Movie deaths vs. reality

Having never witnessed a murder, I have no way of knowing how accurate movie and TV portrayals are. Are there any that seem to be close to reality?

For example - in sword-and-shield battles, it seems as soon as someone is run thru, they drop dead. Unless it’s the star, in which case, death may be slow enough for some pithy last words… But in the real world, can being stabbed result in instant death?

Same with shootings - apparently in the Old West, a single bullet in the gut caused one to fall off the horse and instantly die, altho the hero would likely struggle on despite being riddled with lead.

Maybe this isn’t exactly a movie question anyway, but short of beheadings or being blown up, are there wounds that are immediately fatal?

Dying is rarely as quick and clean as in the movies. I haven’t witnessed murders, either, but hunting with both gun and bow gives some insight into how bullets and knife-like objects do their job.

After a perfectly lethal penetrating wound in the chest area, game animals often show little immediate effect, fleeing or fighting effectively for a number of seconds before losing conciousness. Translating that into hand-to-hand combat, an enemy can surely kill you even after you land a perfect hit.

Solid hits in the head and the spine are the only insta-droppers, but even then actual dying can take a while, with much writhing, bleating etc.

A poor hit, as in the stomach area, often results in a pursued animal traveling up to miles, and for hours. Death will result, short of medical intervention, but it can take a very long time. Battlefield reports concur.

In theory, sure, there are wounds that are immediately if not instantly disabling. Hit somebody on the head with an ax or heavy sword, and you will get concussion to knock him out and brain damage such that he will die. Likewise for gunshot wounds to the head. Severing or damaging the spinal cord high enough on the neck will interfere with breathing, heart beat, and circulation, which is close to beheading, even if the neck isn’t severed (which is very difficult to do). It you hit someone hard enough on the back of the neck you might bring it off via whiplash and impact.

So a severe enough wound to the brain or spine might bring about a quick kill.

Elsewhere it is more problematic. A significant enough stab wound to the heart will cause it to stop functioning, and then they will probably collapse and die as they do when they have a heart attack. Not always - there are cases where people suffered significant trauma to the heart and carried on for minutes, although they die eventually. And it is hard to get to the heart - it is sheathed in ribs, and it is difficult to generate enough force behind a thrust to punch thru and still damage the heart. Hence the traditional advice to knife fighters -

An upward thrust tends more to slide thru the rib cage to the vital organs, and the thumb is the guide. The point beats the edge in most un-armored combat, for several reasons, including that the point penetrates farther to reach the heart or arteries and so forth.

A stab to the abdomen can cut the abdominal aorta, and then you bleed to death, but that can take a minute or more. It is possible that the shock and pain of a stab to the abdomen will disable the victim so he falls down while bleeding to death. Same if you sever or significantly damage a limb with a cut or gunshot - eventually he might bleed out.

Most of the deaths in pre-gunpowder days that weren’t immediate were from blood loss, shock, or peritonitis or other infections.

Instant death in movies is like how they can always find a parking spot. It speeds up the action by eliminating extraneous delay rather than because it reflects reality.


I saw video of an actual head shot once, and was struck by how immediately the body fell. In Hollywood, on the other hand, someone who is shot slowly crumples to the ground.
The only realistic movie death I’ve seen was Keith Carradine in the Lonesome Dove prequel. He is executed by a firing squad, and just drops like a marionette with its strings cut.

It was once a rarity to catch an actual violent death on camera. Now it’s practically commonplace between ubiquitous cellphone cameras and surveillance videos. ISIS loves filming themselves getting shot for some reason. If you don’t want to seek it out take my word for it that it is very rare that Hollywood gets close to being right. Your primate brain automatically understands the difference once you see the real thing.

Spielberg was close in Schindlers List and Private Ryan.

I am reminded of a Cold Case Files I saw once. Mom and Dad were chopped up in bed (by their son we learn eventually). Both had mortal ax wounds to the head but dad didn’t know it. He got up, walked downstairs to the kitchen and was preparing to have his morning coffee when it finally hit him that he had a gaping head wound that was gushing blood all over the place and that he was actually deceased.

I saw that one! It took the investigators a while to figure out the crime scene.

There’s an extra on the Lord of the Rings movie discs where Christopher Lee comments on the scene where Saruman is stabbed in the back. He said to Peter Jackson, “Have you any idea what sort of sound someone makes when they’re stabbed in the back? Because I do.

