I am constantly finding new allusions to the American Realia of Experience from Forrest Gump, for example, the phrase Run, Forrest, Run might allude to Patti Wilson of Run, Patti, Run fame.The entire running episode of handicapped Forrest might also allude to American heroes, like Glenn Cunningham.
Each year the Library of Congress adds 25 “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant films to the National Film Registry. 2011’s selections include four silent films, five documentaries, and such popular features as Forrest Gump.
By Kevin A. Stoda
Learning the history of the United States from the 1950s to the present helps students see how trends in various social movements, many of which began in the in the USA, have been affecting the globe in radical ways since before these were born. The social issues or individual concerns discussed in the movie, Forrest Gump, make the movie a good source for introducing culture in a motivating way. Although the issues are in some ways universal, the special American nature of many of the staged settings of the film Forrest Gump help Non-American students understand an even wider range of American feature films in which many similar issues arise. This is important because American cinema has been dominating world cinema in recent decades leading up to this new millennium.
In the movie Forrest Gump, the following events and social movements are looked at in a comical–but sensitive way: The types of movements referred to include (a) student & youth movements, (b) movements for peace or for revolution, (c) movements for women’s rights or for rights of handicapped peoples, as well as (d) civil rights for blacks and for other minority peoples of America. Similar struggles have existed or are continuing to take place in all corners of the globe. Therefore, a focus on these movements as portrayed in this particular American film, Forrest Gump by the Director Robert Zemeckis, can be useful for students, enabling them to learn currently internationally recognized metaphors of life in this post-modern world. Particularly in this film, there are metaphors on life concerning “chocolate”, “birds”, “butterflies” and ‘feathers’. In addition, students slowly acquire the vocabulary and the idioms required to compare or contrast those social movements in America with other movements in many other nations and regions around the world.
GUMP AND HISTORY
Les Williams’ web site shows the following pictures of Forrest meeting two presidents, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in the film. Forrest also meets Lyndon Baines Johnson. All three of these presidents suffered rather tragic endings to their presidencies. Kennedy was shot. Lyndon Johnson was forced to not run a second time for president in 1968 after the Vietnam War was called into question by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy—two men who also faced tragic deaths by assassination in 1968—and by a growing number of American citizens. Richard M. Nixon was forced to resign from office in 1968. In short, although Americans are often laughing along with the story of Forrest, the laughter is covering up a lot of historically painful memories.
Other famous people that the mythical Forrest Gumps meet in the film include: Elvis Presley, George Wallace, John Lennon, and Abbey Hoffman. He supposedly teaches Elvis to dance. He helps the new black students at the University of Alabam–even as the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, opposed these student’s entrance in that university in the early 1960s. Gump sits next to John Lennon on a famous talk show, whereby Forrest’s own sharing of his ping pong experience in China supposedly inspires Lennon to write the song “Imagine”. Forrest also meets the leaders of the Black Panthers, the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), Veterans Against the War, and the radical Abbey Hoffman at the Lincoln Memorial, the exact location where Martin Luther King, Jr. had given his I Have a Dream speech a few years earlier.
In 1972, while running for office, George Wallace is shot by a would-be assassin. Lennon is assassinated by an insane admirer some years later in 1980. Abbey Hoffman is forced to go underground for the better part of two decades.
Meanwhile Forrest is part of the secret “ping-pong diplomatic negotiations” between the USA and China in the early 1970s. These negotiations are part of modern China’s history; in contrast, most Americans do not recall “ping pong diplomacy” in their studies of Modern U.S. history. The opening of modern US-China relations dates to these original secret meetings, which took place under the guise of the U.S. national table tennis team’s historic visit to China. These and subsequent negotiations in the early 1970s are identified with the Cold Warrior, Nixon’s, new positive stand towards the former Cold-War Communist enemy. This opening was part of Nixon’s strategy of seeking aid and influence from China in putting pressure on North Vietnam—and thus helping to end the 20-year old involvement by the U.S. military in Vietnam.
Moreover, Forrest’s influence on the King of Rock ‘n Roll and John Lennon were not his only means of influencing modern American pop culture. The mythical Forrest also supposedly influenced American pop culture in other ways. Forrest, the idiot savant, is said to have inspired Americans’ interest in t-shirts with yellow “smiley faces” on them and he helped bumper stickers which stated popular phrases, such “shit happens”. Finally, the mythical Forrest leads the nation into a jogging, running, and health craze in the late 1970s with three cross-country jaunts—as Forrest becomes inward oriented, like the rest of the nation in those post-War years.
