Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The Ending Of The General's Daughter Explained

The following article includes descriptions of rape and sexual assault.

What happens when the institution you have dedicated your life to — one supposedly upholding the values of honor, integrity, and loyalty — betrays you and leaves you for dead? "The General's Daughter," the 1999 thriller directed by Simon West ("Con Air," "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider"), investigates this question with devastating results.

Starring John Travolta, Madeleine Stowe, James Woods, and James Cromwell, "The General's Daughter" is a military procedural tinted with Freudian melodrama and Southern Gothic horror. Based on the 1992 Nelson DeMille novel of the same name, "The General's Daughter" revolves around the brutal murder of a beautiful, seemingly perfect female captain at a Georgia Army base. Travolta and Stowe are led down a dark trail as they discover the cover-up of a gang rape at West Point and its connection to a potential vice presidential candidate — the victim's father.

The film's complicated plot, heavy use of flashbacks, and a long lineup of suspects make it possible for the audience to miss the finer details of the mystery. Though it grossed $102.7 million domestically, "The General's Daughter" was generally panned by critics on Rotten Tomatoes. In his 1999 review, Roger Ebert called it a "well-made film ... populated by edgy performances" but criticized the central murder as "unnecessarily graphic and gruesome" (via RogerEbert.com). Sadly, the plot of "The General's Daughter" remains relevant 22 years after its release: Per NPR, one in four women in the U.S. military are victims of sexual assault.

Here's the ending to "The General's Daughter," explained.

The general's daughter is the film's focus – and its victim

The title character is Capt. Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), who works in psychological operations at Fort MacCallum in Georgia. One night, she stops to help Paul Brenner (John Travolta), a chief warrant officer in the United States Army Criminal Investigation Division Command, fix his flat tire. 

The following night, Elisabeth is murdered. The crime scene is gruesome and bizarre: Elisabeth was strangled, with her body stripped naked and tied to the ground spread-eagle with stakes. Col. Bill Kent (Timothy Hutton) calls Brenner to investigate, and Brenner is distraught to see Elisabeth dead. He is also upset to learn that her father is "Fighting" Joe Campbell (James Cromwell), a general about to retire to pursue a political career and a vice-presidential hopeful. Campbell was Brenner's commanding officer in Vietnam, and he credits Campbell for getting him home alive. Though Brenner had only just met Elisabeth, the case is now incredibly personal.

Also personal is the arrival of Sara Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe), a rape specialist who joins the investigation. Sunhill had an affair with Brenner years ago in Brussels, and their feelings for each other are unresolved. Campbell pressures Brenner and Sunhill to find the killer as soon as possible; they obtain Elisabeth's records, which mention that her grades mysteriously plummeted her second year at West Point. To solve the mystery of Elisabeth's murder, they need to solve the mystery of Elisabeth's life.

The general's daughter is objectified in life and death

"The General's Daughter" wrestles with the subject of sexual abuse in the military while delivering the action typical of a 1990s thriller. (The first act features an underwater knife fight between Brenner and a domestic terrorist, in a subplot unrelated to Campbell.) It is an uneasy combination with mixed results, particularly the lurid depiction of Elisabeth's fate.

As the film's designated murder victim, Elisabeth is more of an abstraction than a real person. Even in the professional military environment, many people (including her psychiatrist) comment on her beauty — in short, this beautiful blonde woman is supposed to be the last person murdered on a military base. Brenner, the film's hero, unknowingly participates in this objectification by gifting her a basket of intimate bath products and necessitating her to turn down his unwelcome advances. This scene takes on greater resonance after the film reveals Elisabeth's past, establishing how casual sexism upholds abusive institutions.

The film weaponizes Elisabeth's beauty to shock the audience with the sight of her corpse, utilizing full-frontal nudity and close-ups of Elisabeth's blue, lifeless face. Sunhill notes the dried "tears" on her cheeks, emphasizing she suffered before she died. "The General's Daughter," in trying to expose this form of gendered violence, veers into an exploitative display of it. Critic Rita Kempley argued in her review that the film was "having its cheesecake and eating it too" (via The Washington Post). To a modern audience viewing the film decades after its release, it may seem even more tasteless.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

The secret room opens a door to her psyche

Brenner hopes to explore Elisabeth's home off-base, but Kent tells him he'll need a civilian search warrant and confiscates her keys. Brenner and Sunhill break into the house to search for clues and find a hidden room inside the basement. While Elisabeth's home offers clues to her murder, it is also a larger symbol for her mind: The interior seems neat and orderly, but once they go deeper, they find a place she has worked to keep secret. The room contains a bed, BDSM gear, and videotapes featuring Elisabeth as a dominatrix having sex with several masked men. While leaving, an intruder suddenly attacks Brenner and steals the tapes.

A suspicious message on Elisabeth's answering machine leads them to Col. Robert Moore (James Woods). Elisabeth's mentor in psy-ops, Moore was close to her but is cagey about the nature of their relationship and gives Brenner a false alibi. While detained, Moore admits that something "awful" happened to Elisabeth at West Point and refuses to elaborate. Kent releases Moore, but when Brenner goes to his home, he finds Moore dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Campbell's adjutant is eager to pin the murder on Moore despite Brenner's suspicions. 

