As we all await a new FORREST GUMP film–the last one was axed on 9-11 in 2001– I take time to reflect on what Forrest would do with history of the past 30 years. I have recently reviewed the article below on Forrest Gump and cultural memory–and have to say I am only disappointed that my (2000, 2009) article, Robert Zemeckis’ FORREST GUMP and American Culture and Memory, is not mentioned.Otherwise it is a great summary for teachers of American and world cultures or film.–kas
by Sabine Moller
Article first published online: 18 JAN 2012
DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2451.2011.01794.x © UNESCO 2012
Forrest Gump ranks as one of the most successful movies ever. The Academy Award-winning movie counted 78 million moviegoers in the USA and a worldwide box office of $673 million.1 Directed by Robert Zemeckis and released in 1994, the tragicomedy centres around the story of the fictional Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks), who witnesses and influences important moments in contemporary American history and popular culture. Because of his low intelligence, Forrest is unaware of the historic significance of his experiences.
Almost as soon as it was released, scholars began discussing reasons for the film’s success. Many discussions highlighted not only the film but the political climate of the USA in the 1990s. Within the context of so-called “culture wars”, Forrest Gump was perceived as a political text that fit a conservative desire to exploit the nation’s past (Wang 2000). As a result, Forrest Gump was regarded by many as a media product that conveyed a certain political interpretation of history.
In the past, the production of cultural media like movies, memorials, museums, and textbooks has been conflated with its consumption which was considered either inaccessible or insignificant. With regard to Forrest Gump, such assumptions led to an abundance of scholarly readings and much speculation about the film’s viewership.
But without an audience, cultural media remains inert. It is not enough to simply call a medium of cultural memory, such as a movie, a representation of the past and situate it within the political context of its time. Questions of “collective memory” must be addressed. As historian Alon Confino made clear more than a decade ago, that it is necessary “to avoid an arbitrary choice and interpretation of evidence” (Confino 1997, p.1395). To that end, the need for reception studies has been formulated repeatedly (Beim 2007; Kansteiner 2002; Wineburg 2001).
When a historically-based feature film like Forrest Gump is seen by millions, it is important to find out why and how people relate and respond to this media. Certainly in the fifteen-plus years since the film was released, the political climate has changed dramatically. Nevertheless, the film is still a part of American culture and society (as I will discuss later). How is it watched, interpreted, and remembered today?
In order to think about the production, distribution, and consumption of media like the movies,2 I will start with a brief introduction to Halbwachs’ theoretical framework of collective memory and the refinements of his concept in cultural memory studies. To explore Forrest Gump as a medium of cultural memory I will first discuss the movie and its attendant scholarly interpretations before examining the film’s presence in and influence on other social and media networks.
Collective memory, cultural memory, and Forrest Gump
The question of how memory is shaped by social context was first raised at the turn of the last century. A genuine social psychological question (how groups affect individual memory) was formulated by French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs ( 1992). Aspects that were pivotal to his concept of collective memory included shared social frameworks of remembrance acquired through the communications within different social groups. Under the terms of Halbwachs, individual memories are reconstructed based on present social frameworks. Halbwachs sees social frameworks as “words” and “conceptions” which are not devised by any particular individual, but rather “borrowed” from his milieu (Halbwachs 1980, p.60). Through these social frameworks, the individual creates an image of the past that is meaningful in light of his or her present experiences.
According to Halbwachs, social frameworks are conveyed through communication with others. By “others”, he means all groups that we belong to throughout our lives, such as family, religious groups, social class, etc. Through these we-groups our identity is shaped and stabilised. To understand the thinking and memory of an individual, one must identify where a person belongs and identify his or her role in such a group. The subject of memory and remembrance is always individual, just as individual memory is always a social phenomenon. Each individual memory is unique, since no two people have the same place within a group.
Halbwachs also embraces cultural products. In describing an imaginary trip to London, he explains that he never thinks of the city by itself, but always through the perspective of various social groups. Thus, as Halbwachs walks through London he is accompanied by historians, architects, and painters he has met through his reading, who make the city accessible through their individual and collective perspectives. By the very act of thinking, Halbwachs communicates a host of collective memories as well as the social and cultural schemas shaping his perceptions and memories: “Other men have had these remembrances in common with me” (Halbwachs 1980, p.24).
Elaborating on Halbwachs’ concept, we can pinpoint the symbolic order of media and institutions of memory. Egyptologist Jan Assmann differentiates the two modes (or as Halbwachs would say, two frames) of remembrance. For informal acts of memory in everyday life, such as those investigated by Halbwachs, he coined the term communicative memory. He distinguishes between communicative memory and cultural memory as an area of material culture and organised communication (Assmann 1995, 2008). Here memory is used metaphorically, i.e., the objectivised culture that serves as a society’s memory.
