Ethics Movie Ethics Quiz: “The Edge” (1997)

Anthony Hopkins winning an upset Oscar this year reminded me of the action film he made with (yecchh) Alec Baldwin 25 years ago. I would have written about it then, but 1) I didn’t see it then, being driven to my sock drawer at the thought of paying for any movie with Baldwin in it, and 2) it was a long time before Ethics Alarms.

The film explores survival situation ethics, a topic that “The Walking Dead” has thoroughly beaten to walking death in the last decade, with the assistance of some sharp David Mamet dialogue. Hopkins, a wealthy, cocky and obnoxiously competent businessman, survives a small plane crash that dumps him and two other men in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. One of them, the younger Baldwin, is secretly having an affair with Hopkins’ super-model trophy wife, whom they left back at the hunting lodge.

Hopkins’ encyclopedic knowledge of everything and Eagle Scout-level survival skills keep his wilderness ignorant companions alive and hopeful until a rampaging Kodiak bear eats the man who isn’t Baldwin (thus showing good taste). Then the remaining two become the hunted. Eventually, after many scares and narrow escapes, Hopkins and Baldwin solve their hungry bear problem and find an abandoned cabin conveniently stocked with food, guns, and a canoe. Baldwin, confident that he no longer requires Hopkins’ expertise to survive long enough to be rescued, takes a functioning rifle, loads it, admits that he’s having the affair with Hopkins’ wife, and marches Hopkins outside to shoot him. But Fate takes a hand: Baldwin falls into a pit before he can shoot and is rendered helpless, with a broken leg and other life-threatening injuries.

Even though Baldwin tried to kill him, even though Hopkins’ chances of surviving will be vastly reduced by having to care for Baldwin, even though if he does get Baldwin back to the lodge, Baldwin will take his wife, even though this is Alec Baldwin, Hopkins nonetheless gets him out of the pit and into the canoe, where they are spotted by a rescue helicopter. (Baldwin dies. Good.)

Your Ethics Movie Ethics Quiz:

Would it have been unethical for Hopkins to leave Baldwin to die in the pit?

Confession: If I were Hopkins’ character, I would have left Baldwin’s character in the pit even if he were played by Tom Cruise.

And this: an act that is sufficiently stupid overcomes its technically ethical components and is rendered unethical. Hopkins rescued Baldwin not to rescue Baldwin, but a moral grandstanding: he wanted to show Baldwin’s character how much better he was to make the dying man feel as worthless as possible before kicking off.

12 thoughts on “Ethics Movie Ethics Quiz: “The Edge” (1997)

  1. Perhaps it was grandstanding, but you have to live with that choice and leaving people to certainly die is a heavy weight to carry around. I ordered chicks from a hatchery they’re now 7 days in the mail and likely dead. They’ve been sitting at the big regional sorting office since Thursday (today is Tuesday) will anyone have guilt, leaving the box that says “live animals” in the sort rooms for several extra days? I hope so. I think the same applies to Hopkins character. It’s not a moral ground as much as “can I live with myself in 6 months knowing I left him to die”? Maybe for a boy scout the answer is no. Although if someone wanted to kill me and pure luck turned the tables, it’s simply too bad for him the tables turned. I’m with you. He could stay there. My luck would be he’d use his last breath to stab me with a knife and hit my lung or something and we’d both die right as they spotted us in the helicopter.

    • Boy, I could live—literally!— with the choice to accept the Universe’s intervening in my self-defense, and not enabling the guy to take another shot at me if he’s less injured than he seemed

      • It is hard to say what anyone would do in these life or death situations, I think. Hypothetically saying let him die in the hole is much easier than actually doing it.

        • But neither of those are the questions I raised. I didn’t say the decision would be easy or not easy, not did I ask what someone “would” do. The question is whether leaving the man who tried to kill you in the pit to die is UNethical.

          Obviously rescuing the man is exemplary ethics. Agreed. But that’s not the question in the quiz either.

          It’s a survival situation, and the first question is, does taking on the responsibility of keeping the Baldwin character alive reduce the chances of Hopkins’ character surviving? Obviously it does. At that point, rescue is far from assured, Exposure, food, the ability to avoid risks and danger, including the risk of injury are all factors. Accepting the responsibility of keeping the man who killed him alive by necessity reduces his own chances of survival.

          What about those whose welfare depend on his survival? He’s wealthy and is a key man in his business. His business has investors, and families depend on him. He puts their welfare at risk by reducing his own chances of survival, in order to try to rescue a man who 1) tried to kill him and 2) may well die anyway. Does that make utilitarian sense?

          If Hopkins came across a stranger in Baldwin’s situation, there is no question that he would have an ethical duty to help him—it’s pure Golden Rule then. But that’s not the case. Hopkins and Baldwin had an implicit survival pact: we stick together and work to keep each other alive. When Baldwin betrayed that pacy and tried to murder Hopkins, Hopkins was relieved of any responsibility to Baldwin, and the Golden Rule had been revoked by Baldwin’s actions.Now it’s a matter of self-defense, and one’s survival is made more likely by allowing a declared foe to suffer consequences he brought on himself.