Just as Elisabeth hid her secret enclave behind an ironic "Home of the Brave" Army poster, the blood-splattered living room is a reminder that the shadow of violence is long. Whatever secret Elisabeth and Moore kept, it didn't stay on the Army base –- they carried it home with them, with fatal results.

The General's Daughter is a stark depiction of '90s sexual politics, for good and for ill

One interesting aspect about watching "The General's Daughter" today is that it reflects anxieties about sexuality prevalent in the 1990s. Some of these scenes have aged poorly; Brenner, for example, is sardonic when searching Elisabeth's bedroom, remarking that, in the age of AIDS, "You have to boil people before you can sleep with them." 

The film also presents a negative, stigmatized view of BDSM as a form of sexual expression. Though Elisabeth's private encounters are consensual, the story implies that they are a response to her previous trauma at West Point. Brenner goes so far as to assume how she died was "linked to how she lived" in a moment of victim-blaming. Despite what "The General's Daughter" suggests, a 2020 study dispelled the myth that interest in BDSM is connected to past abuse. In any case, the film was made long before a sadomasochistic relationship could spawn a billion-dollar film franchise.

More positively, the film casts a critical eye at "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the Clinton-era policy that required LGBTQ service members to keep their sexuality hidden and was in full effect in 1999. After Moore's death, Brenner learns that he was secretly gay and in a relationship with his lawyer, meaning he could not have been one of the men on Elisabeth's tapes. The unjust policy that kept Moore in the closet left him vulnerable to the killers who shot and framed him — another consequence of the toxic code of silence in the military.

The General's Daughter depicts a culture of abuse and silence

Sunhill and Brenner meet Elisabeth's psychiatrist, who reveals the source of her trauma. During a nighttime training exercise, Elisabeth was attacked by cadets who gang-raped her and staked her down in the same position as when she was found dead. Sunhill tracks down a witness who confesses that the male cadets hated Elisabeth for outperforming them. Brenner demands to know why Elisabeth's attackers were never arrested, and Campbell admits that West Point convinced him to cover up the assault. When he visited Elisabeth in the hospital, Campbell told her to forget it ever happened, breaking her heart.

"The General's Daughter" is a work of fiction, but the events depicted reflect real abuses that have happened in the U.S. military. Many viewers seeing the film for the first time in 1999, for example, would have had recent memories of the 1991 Tailhook and 1996 Aberdeen Proving Ground Army base sexual abuse scandals. A general covering up the assault of his own daughter is an extreme bit of dramatic license taken by the film, but as of 2021, only 27 percent of military sexual assault survivors file reports, with researchers suspecting retaliation and intimidation are used by perpetrators, and those higher up the chain of command, as silencing tactics (via The Military Times).

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

An explosive ending almost led to a romantic coda

"The General's Daughter" races through its final act as it is revealed that Elisabeth and Moore staged the mock-rape to force Campbell to finally confront the crime he covered up. While Campbell cruelly abandoned the tied-up Elisabeth, betraying her once again, someone else killed her. Brenner identifies Kent, one of Elisabeth's former lovers, as the culprit. Having lured Sunhill to the crime scene with the intent to kill her, Kent admits that he strangled Elisabeth out of sexual jealousy and that he has littered the ground with landmines. Kent deliberately steps on a mine, killing himself. Brenner shields Sunhill from the explosion just in time.

This dramatic embrace is as intimate as Brenner and Sunhill get in the theatrically released version of the film, though "The General's Daughter" originally offered a much more upbeat, romantic ending. Several scenes featuring Brenner and Sunhill rekindling their affair were filmed, including a final sequence where the two drive away from the Army base together and into the sunset. In the DVD commentary for these deleted scenes, director Simon West referred to them as "superfluous" to the main plot, "the tragedy of a betrayed young woman" (via YouTube). 

By turning away from the more conventional, romantic conclusion, the finished film ends on a much more emotionally honest (if also emotionally devastating) note. It re-centers the late Capt. Elisabeth Campbell, who was betrayed by her father and the military she served, as the emotional core of the story.

The General's Daughter has a comfortable but unrealistic conclusion

On the day Elisabeth's body is to be put to rest, Brenner has one final confrontation with Gen. Campbell. Facing his former commander, the man he once idolized, Brenner berates him for choosing his career over his daughter. Elisabeth had been dying ever since Campbell told her to forget the rape, Brenner argues, and Kent only finished it. By holding Campbell accountable for the cover-up, the film points to the corruption and rot that has taken hold in the military and allows abuse to thrive, rather than simply labeling Kent as one bad apple.

At a critical story juncture, Campbell asked Brenner if he was a "soldier or a policeman," meaning, in the film's language, if he would fall in line to protect the military, or if he would pursue justice to its end, no matter what he discovered. Brenner's arc concludes as he makes his choice, and he vows to have Campbell court-martialed.

By the end of "The General's Daughter," the audience is assured that Elisabeth's rapists have been caught and Campbell's military and political career is over. It is a pat ending and a comforting one, but very much the product of Hollywood. Per The New York Times, of over 6,200 sexual assault cases reported in the U.S. military in 2020, only 0.8% ended in convictions. Though Capt. Elisabeth Campbell receives some manner of justice after her death, the reality is that justice eludes countless military members in life.