Because Assmann uses the term “cultural memory” in terms of premodern societies, it is difficult to apply its underlying concept (which centres around festivals, rites, and poems) to modern mass media which tend to distribute rather than simply retain group memory. Following Aleida Assmann, literary scholars Astrid Erll and Stephanie Wodianka (2008, p.5; emphasis in the original, translation S.M.) have cited feature films as distributional media, and therefore “cues – as media stimuli – on a collective level”. Thus, feature films, i.e., movies, don’t belong to cultural memory per se, but must be examined for their capacity to stimulate public debate about the past. Given significant communicative, cultural, and political frameworks, a feature film can be a powerful medium of cultural memory. Methodologically this understanding results in a multidimensional examination of film that starts with analysis (the “intra- and inter-medial dynamics” of the film) and ends with looking at the film’s presence in social and media networks (“pluri-medial dynamics”) (Erll 2008).
Forrest Gump the movie
The film opens with Forrest sitting at a bus stop in Savannah, Georgia, where he engages in a series of conversations with different people waiting for the bus. He recounts the episodes of his life, which are all closely linked to iconic moments in contemporary history.
In the opening scene, Forrest shares the bench with a young African-American nurse. He introduces himself by name, opens a box of chocolates and offers her one. The nurse declines. Tom Hanks then speaks the line that became one of the most popular movie quotes ever (Fischoff et al. 2000): “I could eat about a million and a half of these. My momma always said, Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Although the film was adapted from the novel of the same name by Winston Groom (1994), there are differences in the way Zemeckis and screenwriter Eric Roth have chosen to interpret Forrest Gump as a character. Groom’s book opens with the sentence: “Let me tell you this: Being an idiot is no box of chocolates.” In the movie, Forrest is depicted as simpleminded but good, a sympathetic character throughout. Though he is called an “idiot” at several points in the film, the attribution is mitigated by certain stylistic devices. First, it is always used by other characters, and unsympathetic ones at that. Forrest is aware that he is not as smart as other people, but he refuses to think of himself as stupid, and bolsters himself with a saying that also became a well-known “Gumpism”: “Mommy says stupid is as stupid does.” In addition, a large part of the film’s magic stems from Tom Hanks, whose star persona allows us to see the character as not only slow-witted but sensitive as well. Thus, Hanks’ previous and subsequent movie roles predispose the audience towards accepting Forrest as an Everyman hero.3
The film presents history through the eyes of a single hero, and becomes an example of Oral History. As Forrest witnesses many events (including the Vietnam War), his story is told by linking autobiography to contemporary history, and thereby transmitting history via word of mouth. The life of Forrest Gump is influenced not only by indelible personalities and events, but also his early love Jenny (Robin Wright). Though Forrest and Jenny grow up in the same small Southern town, their paths diverge and lead them to very different life experiences. While Forrest’s mental and physical disadvantages are ameliorated through the loving care of his single mother, we come to see how Jenny’s potential has been damaged by her abusive father. After college, Forrest enlists in the Army and fights in Vietnam, while Jenny joins the American “counterculture” (depicted as promiscuity, hippies, drugs, violence, and a politics of slogans). In the movie, this path is shown as some kind of aberration. After learning she is ill and doesn’t have much time left, Jenny returns home to Alabama and to Forrest. Her chief motive is to have her son raised by Forrest, the boy’s father. Overall the film intentionally operates with clichéd images. According to director Zemeckis, Jenny symbolises “drugs, sex, and rock’n roll”, whereas Forrest’s character is oriented towards “Mom, God & apple pie” (Zemeckis et al. 2001).
One reason so much attention was paid to the movie at the time of its release was the use of a new computer-based technique, morphing (Hoberg 1999; Nelmes 2003). Through this technique the director was able to integrate real film clips into the story, and manipulate it in such a way that the main character appears to be part of the historical footage. This can best be illustrated by discussing an important sequence of the film.
Sequence 1: As Forrest and Jenny are walking home from high school, a group of teenage boys throw rocks at them, hitting Forrest in the back and taunting him with insults like “stupid”. To protect him, Jenny yells, “Run, Forrest, run!” Forrest picks up speed, crosses a field, and runs into a nearby stadium, where the football coach is so impressed, he drafts Forrest onto the college team, despite his low IQ.
This sequence opens with 1963 footage showing a television report on the desegregation of the University of Alabama. First one sees the newscaster, then people listening in a barbershop, before the film cross-fades to a re-enactment of the famous scene at the entrance to the University of Alabama (the original commentary is still audible in voiceover). We can see students, National Guardsmen, and a reporter, as well as George Wallace, governor of Alabama, who is trying to prevent the court-ordered desegregation.
Forrest joins a group to ask what’s going on. One student answers that “coons” are trying to go to college with them. Forrest misunderstands this racist epithet, and even after the student’s clarification (“Not raccoons, you idiot. Niggers!”), he doesn’t take in the significance of the situation. As he goes to the front of the crowd of protesters, one of the black students accompanied by the National Guard drops her notebook. Forrest bends down, picks up the book, and hands it to the black student, politely addressing her as “Ma’am”.
Thus, many important elements of the plot are compressed into a sequence of about five minutes. It demonstrates how Forrest is regarded as an “idiot” by people his own age. Running is another main theme of the film. Here we see how Forrest’s ability to run fast is owed in large part to Jenny (she advises him to run in other sequences of the movie as well). As a child, Forrest used running to overcome an intellectual disadvantage; he escapes from teenage bullies and by becoming an athlete, gets into college. In the course of the film Forrest’s running ability helps him survive in Vietnam, and brings him worldwide fame as a “running guru”.