MOVEMENTS AND TRENDS
In addition to being part of the aforementioned modern American health movement in the 1970s and influencing cultural icons like Elvis, Forrest often runs into leaders of the peace and civil rights movements. Even metaphorically, through Zemeckis allusions, Forrest can be often associated with different civil rights movements. For example, as a little boy in Greenbo, Alabama, only one little girl, Jennie, offers him a seat on a bus when no one else will. Similarly, in 1957 in Montgomery, Alabama one black American, named Rosa Parks, demanded and eventually received a rightful seat on the bus. Later, Forrest gets on a bus with other new recruits when he joins the military. Many Americans on the bus do not offer him a seat. However, his soon-to-be new friend, Bubba, a black man–with an even lower IQ than Forrest, offers him a seat. In short, both Jenny and later Bubba, invite Forrest to take his rightful seat alongside other Americans on two different buses in two unforgettable scenes from the movie.
Forrest is born doubly handicapped. He is born with a crooked vertebrae (“As crooked as a politician”, according to his doctor.) which needs to be repaired through the application of braces on his legs for several years. Forrest, at a young age, is also measured as having an IQ of about 75. At first, he is not allowed to continue in regular public schools in the 1950s because of laws requiring segregation between disabled and non-disabled students, which were in effect at that time. Through the help of his mother, Forrest overcomes both these disabilities in the film–as do other disabled individuals in America through the efforts of the leaders of various civil rights groups in formerly segregated America. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are important events in this historical period; however, these laws and the disabled equal rights acts of the early 1970s and later years are not specifically touched upon in the film as was the issue of desegregation. Nonetheless, throughout the film, Forrest and later Lt. Dan, are metaphors for this changing attitudes towards minorities and the handicapped.
Meanwhile both Momma and Jenny provide metaphors for other aspects of Americana in the Post WWII era. Jennie also becomes involved in a lot of movements, including negative ones such as the drug movement or the “tune-off, tune out, and turn on” ones. As a young college student, she gets interested in becoming a folk singer. However, before she can make her dream a reality, Jenny gets kicked out of school for posing for a photo with Playboy magazine wearing her women’s university sports teams’ jacket.
After Forrest rescues her from singing Dylan’s anti-war song, “Blowing in the Wind” in a strip tease joint, Jennie runs off to California and later becomes involved in the peace movement. She also is involved with activists in the more radical groups of that era, such as the SDS and the Black Panthers. This all occurs in a decade of the 1960s as the pill and the various social forces revolutionize the living space of women–and empowers women to be more active politically. Nonetheless, until some women broke away from the main male-dominated groups of civil rights-, political-, and student activism and formed their own programs under their own leadership, the role of women in many of the mass movements was watered down. Even as the women’s movement becomes stronger, this male versus female metaphor is alluded to in the many bad relations Jennie had with male figures and leaders she dealt with throughout the film. For example, in Washington D.C. at a Black Panther party meeting with Jenny, Forrest once again finds himself trying to rescue Jenny—this time from her abusive SDS boyfriend from Berkeley. Meanwhile, in America by the mid- to late-1960s, some women have clearly begun breaking-off from their male counterparts and have begun forming their own empowerment organizations.
In summary, in the 1970s disabled Americans receive some of the same desegregationist privileges won the decade earlier by other minorities in the U.S. In turn, only in the late 1960s and 1970s do females and many other formerly discriminated groups begin to receive equal access to sports- and other public education funding which begins to enable many to overcome years of oppression.
METAPHOR: GUMP AND DEBATES ABOUT HISTORY IN AMERICA
Regardless of the country where certain events have taken place, there have always been debates about historical events and how such events should be understood and talked about by subsequent generations. Oliver Stone has been the one Hollywood director who has most-single-handedly opened the debate concerning the “American memories”, which are alluded to or depicted in the Zemeckis’ 1994 film Forrest Gump. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Oliver Stone brought out a series of films on memories of the 1960s and 1970s. He started with Platoon, and over the next decade came Born on The Fourth of July, Heaven and Earth, The Doors, JFK, and Nixon.
All of these aforementioned Oliver Stone films had subject matter that is represented visually (as well as through sound) in Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump. In this light Forrest Gump, the film, serves as a Hollywood dialogue or response to the critical narration of Oliver Stone’s to the events of the 1960s and 1970s. The events referred to by Oliver Stone have continued to influence American politics along with pop and world culture in the subsequent decades.
Like the hyperbolic butterfly effect, the white feather which floats down on Forrest Gump at one Savanna, Georgia city bus stop in the beginning frames of Zemeckis film, the events of the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s, decades later have an spiraling effect on how Americans conduct foreign policy, homeland security, legislation, educated their children or raise their families. Robert Zemeckis, who produced the three Back to the Future Films, in turn, has seemed to be fascinated with the relationship between the present, past, and future in his films. He is also focused specifically focused on how one individual can make a difference. “How does one change history or how can one single person in the past affect our present significantly?” is what he often seems to be asking throughout Forrest Gump and in his Back to the Future comedies.
