Top 10 Films Featuring Childbirth In Stressful Circumstances
In discussions about the meaning of life, about what’s the point of it all and why do we suffer the slings and arrows and all that, we inevitably wind up talking about children. From a emotional and practical standpoint, if we literally and fully answered the question about what gives meaning to any particular action, most of our answers would have something to do with trying to outlive ourselves, having some sort of impact on some later iteration of the human race. And if you have had the privilege of staring eye-to-eye with your own personal “iteration”, then odds are that you have some very clear and simple answers to what everyone else thinks are big and complicated questions.
Our art reflects this, that we both understand and fear the critical importance of the act of creation. And for mammals like us, creating new incarnations traditionally has two main phases: insemination via sexual intercourse, and then later, vaginal parturition. Or, more commonly, the fun part and the messy part.
Both of these phases obsess us as a culture, and we use all of the media at our disposal to poke and prod at the wide range of emotions that they are preternaturally tied to at different levels in our triune brains. Of the two, childbirth remains the more remarkable plot point to find in a movie. It has the ability to communicate strength or weakness, hope or vulnerability, depending on the needs of the plot and the characters.
And unless she is in a hospital or in a warm and loving home surrounded by safety and security, we feel unique flavors of fear and anguish in these scenes. One thing is for sure: in film as in life, when a lady goes into labor, all eyes go to her, our hearts go out, and the scene changes immediately.
As we are in the interregnum between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, let’s take a look at the top ten films (ranked by the Flickchart Globals) to feature this sweet juxtaposition, that most wild, crucial, and important of human events, taking place in unnuturing and dangerous environments for our entertainment.
- Global ranking: 11135
- Wins 43% of its matchups
- 322 users have ranked it 6658 times
- 1 has it at #1
- 3 have it in their top 20
Rob Zombie revels in making films that are simultaneously tributes, remakes, subversions, and reboots. In The Lords of Salem, he channels Polanski for a dark, patient, and ultimately surreal tale about the relationship between power, agency, the creation and resurrection of new life, and the avatar of the female.
But while Rosemary’s Baby hides much of the actual arrival of Baby Boy Lucifer, preferring instead to focus on the pregnancy, Lords of Salem does the reverse: at no point in the film is Heidi pregnant, but when the Lords call forth their vengeance upon the people of Salem, it arrives via one of the most grotesque and hallucinatory visions of childbirth that has ever graced the screen. Heidi ascends to motherhood on a pile of corpses, as the desiccated spectre of a long-dead witch holds her tentacled progeny with joy in her evil eyes.
If Rosemary’s Baby is a metaphor for the fears surrounding impending motherhood, The Lords of Salem is about the fears that surround all things, and how our minds and our moral culture balances on a knife edge that does not forgive us the sins of our fathers.
9. Shoot ‘Em Up
- Global ranking: 3575
- Wins 34% of its matchups
- 12,704 users have ranked it 99,356 times
- 6 have it at #1
- 201 have it in their top 20
This film is a crucial entry in our journey because its childbirth scene shows how it can be both a plot device and a character device.
Within two minutes of the start of the film, we are witnessing the various graphic details of a baby being born in the midst of a gunfight. The mother’s distress is what incites our hero, Smith, to become involved in the plot, and his willingness to intervene establishes his good-guy bona fides. His willingness and ability to calmly engage in a gunfight while being an actually somewhat effective birthing partner to a stranger sets up both his bizarre multi-faceted skill set, as well as the film’s overall willingness to take action-junkie machismo to ludicrous extremes.
It is the emotional intensity associated with the act of childbirth that crucibles so many world-, character-, and style-building touchpoints into a coherent if rambunctious whole in this scene. Nothing else would have been so effective so quickly on so many levels.
- Global ranking: 2547
- Wins 38% of its matchups
- 24,698 users have ranked it 194,328 times
- 4 have it at #1
- 1228 have it in their top 20
Apocalypto demonstrates two more popular uses of childbirth in movies: to raise the stakes and to remind us of strength.