The sequence also demonstrates how Forrest’s limited ability “to see things as they are” yields positive results. The fact he differs from much of society also means that he doesn’t harbour their racist ideas. From a historical perspective his ignorance becomes a kind of innocence. In the film the racist student insults Forrest for being an “idiot” because he doesn’t understand a racist term, while in the book, it is Forrest himself who feels superior to people of other races or those who have greater disabilities (Halliwell 2004, p.222).
The historical setting of the film refers to the racial history of the civil rights movement. Other footage integrated into the story includes the Kennedy assassination, the shooting of Reagan, the moon landing, Watergate, etc. Zemeckis’ choices are representative of an American historical consciousness that was evident during the 1980s and 90s. If people were asked in 1985 to name the most significant events of the past fifty years, they would point to the Second World War, the Vietnam War, space exploration, the assassination of JFK, and the civil rights movement (Schuman and Scott 1989). In 1994, the year that the film was released, a survey asked, “What historical event that occurred during your lifetime do you remember most vividly?” Responses included the assassination of JFK, the moon landing, the Challenger shuttle explosion, the Vietnam War, and Watergate (Roper Center for Public Opinion Research 1994).
Zemeckis assembles the most significant and vividly remembered historical events, allowing his audience to see these media events through the eyes of Forrest Gump. These iconic media images were recently differentiated by the visual historian Gerhard Paul (2008, p.29) into specific dimensions and types of media icons. All seven of Paul’s icons are broadly represented in the movie, from “event icons” (e.g., the assassination of JFK) to “commercial icons” (e.g., the Apple logo), “social icons” (long-haired hippies or Vietnam vets), etc. The film thus represents a form of generational memory. The director himself belongs to the so-called “baby boom” generation, born between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s. In the film Zemeckis links the remembrance of significant or iconic events that shaped his generation’s identity to the corresponding music of the times. Not only does this render the images familiar, but, as Zemeckis puts it, the music serves as a “signpost to history” and the emotions connected with this kind of visual and auditory familiarity (Zemeckis et al. 2001). In this way, Zemeckis refers to entwined processes: iconisation and emotionalisation (Hoberg 1999, p.198). The director constantly and consciously reproduces his own generational imprint which itself is mediated through mass media and popular culture. Zemeckis literally turns the TV or radio on for his audience, and thereby the power of media is squared by repetition. This plot device implies a crucial decision. If one takes this pointed iconisation in a negative sense, the film merely (unconsciously) repeats images and stereotypes. Seen from this general “cinepsychoanalytical” perspective, the film is a time machine,4 an ideological concoction that has one primary message: “We can escape change” (Nadel 1997, p.206).
But the repeated iconisation employed in the movie can also be understood as a satirical element, a stylistic device reflecting how one’s perceptions are shaped by media images. Postmodern readings expect viewers to recognise and decipher such stylistic devices as ironic (Donnerstag 2002; Scott 2001). The caricature of groups and characters is less a kind of negative stereotyping than an obviously absurd and satirical representation that stimulates the audience to reflect on the inadequacies of the representation itself. From this perspective, questions of historical authenticity or representation take a back seat. Forrest Gump is itself a mirror of a specific postmodern consciousness that reflects questions of how history and memory are represented. As Vivian Sobchack (1996, p.3) writes, “one could, in fact, suggest that Forrest Gump is a one-joke movie, absolutely dependent for its humor and irony upon historically (self-) conscious viewers who have been immersed in questions about their own possible place in history.”
In postmodern readings, the iconisation in Forrest Gump could also be interpreted as a filmic examination of mass media-created societal or historical consciousness. Viewed from this perspective, Forrest Gump offers, as Hoberg (1999, p.198) argues, the potential for the type of serious reflection that is usually the province of avant-garde films.
Some aspects of postmodern reading are evident in the desegregation sequence, where Zemeckis repeatedly cross-fades original footage and re-enacted historical scenes with scenes showing people in front of their televisions. As he enters the University of Alabama, Forrest waves at the camera. Although he is unaware of the historical significance of the moment, he seems to understand the power of media representation. Thus, Forrest Gump waves to an audience experiencing history in the same way the characters do in the film: as spectators watching it on a screen.
Alison Landsberg (2004) has coined the term prosthetic memory to describe how historical events one has not personally witnessed can nevertheless become individual recollections. Through mass media, impersonal historical phenomena are replaced by “experiential” collective memories. Landsberg explains this phenomenon by examples from experiential museums, historical re-enactments, and historical feature films. Film scholar Robert Burgoyne has examined the film Forrest Gump and its function as prosthetic memory, and arrived at the conclusion that “memory is thematised here as the connective tissue that binds the characters to the narrative of nation” (Burgoyne 1997, p.107). From Burgoyne’s perspective, the crucial question is whether the film is capable of consolidating national identity while narrating stories of American racism, political homicide, and war. One answer is that the film substitutes memory for history. Burgoyne does not interpret this in a positive way, seeing it primarily as depolitisation: the film doesn’t reflect on specific circumstances, developments, and results of historical events, but instead constructs “an image of nation that can exist apart from, or float free of, the historical traumas of the 1960s and 1970s” (Burgoyne 1997, p.107). However one interprets this process, the substitution of memory for history becomes clearer when one examines a second, more controversial sequence from the film.