On the other hand, we are all somewhat like feathers floating on the winds of history—just Jennie and Forrest both seem to live their lives like feathers in the breeze, often bouncing from one event to another set of events with luck—both good and bad—as their only guide. On the other hand, both Forrest’s mother and Lt. Dan (His lieutenant in the military in Vietnam and later his friend and business partner) seem to believe strongly that God or Destiny has a plan for everyone. However, on his mother’s death bed, when Forrest asks her what her destiny is, “Momma” indicates that it is up to him to find it, himself.
The tone of Robert Zemeckis’ narration of America of the late-1940s through the early 1980s and Reagan’s presidency is lighthearted. Meanwhile, though, very serious subject matter is just underneath the layers of fun and the layers of memories drifting past the audience at relatively high speed. In contrast to Stone, Zemeckis has chosen to rewrite these four decades of history in a very positive–and yet very traditional or conservative tone. In contrast, Stone’s cinematic and hard-hitting narrations, which are based on both fact and fiction, are often somber and lift up the dark side of American history and memory. Stone can thus be seen as the keeper of memories. These are often memories that many Americans no longer want themselves (or their children) to recalls. Some more reactionary critiques even charge that Stones works are almost totally fictional–and not related to reality much at all. On the other hand, Zemeckis’ America in Forrest Gump is more palatable to Americans, especially to conservative Americans who like their history to be viewed less critically and more blatantly patriotically.
In contrast to Oliver Stone, Zemeckis narration is not supposed to be confused much at all to reality and is to be seen as an American as apple pie. Nonetheless, Zemeckis so often makes allusions to Stone’s movies that one cannot help seeing that a debate is being carried out between Forrest Gump and many other Hollywood and independently produced films of the past 25 years. For example, through auditory devices, like in the choosing to play four songs by the music of “The Doors” during the Vietnam sequences, Zemeckis recalls for the viewer or listener Jim Morrison’s band as portrayed in Stone’s film, The Doors. Other visual imagery in Vietnam plays on scenes from stones Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven and Earth. The fictional Lt. Dan appears to be especially quite similar in character to several of those, including Ron Kovic a real figure, portrayed in Stone’s film Born on the Fourth of July and played by Tom Cruise.
Conversely, throughout Zemeckis film, Forrest meets all sort of people who meet tragic ends. Despite this cknowledgement to tragedy in America’s story, in the end the fictional (both Winston Groom’s and Zemeckis’) Forrest Gump has a very upbeat view of history. This is true, even after Forrest’s wife of the 1980s, Jennie has died of AIDs. Meanwhile, Stone’s heroes seldom are portrayed as having positive endings to their lives. Jim Morrison dies, Nixon resigns, and JFK’s Lloyd Garrison loses his big court case and his family. All of the main protagonists in Platoon either die or go home quite sullen and jaded from their Vietnam experiences. Finally, the main character in Heaven and Earth, Le Ly Hayslip, watches as her ex-husband, a former special operations leader in Vietnam, commits suicide after being unable to reintegrate into post-VietnamWar America with his new family.
On the other hand, Hayslip, a Vietnamese women who has resettled in America after the war, remains a strong and positive character resolved to make a better life. Similarly, Ron Kovik seems to be an exception to the other tragic narrations of Stones. This is especially easy to note in that Kovic, played by Cruise, states at the end of the film that he is finally feeling more welcome at home in post-Vietnam War America.
The main point to remember from this comparison of Zemeckis and Stone’s approach to American memory is that Stones portrayals are more often based on true tales of Americans lives and experiences; whereas, Forrest Gump seems to be simply a vehicle—albeit an important literary device or a metaphor–for an America. This is especially so in the post-Civil Rights South of Alabama. This is a South that was in the midst of growing up or coming of age in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—as it finally shed its Jim Crow and hidebound peculiar traditions, which had kept it separate culturally from most of the rest of the nation.
Zemeckis’ Forrest is unapologetic about the American experience while Stone’s narrations reveal deep wounds. For Forrest, the world is an exciting and fascinating adventure. His mother described this sort of positive world view, by using the metaphor: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You’ll never know what’s inside until you bight into it.” This is a gung-ho or “go-get ‘em” approach based on certain American paradigms or Americanisms. Such a world-view supports a search for the American Dream by and for all. On the other hand, Stone’s pictures are not as anti-septic and reveal the real deeper darknesses and dirtiness (along with occasional glimpses of joy and sunshine) that make up and lurk between and among the American experiences.
 See Les William’s site at http://members.cox.net/gumpisms/gumptop.html
 Hoffman is wearing his famous red, white and blue shirt, at a peace demonstration in Washington, D.C.
 In contrast, in the book, Forrest Gump by Winston Groom, on which the film’s story is based, Bubba is not black and Forrest remains somewhat consistently racist—a la poor white trash—throughout the narration.
 At least one scene from Vietnam seems to allude to Francis Ford Coppola’s classic Apocalypse Now.