When Seven has her baby in that flooding pit cave, she intensifies her vulnerability, and thus the stakes for our hero, Jaguar Paw, as he exacts his running revenge on his pursuers. Though he doesn’t know it, his need to survive has now increased by fifty percent.
The other thing that this brutally beautiful birth brings to the film is that it reminds us (those of us that needed reminding) that the female of the species is built from day one to be capable of triumphing over biology’s greatest traumas and nature’s greatest obstacles. This struggle, between the unstoppable force of nature and the immovable object of the feminine will, just so happens to be very cinematic.
- Global ranking: 2457
- Wins 36% of its matchups
- 2266 users have ranked it 24,203 times
- 0 have it at #1
- 24 have it in their top 20
The moral of the story is to do a deep, deeep background check into the people you are going to surrogate for. Any pregnancy has high stakes for everyone involved, but some pregnancies put you in the middle of a three-way mob-related hostage situation. Sometimes a baby can be too valuable.
Thus, Robin finds herself lying in a Mexican whorehouse when she has an abruption. Her doctor-slash-boyfriend-slash-father-of-what-is-actually-her-own-child is forced at gunpoint to perform a Caesarian right there on the dirty bed, as gunmen from all three factions swarm the town and the blood continues to drain from her body.
The baby in question is one of cinema’s classic MacGuffins. It controls the orbit of every single character, and its birth is the white-hot sun that powers the massive twenty-minute gunfight finale. It’s gross and it’s powerful. It’s tragic and it’s beautiful.
- Global ranking: 2095
- Wins 58% of its matchups
- 375 users have ranked it 4299 times
- 3 have it at #1
- 18 have it in their top 20
This is the most recent film on this list (so treat the stats above with some suspicion), and it provides what might be the quintessential example of this trope, proving that it continues to have staying power in our collective unconscious.
The childbirth in question actually forms the tense emotional spine of the entire film; from the moment we notice that Evelyn is pregnant, our minds immediately leap forward to the inevitable moment of the birth, and how in this world the normal, beautiful chaos of the birth of a child will in fact be the opposite of beautiful and is sure to get everyone killed.
The birth scene itself, in the tub of a dark bathroom with joker-faced spider-bats clicking their way up the stairs, is lingered over interminably, paying us back for all of our anticipatory fears about this moment. Packed into this birth are also all of our hopes about the future of humanity, so it really needs to go well. This film is why I made this list.
- Global ranking: 1919
- Wins 48% of its matchups
- 8440 users have ranked it 117,152 times
- 8 have it at #1
- 330 have it in their top 20
This film is a definitional edge case. Is it still “childbirth” if you’re horrified at the “child’s” presence inside you, can’t get it out of you quick enough, and want it to die from the very moment of its emergence?
What makes this film fall within our purview is the context in which the “child” is introduced into the story, and the way in which the extraction scene is presented. Shaw is established to have been infertile, which, while not necessarily a stepping stone in some larger metaphorical statement about her character, makes the poignancy of her body being the one gestating the live alien offspring, and by extension the rest of the Alien franchise, all the more intense. It is through an act of sexual intercourse that a brand new life, a new kind of life, ends up being made.
The childbirth scene is exquisite. Rapace plays the pain, panic, and claustrophobia so perfectly, and with such a finely tuned attention to nuance, that from the neck up it’s not all that different from any of the other births on this list. She didn’t ask for this, thought she was exempt from this burden of femininity, was put into this situation by the malicious and careless actions of men, and is let down by the technology that in theory should be able to help her but due to the actions of men cannot. These are characteristics often to be found in the act of having children, and as such earns Shaw the rank of Mother.
- Global ranking: 1890
- Wins 37% of its matchups
- 39,065 users have ranked it 277,084 times
- 24 have it at #1
- 834 have it in their top 20
The birth of Fanny’s eighth child in the forest of Sherwood serves no purpose to the plot of this film, it doesn’t do much world- or character-building work, and the child does not figure in the events that follow.