Sequence 2: In the film Forrest is brought to Washington, DC to receive the Medal of Honor from President Johnson for heroism in Vietnam. Afterwards, he goes sightseeing and comes upon a massive gathering at the Lincoln Memorial. Still in his uniform, Forrest is shoved to the front of a group of protesters holding signs like “Veterans Against the War in Vietnam”. At the podium antiwar activist Abbie Hoffman, dressed in stars and stripes, is speaking out against the Vietnam War. He invites Forrest to come up and report on the war himself.
As he steps forward, the microphone is unplugged, so only those closest can hear what he’s saying. Forrest is just ending his speech when the sound is turned back on. Hoffman gives Forrest a hug and shouts his name into the microphone, and the crowd cheers Forrest. Just then, Forrest hears the voice of his true love, Jenny, rise from the crowd. They run towards each other and are reunited in the reflecting pool in front of the monument.
When Jenny introduces Forrest to her new friends at the Black Panther headquarters, they are not greeted warmly. When Forrest sees Jenny’s abusive boyfriend Wesley, a leader of the SDS, slap her, he rushes to her defence. Ejected from the gathering, Forrest and Jenny spend the night walking around Washington, recounting what they have done over the past years. The sequence ends with Jenny boarding a bus to Berkeley with her boyfriend, and saying goodbye to Forrest once again.
This sequence, especially the scene at the Black Panther headquarters, was criticised for it simplified and failed to address historical questions regarding gender and race. Thomas Byers (1996, p.431) points to an absence of black figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X, as well as the stereotypical depiction of the Black Panthers. “[T]he forgetting (repression) of the history of racism becomes the justification for repeating it – for presenting Black men in terms of clichéd negative stereotypes.” The scene was similarly interpreted by Jennifer Wang (2000, p.98), who emphasised the interrelationship of race and gender to an even greater degree. To Wang, that Jenny’s abuse took place at a Black Panther headquarters was no coincidence: “By visualising the danger of black autonomy to a white woman and by giving voice to the threats of Black Nationalism, Forrest Gump emphasises the need to keep these bodies under white America’s control.”
One should bear in mind, however, that the person who strikes Jenny is not a member of the Black Panthers but rather her white boyfriend, and that even greater violence of Jenny took place at the hands of her (white) father in Alabama. While it’s possible to view this sequence literally, without observing the potential irony of the situation, in a footnote Byers points out that at an academic conference, European feminists couldn’t follow his reading of Forrest Gump because they considered the movie a satire on American values and history. For Byers, an “ironic reading runs against the grain of this film”, while admitting that “Forrest Gump is a clever enough text, and ironic enough in spots, to make it difficult simply to exclude this possibility” (Byers 1996, p.440, fn. 4).
The most critical and cinepsychoanalytical interpretations focus on what has been called “post-traumatic masculinity”, i.e., traumatic events such as the emancipation of women and blacks, losing the war in Vietnam, and the AIDS pandemic, all of which threaten the (sexual) omnipotence of white men. Seen from this perspective, Forrest Gump is a kind of unconscious wish-fulfilment, since in the end Forrest is a patriarch who has dealt with all kinds of threats “and the old order is unshaken” (Byers 1996, p.439). But there are variations on such a psychoanalytical reading. In a later analysis, the Vietnam War and AIDS will become central traumas for Forrest Gump (both the movie and the character). But in this version, the movie is an apology “written by a babyboomer who is excluded from death” (Fan 2008, p.460). Here both Forrest and the baby boomer generation have weathered experiences like Vietnam and the AIDS crisis, and thus stand “outside the Law that defines human existence” (Fan 2008, p.460).
I was struck not so much by Fan’s idiosyncratic interpretation, but the assumption on which it is based. In his paper Fan seeks to explore why “babyboomers might find the film either too objectionable or too painful to watch” (Fan 2008, p.450). From a psychoanalytical perspective, both film and any perception of a film are completely imaginary, determined by unchanging universal fantasies related to human sexuality. This is a difficult topic, and it is not my goal to refute the notion of cinema as the “royal road to the cultural unconscious” (Lebeau 2001, p.6). What is clear is that cinepsychoanalysis cannot provide a plausible and obvious explanation for the overwhelming popularity of Forrest Gump, even as the movie offers starting points for both a critical psychoanalytical reading as well as a more positively connoted postmodern analysis of the film. Indeed, contradictory readings can focus on the same sequence while highlighting different symbols and pointing out different interpretations. Inasmuch as theoretical concepts provide categories and interpretative patterns, psychoanalytical readings centre around unconscious and repressed meanings, while postmodern analyses highlight ironic and reflexive constructions.