Christopher Lee was a member of the OSS during World War II and participated in some classified missions behind enemy lines, so he really had seen this happen and helpfully described it.

What prompted this question more than anything - we were watching the BBC/HBO production of Rome which featured swords on the battlefield, nasty weapons in the arena, and Caesar being stabbed to death. The soldiers on the battlefield appeared to die instantly, but good ol’ Julius, having been perforated multiple times, still lingered for several meaningful, dramatic closeups of him and the murderers. I’m guessing the battlefield deaths were for plot expediency and Caesar’s death was probably closer to truth.

I have a friend who was shot multiple times in a workplace incident, and he survived by playing dead, so the killer kept going thru the office before killing himself. Fortunately, my friend was young and healthy and was hospitalized almost immediately - he’s doing fine in retirement.

I remember that! One of the people interviewed remarked that it appeared the part of the guy’s brain responsible for carrying out a routine was fine, but that the motor coordination part was gone (for example, a bowl was on the table, but the cereal had been scattered). Didn’t the poor guy also manage to make it outside to a mailbox and back in again, creating a blood trail that was very confusing for investigators? The reenactment was very chilling, considering the quality of the acting typically found in shows like that.

Prior to seeing that interview it was really easy to think of Lee as not much more than an overly dramatic film clown. Afterward all I could imagine was him breezing up behind some Nazi and enquiring, “Whom do you serve?” just before sliding 18cm of Fairbairn–Sykes into the hapless fellow’s left lung.

Keep in mind that Julius was killed by a bunch of politicians wielding daggers, not by professional soldiers armed with gladii and pila. Regardless of how many times he was stabbed, they most likely missed his heart and he slowly bled to death.

During the 1993 putsch in Moscow, I saw a guy sniped in front of the Russian White House. He fell literally like a marionette whose strings had been cut. There was an attempt to evacuate him, but knowing the damage a high-powered rifle bullet can do, I have to assume he was killed instantly.

When you’re hit by a high-powered bullet, it’s usually hydrostatic shock that kills you. In other words, your body, being mostly water, is not exactly compressible. When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I was target shooting with my dad in the hills of West Virginia. I fired an Enfield .303 at the lid to an oil drum, sticking out of a mud pit. Not only did the recoil knock me back a few feet (and I was a pretty big kid), the shock wave from the bullet blew a hole in the mud big enough to lose a watermelon in.

There was a documentary on H2 where they tested some of the effects modern arms can have on the human body using scenes from Saving Private Ryan. If bullets and shrapnel don’t get you, shock waves will. They completely disrupt the tissues in your body and how they function.

A friend of mine was once shot 8 times, including two bullets in the abdomen and one in a place I will not mention.

Obviously, he survived the attack. IIRC, he did say he lost consciousness pretty quickly.

And there really is such a thing as some people being inherently tougher than others, and Caesar was a successful general. It’s quite plausible that he might be tougher to kill than some young recruit on his first assignment.

Something I hadn’t considered, but, duh! That makes sense. On the other hand, I don’t know if history books address how long it took him to die. But it certainly was dramatic having him look and his former friend, Brutus, as he bled out…

Unless it’s through the brain, just about no stabbing injury to a part of the body can cause instant death. But the person being stabbed/impaled may very well double and curl over and be immobile due to the severe pain. When you’re in pain, you naturally want to become immobile and curl up. And you’d be out of action.

Almost certainly not the OSS (which was a US outfit) and a little scepticism is perhaps in order generally. Lee’s documented wartime career was colourful and honourable enough, but he wasn’t that obvious a candidate for covert operations. Much after the fact he did hint that he’d done stuff with SOE, the LRDG and the SAS, but he refused to elaborate and we’ve thus only his word for it.

Several posters mentioned correctly that a dead person drops instantly like a puppet whose strings have been cut. Remember that the next thousand times you see someone blown through a convenient window by the force of a bullet.

A direct hit in the heart or through the aorta would mean death quickly, if not instantly. But getting through the ribcage can be tricky. You can go up under it through the belly, but yeah, most stabbing deaths are from multiple wounds.

That’s why I tend to look askance at police who shoot and kill people because they were armed with a knife.
Yeah, it could be life threatening, but really what are the chances against your revolver?

Thanks. That’s what I was going to say. He might have worked for one of MI-whatevers, but not the OSS (precursor to the CIA).