          I just saw another movie where a woman trapped the man who had kidnapped her (she had escaped) and her sister, while murdering several other women, in pit when the killer tried to capture her again. Not only didn’t she help him, she threw gasoline in the pit and a set it on fire. Now that’s unethical (and illegal). But 1) all she needed to do was get the police 2) it was no longer a survival situation for her.

  2. Hopkins would have been fine, there was zero value to rescuing him, and considerable effort was required to do it. Reminds me of an article I read in TSR’s Dragon ROPG magazine way back in my teen geek years entitled “Good Isn’t Stupid,” reminding players not to morally grandstand in situations that might produce great risk.

    If I ever get this huge writing project off the ground, I make the point myself in a climactic duel between two rival claimants to the throne of an empire, one good, one evil. The bad guy taunts the good guy initially, asking him “are you brave enough to face me without that powerful magic sword of yours?” and the good guy sneers “Brave enough, yes. Foolish enough to throw away my advantage for your words, no. En garde!” Later when the bad guy is apparently finished, he turns away, only to have the bad guy pull the old dagger-in-the-boot bit and come at him. He’s expecting it, though, and slashes his belly fatally. As the bad guy lies dying, he leans on his sword and sneers, “You dishonorable types call those of us with honor predictable, but you are so much more so yourselves. Yes, if I had killed you there without shield or ready weapon it would have been dishonorable, but you came at me with a dagger when my back was turned, as I knew you would do the moment I turned. Honor is satisfied.”

  3. Jack, It be unethical to leave the Baldwin character. The affair had nothing to do with the survival situation. If they both lived, he would still have to deal with the wife regardless. The grandstanding claim is your view of the situation. I think you are assuming to much of the Hopkins character as to why he did what he did, poking a dying man on the eye to show him he’s better.

    What if he intended to leave him in the pit only to try and bring help back? Wouldn’t be the same type of situation? It seems the outcome would have been the same.

  4. I will start by saying that, putting myself in Charles’ (Hopkins’) place, it would have been unethical for me to leave Bob (Baldwin) behind to die. Charles now has the rifle, Bob is severely -perhaps mortally- wounded, and it would be easy to restrain him to the point that he poses no threat should his condition improve during the self-rescue attempt in the canoe.
    I need to re-watch the movie, I guess, but I didn’t come away with the same impression that Charles rescued Bob “to show Baldwin’s character how much better he was to make the dying man feel as worthless as possible before kicking off.” I thought Charles was rescuing Bob in spite of Bob’s murderous intent to show Bob what a better man WOULD do, as opposed to what Bob’s inclination would have been. Charles had no idea whether or not Bob would die before they reached safety or would be rescued. I thought Charles became more human during the course of the ordeal, forced to deal with life and death challenges which heretofore had been merely academic considerations to him -things he read in a book. His last line, “they died saving my life” demonstrated grace that he likely would not have shown before the ordeal.
    I didn’t like the ending, by the way. I thought the story should have flashed ahead a few years to show Charles, now retired from business, living happily in a lodge on the banks of a river somewhere, fly fishing with his new, less flashy but beautiful and obviously happy wife. In the mid-distance, a big bear on the river bank catches a large fish. Charles and the bear stare at each other momentarily, then the bear turns and saunters back into the woods with his fish. Charles and his wife look at each other and smile, then continue fishing. That’s what I envisioned for Charles, anyway!

  5. I come from a Christian “love your enemies” perspective. As Jim points out, Bob’s injury meant he was no longer a threat, so Charles leaving him to die would’ve been an act of spite, considering that if Bob HADN’T tried to kill him, there’d be no question about saving him, even though it would still be a drain on resources.

    And regarding Bob taking Charles’ wife if he’d lived; she was already lost to Charles when she started the affair. Whether Bob lived or not, the Mr. and Mrs. would need to have a talk which would likely end in divorce.

  6. That still image of Baldwin at the start of the trailer completely fooled me. I thought I was looking at Adam Sandler. I still think that as Alec Baldwin ages, he looks more and more like (the late) John Wayne Gacy. I didn’t see the movie. But I would have applauded Hopkins leaving Alec to die.

  7. This is not unlike the common tv/movie trope where the bad guy holds a hostage as a shield, with a gun to his/her head, and demands the protagonist drop his own weapon to save the hostage. Usually (but not always), this provides a vehicle for the hero to comply and appear “noble”, and be subsequently saved by circumstances that ensure the villain gets his and the hostage is saved.

    While this usually works out in movieland, it really doesn’t make risking the lives of two innocents, by trusting a willing-to-kill criminal, an ethical decision. That would hold in The Edge, where it’s only moral luck that the Baldwin character is not already a murderer, and attempting to save him would put Hopkins, and possibly future victims at his mercy. One reason for the death penalty is to remove such potential.

    Leave him in the pit.

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