I would like to end this survey of readings on Forrest Gump with another example of positive reception. This analysis doesn’t explicitly draw on terms of collective memory but rather points out what James Wertsch (2008) calls a “narrative template”: the implicit mythic framework of narration. Wertsch defines narrative templates as “cultural tools that mediate what can be termed ‘deep collective memory’.” Thus it is possible to describe the cultural concept of self-reliance as an important interpretative pattern in popular American narrations (Bellah et al. 2008; Donnerstag 2002). One paradigmatic example is the cinematic adaption of the American fantasy The Wizard of Oz (1939), which suggests that truth lies in the individual, with no need for authorities from the outside world. If you define the concept of self-reliance as a narrative template, it is possible to view the representation of race in Forrest Gump less as an act of repression than an acceptance of the American past:
Forrest tells us that he was named for the Civil War hero, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who founded the Ku Klux Klan. As Gump narrates this background, we see footage of the general leading the Klan. Gump, then, carries in his very name America’s racist history, and, by making him the redeemer of the nation, the film suggests that America itself, with the same racist roots, can transcend the ugly aspects of its past. (Chumo 1995, p.3)
Viewed from this perspective, the movie’s success is one of cultural resonance. It is a film that evokes the concept of a (national) self-reliance deeply rooted in American culture and history (Bellah et al. 2008).
Forrest Gump in social and media networks
In order to study Forrest Gump‘s success within different social and media contexts, I will start with an institution that is a major point of origin for Halbwachs’ thoughts about memory – the family. Where the film’s message may be controversial, one thing can be stated incontrovertibly: it is a family film. To this end, we can draw on film scholar Peter Krämer’s comparative analysis of highly successful Hollywood movies (Krämer 1998) to highlight family movie characteristics.
As has been explained, Forrest Gump transmits history through one man’s life story, by turning on the post-war generation’s television. Krämer’s analysis gives evidence that American baby boomers viewed the film’s fictional oral history as a type of reality. According to one Gallup poll, 40–65 year-olds, along with people aged 12–24, made up three-quarters of the film’s audience (Krämer 1998, p.307), supporting the idea that it was baby boomers who packed theatres to see the film, along with their children. For Krämer, Forrest Gump is a paradigmatic example of a “family adventure movie”:
These films are imbued with sentimentality, spectacle and a sense of wonder, telling stories about the pain and longing caused by dysfunctional or incomplete families (usually with absent or dead fathers), about childish wishes and nightmares magically coming true. (Krämer 1998, p.304)
In this 1996 perspective, Krämer claims that fifteen of the twenty top-grossing films in North America belonged to the genre of family adventure. At that time, the top five were E.T. (1982), Jurassic Park (1993), Forrest Gump (1994), Star Wars (1977), and The Lion King (1994). Krämer cites two main reasons for the movies’ success: first, the capability to attract all segments of the audience. People of all ages could enjoy these movies, either by themselves or with family. But their popularity also stems from specific content that reflects contemporary family relationships. It is symptomatic that the main characters in most of these movies come from divorced or single-parent families.
If one applies this mirroring capacity to Forrest Gump, the only family adventure movie that explicitly involves history and memory,5 one sees how the film reflects baby boomers’ need to explore their own experiences and generational imprints and pass them on to their children. While such an explanation seems plausible, audience statistics reveal otherwise. For example, the Gallup poll cited above showed that Forrest Gump received high approval ratings from all segments of the audience, females more than males, and African-Americans more than non-blacks. To Krämer, Forrest Gump “became an occasion for self-reflection and communication across the boundaries of age, sex and ethnicity” (Krämer 1998, p.307).
Forrest Gump has been used as an intergenerational medium to great effect. In the mid-1990s educational psychologist Sam Wineburg carried out a longitudinal study of the historical consciousness of high school students. He discovered that Forrest Gump “played a major role in adolescents’ reconstructions of the Vietnam era, more than any other single source – including parents, teachers, or textbooks.” References to Forrest Gump occurred in every school he surveyed, and in both students’ and parents’ responses. Forrest Gump “was mentioned in 60 percent of the interviews on Vietnam. No other text even came close” (Wineburg 2001, p.252).
Another study, carried out by educational scholar Allan Marcus, reported that 78 per cent of participating students reported they had seen Forrest Gump while studying US history in school (Marcus 2006, p.4).6 The film seems to be a popular teaching aid for several reasons. First, there is the possible generational imprint of the teachers themselves. Second, as a tool for teaching history, the film skims significant events of contemporary American history. (Indeed, in its explicit transmission of history, the film mirrors the professional role of teachers themselves.) But another aspect was pointed out by Wineburg: unlike most movies about the Vietnam era, Forrest Gump received a PG-13 rating. This meant social studies teachers did not need parental or school permission to show the film in class, as they would for R-rated movies like The Deer Hunter or Full Metal Jacket. Such a distinction should not be ignored in understanding “how cultural products pass through schoolhouse doors” (Wineburg et al. 2007, p.67).
Along with family and school, Forrest Gump has been successful in many contexts. It has received countless reviews in national and international newspapers and magazines (Film Review Annual1995; IMDb 2009). Numerous awards (six Oscars, including Best Picture) have increased its publicity and popularity. Very few films can boast a similar impact on political debate and scholarly discussions.
