have had a restraining order or two placed on his creepy ass. Unfortunately for him, his ambition and pride made him a prime candidate for the Chancellor’s Sith apprentice training program.
After murdering a crap load of kids, betraying his best friend and breaking his pregnant wife’s heart, Anakin fully embraced his dark side and became Darth Vader, the Star Wars villain we all know and love. After watching him kill countless underlings with just a wave of his hand, we were all with Obi-wan Kenobi when he basically told Luke the only way to save Anakin would be to knock him upside the head with a lit lightsaber.
Still, Luke was bound and determined to save his father from himself, and in one of the most iconic moments of the entire saga, he does. Because Luke refuses to turn to the dark side, the Emperor is set to murder him, horribly and painfully. That’s finally makes the terrifying Darth Vader realize maybe this guy he’s idolized his whole life isn’t such a great role model after all.
By saving Luke, he saves himself… but ultimately dies from the effort.
Mags (The Hunger Games)
In the second installment of The Hunger Games, the lottery is changed to only include past winners. District Four’s tributes are Finn and Annie Cresta. They’re both young and, unbeknownst to us, in love. Mags knows it and volunteers to take Annie’s place. But Mags is 80 years old, and the Hunger Games are a young person’s game.
In the arena, Mags is most definitely at a disadvantage. So Finn carries his friend and mentor on his back, until a poisonous fog sends the allied tributes running for their lives. The problem? They’re running through a thick jungle. Peeta is struggling and falls. Finn can’t carry Mags and Peeta. So Mags heroically jumps off of Finn’s back, so Peeta can be saved. She’s not a major character, but her two acts of heroism establish her as one of the most memorable and beloved characters in the series.
Jack Dawson (Titanic)
This one frustrates me. Jack didn’t have to die. Rose was on a lifeboat. But she’s bound and determined to be with the man she loves. So she (foolishly) jumps from the lifeboat back into Jack’s arms so they can go down with the Titanic together.
Like most people on board that ship that night, they realize the water is pretty dang cold. Jack, the scruffy kid from Wisconsin, knows full well what that means. Finding a piece of driftwood, he acts the gentleman, letting Rose (the one who was in a damn lifeboat) take the driftwood, while he freezes to death in the water. But first he tells her he wants her to grow old and have lots of babies.
He knows it won’t be with him.
Never let go, Rose. Never let go.
Charlie Pace (Lost)
This one hurts. Charlie was one of the most beloved inhabitants of the island. We watched him struggle with his heroine addiction. Our hearts were light when he befriended Hurley and fell in love with Claire, becoming like a father to her baby.
I was a cheerleader for Charlie. I wanted him to make it. (But did any of them, really?) So when he went out with Desmond to that boat, knowing he very well could die, I really didn’t want him to go. But he went. When the inevitable happened, Charlie locked himself in the flooding communications room, saving Desmond and getting one last message out to his fellow survivors: “Not Penny’s Boat.” It alerted them that they had all been deceived.
Lily Potter (Harry Potter)
Remember when Voldemort told Harry his mother didn’t have to die? Obviously, Voldemort didn’t have kids. I’m telling you right now – as a momma, I would have done exactly what Lily Potter did, should some dark and evil wizard knock down my door to Avada Kedavra one of them.
Brave, beautiful Lily Potter refused to step aside and let Voldemort murder one-year-old Harry. Betrayed by someone they thought they could trust, the Potters both fought to keep Harry safe, but it was Lily’s sacrifice that saved Harry in the end. Her selfless act of love shrouded Harry with her protection long after that Avada Kedavra curse rebounded, sending Voldemort on a years-long quest to figure out what the hell happened.
Dumbledore (Harry Potter)
Yes, we’ve already visited the Harry Potter universe. But there are so many examples of self-sacrifice in it. And you can’t do a list like this without including this man.
Arguably the greatest wizard of his age, no one (besides a bitter Death Eater or Slytherin) could deny that when it came to magic, Dumbledore was one of the best around. He might have been an eccentric elderly man with a soft spot for knitting patterns. But ultimately, he was a bad ass.
Weakened by a curse and some trippy potion, Dumbledore faces down a whole band of Death Eaters on the Astronomy Tower. No doubt he was at a bit of a disadvantage. But after JUST taking on a whole cave full of Inferi, you can’t tell me he couldn’t have taken out a handful of Death Eaters with or without his wand. Instead, knowing he’s going to die (eventually), he begs Snape to kill him. Why? So Draco Malfoy wouldn’t be forced to– and to protect Snape in his role as double agent.