But the scene is remarkable in a number of ways, and forces several of the opposing factions still at work within the Merry Men to dissolve. Little John must trust Azim enough to let a foreigner touch his wife at her most vulnerable and risk her life in order to save it. Friar Tuck must confront his remaining religious bigotries. Robin must learn that to lead means sometimes not being the smartest guy in the room, and recognizing it.
To facilitate a breach birth, Azim uses his superior Arab science to perform an episiotomy in a treehouse. Fanny, being a proper cockney badass, bites a stick and is back to killing Normans in a fortnight.
I love this scene. This is a film best appreciated in terms of the little moments it creates, the little vignettes telling stories never told before, of which this is the best and most intense.
3. Star Trek
- Global ranking: 324
- Wins 60% of its matchups
- 75,925 users have ranked it 718,576 times
- 717 have it at #1
- 12,091 have it in their top 20
It was a bold, almost Biblical choice to kick off the pseudo reboot of the prototype of all franchise fandoms with the birth of its most central and messianic character.
Unlike Shoot ‘Em Up, Winona Kirk is not actually exposed to much direct physical danger when she has little Jimmy; she manages to achieve the relative safety of the escape pod before her actual birth begins. But the expert editing, compelling and exhilarating as it cuts between her throes of creation and her husband’s martyrdom on the disintegrating bridge of the Kelvin, creates the illusion of coincident space, making it clear that our hero is being born into our universe midwifed by violence, tragedy, passion, and sacrifice. We are being cued to look for how these forces will follow him throughout his life.
- Global ranking: 289
- Wins 53% of its matchups
- 12,252 users have ranked it 148,517 times
- 51 have it at #1
- 771 have it in their top 20
This film may have been the one to come quickly to mind when thinking about the topic of childbirth in film, but the birth doesn’t actually take place on screen. Poor Rosemary is sedated by her evil husband and doctor just as her labor begins, and when she awakens she just isn’t pregnant anymore. The fact that Polanski does not show the act itself on screen imbues it with a talismanic importance through its absence, which is a brave screencrafting choice. (I still prefer to mentally insert the birth scene from Lords of Salem in order to make the horror explicit and complete.)
I’m including this film in this list because the topic of childbirth and all the stages of pregnancy play such a huge part in the story. To all of the characters in the story including Rosemary, the birth of this child is what everyone is holding their breath for. Rosemary is so completely powerless, controlled by her husband, a seemingly endless network of evil forces, and her own biology — and yet, because of her biology, she has almost infinite power over those who would otherwise gladly do great harm to her.
Ultimately it is through motherhood that she recognizes the power that she has as a woman. The powerlessness that characterized her pregnancy has earned her the right to be recognized as a superior being, worthy of the care of the most important person in the world. Just like all women.
- Global ranking: 273
- Wins 59% of its matchups
- 60,158 users have ranked it 609,577 times
- 639 have it at #1
- 10075 have it in their top 20
The number one film in our list is the film where the birth is, in its own world, the most important. In this world, it is the first act of childbirth that has taken place on the planet for eighteen years. The entire culture of motherhood, of Lamaze and birthing partners, of new arrivals being everyday miracles like the sunrise, sources of our common joy as a species instead political tools, these have almost been forgotten by our species. Almost.
The scene where Kee gives birth to her daughter, in a cold stone shell of a room in a dystopian detainment facility with guard dogs barking outside, is shot in a virtual single take. The camera seems to not dare to blink, and we hold our breaths as we think of all the ways this can go wrong. We feel the cruciality of the moment and we tremble at the knife edge on which it has been balanced by taking place in this setting.
As in all of these cases, the severe disharmony between what this sacred act requires and what the environment provides creates a sweet cinematic pain in our hearts. These films exploit our deep, primal connection to the origin of life to create moments of deep emotional impact, and when it is done well, it seems like the most natural choice in the world.