Last but not least, innovative marketing strategies have been significant parts of the film’s success. Forrest Gump‘s merchandising is still lauded in management handbooks for its successful “windowing” (i.e., the release of a programme in different distribution channels at different times) (Wirtz 2006, p.675). Like most family adventure movies, the film had its theatrical release during the summer (Krämer 1998); its subsequent home video release promoted a brand of chocolate, something that led literary scholar David Lavery to conclude that the first sentence of Groom’s novel wasn’t changed for literary or dramatic purposes, but for reasons of marketing input (Lavery 1997). It is hard to say how much the screenplay was affected by strategic merchandising. Paramount Pictures’ strategy “to open a casual family restaurant with a theme based on Forrest Gump’s life” (Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Restaurants, Inc. 2010) seems to be a successful marketing decision.7
Today there are twenty-eight Bubba Gump Shrimp Restaurants, twenty-two in the USA alone. They are constructed like movie museums, exhibiting cinematic memorabilia in glass cases along with screens showing the movie. Affiliated gift shops sell teeshirts printed with ‘Gumpisms’ and other souvenirs. While this kind of merchandising may seem odd, it is one more reason for the film’s enduring appeal. Because the locations from the film are also important to the movie’s fans (Aden et al. 1995), Paramount created Forrest Gump fan sites around the country where people can gather to celebrate birthdays and other family occasions.
The film’s enduring popularity is evident in new media such as Facebook, YouTube, etc. Forrest Gump has half a million Facebook friends, and many display their own photos from places like the Bubba Gump Shrimp Restaurants. On video platforms like YouTube, MySpace etc., teenagers recite Forrest’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial and re-enact Forrest and Jenny’s reunion.8 Here again the mirroring function of Forrest Gump is obvious; just as Forrest tours the nation’s capital in the film, Americans visit Washington, DC on vacations or school trips, and most go to the Lincoln Memorial. Clearly its cinematic representation shapes people’s expectations regarding both past and future visits.
The Lincoln Memorial sequence leads me to my last example, illustrating the congruence between memorial sites and films on a national level. On 20 January 2009, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the forty-fourth President of the United States. The official celebration began two days earlier, with a festive concert at the Lincoln Memorial. In addition to musical performances and speeches about the “dreams of our fathers”, viewers witnessed Tom Hanks talking about Abraham Lincoln. His presence was reported on television, in newspapers and on the Internet:
Even in 2009, Forrest Gump remained a powerful medium for cultural memory.
In 2009, Forrest Gump celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of its release. Once again, the movie was sold in a special DVD edition (complete with a box of chocolates) and yet another appreciative reading appeared, this time by well-known film scholar Thomas Elsaesser (2009).
In terms of America’s racial history, 2009 began in jubilant fashion with the inauguration of the country’s first black president, and ended with a small item in Time magazine. It sombrely noted that the most underreported story of 2009 was the fact that African-American and Latino schoolchildren are more segregated now than they have been since the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr (Fitzpatrick 2009).
It is possible to link both ends of this spectrum to the public’s reception of Forrest Gump. From an optimistic perspective, one could say that the movie indicates that “America itself, with the same racist roots, can transcend the ugly aspects of its past”, or, more negatively, that just as Martin Luther King, Jr seems to be missing from the movie, so his political heritage is absent from today’s America. Both readings bear a kernel of truth.
The reason Forrest Gump has become such a powerful medium of cultural memory stems from its overloaded sense of familiarity, giving it a ready capacity for interpretation and offering multiple cues for why so many different readings can occur at the same time. When you consider the number of contradictory interpretations the film has had, director Zemeckis’ observation that “we are bringing to the party all of our own understanding of it” seems highly apropos (Zemeckis et al. 2001).
Halbwachs would say that both the individual and collective perspective frame a work’s perception. Thus, one’s perception of Forrest Gump will depend on who one is with when watching the movie. If you were to see the movie with an imaginary Hayden White, your inner communication would be quite different than if you were accompanied by Jacques Lacan. The same is true for an imagined audience. Some scholars ponder the film’s reception from the position of a historically self-conscious spectator, while others envision its viewers as white, ignorant males. The openness and transparence of Forrest Gump dovetail perfectly with the work of recent theorists in cultural memory studies, who maintain it is not the story itself, but the variety of media cues which form the basis for a film’s success.10
Any reading of a historically based feature film has to serve as a kind of blueprint for historical consciousness. As history, memory, and historical consciousness take place in the present, so each spectator will approach this technically clever and well performed motion picture as something that deeply matters to him or her on an individual level while sharing a collective experience about the past.
The American Film Institute (2007) in 1997 and again in 2007 listed Forrest Gump as one of the 100 most important American movies ever. Most detailed information about the movie’s awards, box-office, and reviews can be found at IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109830/business; accessed 22 February 2010).
This article is part of the larger “Watching Contemporary History” project based on interviews with viewers of Forrest Gump. This project was funded by the German Research Foundation and carried out at Stanford University School of Education. I would like to thank Sam Wineburg whose empirical research motivated my project, and who provided me with the opportunity to join the Stanford History Education Group for several years.
In May 2009, actor Tom Hanks was named one of “the TIME 100 – The World’s Most Influential People”, where he was depicted as an Everyman hero, somebody people would like to be standing next to in a long line, who makes them feel less alone, and who “keeps our best selves, our dream selves, excellent company” (Actor Tom Hanks, by Meg Ryan; Ryan 2009). The star image is a good example of how films, unlike books, make use of a whole range of simultaneous symbolic systems (i.e., on linguistic, visual, and auditory levels; see Hickethier 2007; Salomon, 1994, p.52).