Bing Bong (Inside Out)
Bing Bong was Riley’s imaginary friend from childhood. He now spends his time alone in the halls of Riley’s long term memory, reliving the good times as he collects memory spheres in his bag.
He was endearing, cute, and wonderfully oblivious, even when he and Joy got trapped in the Memory Dump. His character reminded us of simpler times, and we half wondered whatever became of our childhood imaginary friends. In pure Disney-Pixar fashion, that question is answered when Bing Bong becomes self-aware. He realizes the only way to get Joy out of that Dump and ultimately save Riley is to be forgotten.
We were all GUTTED.
If you didn’t cry when he threw himself off that Rocket Wagon, you have no soul.
George O’Malley (Grey’s Anatomy)
George got nicknamed “007” for almost killing a patient during a simple operation on one of his first patients. We saw him go through many ups and downs during his time on Grey’s Anatomy, but seeing him gain confidence little by little was something we could all relate to.
Deciding he had a penchant for trauma surgery, George decides to leave civilian life and join the Army, so he can be of use there. As the rest of the staff prepare an intervention to try to convince him to stay, George saves a woman from an oncoming bus. But he didn’t jump out of the way in time to save himself. When he’s brought into the emergency room for treatment, he’s unrecognizable. His friends only realize who he is when he traces the 007 on Meredith’s hand.
Excuse me, while I go cry again.
Garcia Flynn (Timeless)
Introduced to viewers as a terrorist, Garcia Flynn is a man on a mission of vengeance. His wife and young daughter were murdered by a shadowy organization known as Rittenhouse. He takes it upon himself to steal the time machine they bankrolled and attempt to change a few things.
Led by a mysterious journal, Flynn murders his way through history. His more nefarious plans are thwarted by the Time Team of Lucy Preston, Wyatt Logan and Rufus Carlin. By the end of Season One, the team realizes Rittenhouse is more dangerous than Flynn, and they form a shaky alliance with their former adversary.
In Season Two, Rittenhouse does everything they can to break this rag tag team. They almost succeed. With Wyatt’s dead wife back from the grave to cause all sorts of mayhem, Rufus dead, and trust between the team at an all time low, Rittenhouse is riding high.
But Flynn has one more ace up his sleeve. In the dead of night, he steals the time machine and travels back to 2012. Then he resets the timeline, bringing Rufus back from the dead. But that’s not without consequences. Traveling back to his own timeline means adverse, eventually fatal side effects. Flynn sends the machine back to the team, then goes to see his family one more time before finally dying a hero.
At least he got to be a cowboy before he died.
Just about every character in Rogue One
The Empire is strong and has the galaxy over a barrel. The nearly completed Death Star is the ultimate whip to keep the systems in line. You don’t want Storm Troopers raiding your planet? No problem…we’ll just wipe you off the face of the galaxy. You think the Emperor is tyrannical? Funny. So did the good people of Jedha, why don’t you go ask how that worked out for them?
So yeah, it’s a desperate situation. These characters literally had nothing left to lose. Going against orders, they steal a ship and head to Sacrif to steal the Death Star plans. They hope the Rebellion can exploit a weakness worked into the design by the ultimate double agent, Galen Erso.
They just have to land in the middle of an Imperial base, split up, open a satellite feed, steal the plans and upload them to a nearby rebel ship.
What could go wrong?
Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen this movie: everyone dies. The team you spent two hours caring about is taken out, one by one. What’s amazing is that despite the enormity of this mission, every single person’s actions make a difference in getting those plans safely aboard Princess Leia’s ship, the Tantive IV. If just one had been absent or unwilling to make the ultimate sacrifice, the last line of that movie wouldn’t have been “Hope.” It would have been something along the lines of “M%#@er &jk*# ho&*s*#t d*$$*t to h*##.”
We Could Go On… And On…
There are SO many more examples of selfless sacrifice apart from just these ten. Like Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia, the Iron Giant, Little Foot’s mom in The Land Before Time, and Baymax from Big Hero Six.
But we must also remember there are real people putting their lives on the line every day to serve and protect and defend and honor. No matter the circumstance, the theme for both fictional and real life examples of selfless service is the same:
“Greater love hath no man than this, than he lay down his life for his friends.”