Critics have chosen this metaphor because Zemeckis as a director is also responsible for the Back to the Future trilogy (1985, 1989, 1990).
An exception might be Number 17 of the top grossing movies, Back to the Future (1985), also directed by Robert Zemeckis.
Forrest Gump represented the movie most often watched, followed by Apollo 13 (67%), Pearl Harbor (67%), The Patriot (59%), Saving Private Ryan (50%), Pleasantville (41%), Malcolm X (28%), Gone With the Wind (24%), Enemy at the Gates (22%), Amistad (20%), and Casablanca (20%) (Marcus 2006, p.4).
Bubba (Mykelti Williamson) is another character of the film who is often seen as the black counterpart of Forrest (a simpleminded but good man). Bubba and Forrest meet on the way to basic training and later fight together in Vietnam. Before Bubba is killed, the men become friends and plan to enter the shrimping business together after the war.
In 2009 the movie had a fan site with 394,148 fans on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Forrest-Gump1994/11471355815; accessed 5 January 2009). This homepage does not exist in the same format anymore. Now, the movie fan site displays 5,703,662 “people like this” (accessed 14 September 2011). For videos see http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&VideoID=31333843 (accessed 27 February 2009). If you Google “Lincoln Memorial” and “Forrest Gump” together, you can see how people all over the world remember their trips to Washington, DC with photos subtitled with a device on Forrest Gump.
Devlin Barrett (Associated Press Writer), Obamas, Bidens enjoy Lincoln Memorial concert, http://www.mercurynews.com/celebrities/ci_11485625?nclick_check=1 (accessed 27 February 2009).
See Erll and Wodianka (2008). In this regard Forrest Gump can be compared with another successful blockbuster regarded by most people as a serious historical film: Schindler’s List. See Classen (2009).
Additional references common to Memory Studies can be found at the end of this dossier in the selected bibliography, pp.197–202.
- Aden, R. C., Rahoi, R. L. and Beck, C. S., 1995. Dreams are born on places like this. the process of interpretive community formation at the “field of dreams” site. Communication Quarterly, 43 (4), 368–380.
- American Film Institute, 2007. AFI’s 100 years … 100 movies. 10th Anniversary edition. AFI.com [online]. Available at http://connect.afi.com/site/PageServer?pagename=100yearslist [accessed 10 August 2011].
- Assmann, J., 1995. Collective memory and cultural identity. New German critique, 65, 125–133.
- Barrett, D., 2009. Obamas, Bidens enjoy Lincoln Memorial concert. San Jose Mercury News [online]. Available at http://www.mercurynews.com/celebrities/ci_11485625?nclick_check=1 [accessed 10 August 2011].
- Beim, A., 2007. The cognitive aspects of collective memory. Symbolic interaction, 30 (1), 7–26.
- Bellah, R. N., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W.M., Swidler, A. and Tipton, S. M., 2008. Habits of the heart. Individualism and commitment in American life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Restaurants, Inc., 2010. Press kit [online]. Available at http://www.bubbagump.com/assets/pdf/bg_press_kit.pdf [accessed 6 September 2011].
- Burgoyne, R., 1997. Film nation. Hollywood looks at U.S. history. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
- Byers, T. B., 1996. History re-membered: Forrest Gump, postfeminist masculinity, and the burial of counterculture. Modern fiction studies, 42, 419–444.
- Chumo, P. N. 1995. You’ve got to put the past behind you before you can move on: Forrest Gump and national reconciliation. Journal of popular film and television, 23 (1), 2–7.
- Classen, C., 2009. Balanced truth: Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List among history, memory, and popular culture. History and theory, 48 (2), 77–102.
- Confino, A., 1997. Collective memory and cultural history: problems of method. American historical review, 102 (5), 1386–1403.
- Donnerstag, J., 2002. Kultur und Erzählung. Zur Vermittlung amerikanischer Kultur. In: F. Jaeger , ed. Kulturwissenschaftliche Perspektiven in der Nordamerika-Forschung. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl, 41–59.
- Elsaesser, T., 2009. Geschichte(n), Gedächtnis, Fehlleistungen: Forrest Gump. In: T. Elsaesser , Hollywood heute. Geschichte, Gender und Nation im postklassischen Kino. Berlin: Bertz+Fischer, 181–191.
- Erll, A., 2008. Literature, Film, and the Mediality of Cultural Memory. In: A. Erll and A. Nünning , eds. Cultural memory studies. An international and interdisciplinary handbook. Berlin: De Gruyter, 389–398.
- Erll, A. and Wodianka S., 2008. Einleitung. Phänomenologie und Methodologie des Erinnerungsfilms. In: A. Erll and S. Wodianka , eds. Film und kulturelle Erinnerung. Plurimediale Konstellationen. Berlin/ New York: De Gruyter, 1–20.
- Fan, V., 2008. The unanswered question of Forrest Gump. Screen, 49 (4), 450–461.
- Film Review Annual, 1995. Englewood: J. Ozer.
- Fischoff, S., Cardenas, E., Hernandez, A., Wyatt, K., Young, J. and Gordon, R., 2000. Popular movie quotes: reflections of a people and a culture. Based on a paper presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, 7 August 2000 [online]. Available at http://www.calstatela.edu/faculty/abloom/tvf454/3PopularMovieQuotes.pdf [accessed 6 September 2011].
- Fitzpatrick, L., 2009. Top ten underreported stories 2009. Continuing segregation is hurting U.S. competitiveness. Time, 8 December 2009 [online]. Available at http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1945379_1944495_1944497,00.html [accessed 10 August 2011].
- Groom, W., 1994. Forrest Gump. London: Penguin Books.
- Halbwachs, M.,  1992. On collective memory. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Halbwachs, M., 1980. The collective memory. New York: Harper Colophon.
- Halliwell, M., 2004. Images of idiocy: the idiot figure in modern fiction and film. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.
- Hickethier, K., 2007. Film und Fernsehanalyse. Stuttgart: JB Metzler.
- Hoberg, A., 1999. Film und Computer: wie digitale Bilder den Spielfilm verändern. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag.
- IMDB, 2009. Forrest Gump (1994) [online]. Available at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109830/business [accessed 10 August 2011].
- Kansteiner, W., 2002. Finding meaning in memory: a methodological critique of collective memory studies. History and theory, 179–197.
- Krämer, P., 1998. Would you take your child to see this film? The cultural and social work of the family-adventure movie. In: S. Neale and M. Smith , eds. Contemporary Hollywood film. London: Routledge, 294–311.
- Landsberg, A., 2004. Prosthetic memory. The transformation of American remembrance in the age of mass culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Lavery, D., 1997. No box of chocolates: the adaptation of Forrest Gump, literature. Film quarterly, 25 (1), 18–22.
- Lebeau, V., 2001. Psychoanalysis and cinema. The play of shadows. London: Wallflower.
- Marcus, A. S., 2006. Exploring the past with feature film. In: A.S. Marcus , ed. Celluloid blackboard: teaching history with film. Charlotte (Scotland): Information Age Publishing, 1–13.
- Nadel, A., 1997. Flatlining on the field of dreams. Cultural narratives in the films of President Reagan’s America. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
- Nelmes, J., 2003. An introduction to film studies. London: Routledge.
- Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, 1994. History Channel Market Study. iPOLL Databank of Roper Center. Connecticut: University of Connecticut [online]. Available at http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/data_access/ipoll/ipoll.html [accessed 10 August 2011].
- Paul, G., 2008. Das Jahrhundert der Bilder. Die visuelle Geschichte und der Bildkanon des kulturellen Gedächtnisses. In: G. Paul , ed. Das Jahrhundert der Bilder: 1949 bis heute. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 14–39.
- Ryan, M., 2009. The 2009 Time 100. Tom Hanks. Time, 173 (3), 101 [online]. Available at http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1894410_1893836_1893832,00.html [accessed 10 August 2011].
- Salomon, G., 1994. The interaction of media, cognition and learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Schuman, H. and Scott, J., 1989. Generations and collective memories. American sociological review, 54 (3), 359–381.
- Scott, S. D., 2001. Like a box of chocolates: “Forrest Gump” and postmodernism. Literature film quarterly, 29 (1), 23–31.
- Sobchack, V., 1996. Introduction: history happens. In: V. Sobchack , ed. The persistence of history. Cinema, television, and the modern event. New York/London: Routledge, 1–14.
- Wang, J. H. 2000. A struggle of contending stories. Race, gender, and political memory in “Forrest Gump”. Cinema Journal, 39 (3), 92–115.
- Wertsch, J. V., 2008. A clash of deep memories. Profession, 1, 46–53 [online]. Available at http://www.mlajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1632/prof.2008.2008.1.46.doi:10.1632/prof.2008.2008.1.46 [accessed 10 August 2011].
- Wineburg, S., 2001. Historical thinking. Charting the future of teaching the past. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
- Wineburg, S., Mosborg, S., Porat, D. and Duncan, A., 2007. Common belief and the cultural curriculum: an intergenerational study of historical consciousness. American educational research journal, 1, 40–76.
- Wirtz, B., 2006. Medien- und Internetmanagement. Wiesbaden: GablerVerlag.
- Zemeckis, R., Starkey, S. and Carter, R., 2001. Audio commentary on Forrest Gump. Special Collector’s Edition DVD, Paramount Pictures.
Sabine Moller is a Lecturer in Contemporary History at Humboldt University Berlin who studies a broad range of media and dimensions of historical consciousness, such as family recollections, historical feature films, and politics of memory. From 2008 to 2010 she visited Stanford University School of Education (as a fellow of the German Research Foundation) to examine the interrelationship between historical feature films and viewers’ historical consciousness. She earned her PhD (with a comparison of East and West German memories of the Second World War) in Social Sciences from the University of Hanover, where she worked as a Fellow in the Department of Psychology’s “Traditions of Historical Consciousness Project”. From 2002 to 2005, Sabine Moller was project coordinator of the project, “International Traditions of Historical Consciousness” involving seven European countries, which was located at the Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research (Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen). From 2005 to 2008 she was a Lecturer in History Didactics at Oldenburg University.