Back when I was in fourth grade every kid in class was talking in a strange southern accent saying lines like “My names Forrest, Forrest Gump”, “Stupid is as stupid does” and “Life is Like a box of chocolates, you never know what ya gonna get.” These lines came from the movie Forrest Gump, which apparently everyone in class saw except me. In fact I wouldn’t even see the movie until for a few years later.
It’s just as well. I don’t think I could have fully appreciated Forrest Gump when I was 9. In fact I doubt any of my Forrest quoting classmates could either. Chances are they saw the guy who talked kind of funny and told a long and heart breaking story before Ted Mosby took nine years to do it on How I Met Your Mother. They didn’t understand that Forrest Gump is a story of love, faith, friendship, heartbreak, growing up, triumph over adversity, and about the American spirit in one of the most tumultuous centuries of this nations relatively short history.
The movie is one of the rare works that has superseded the book it was based on. In fact if you enter the title in on Wikipedia, you are immediately redirected to a page on the film. While upon it’s initial debut the film a relative success, it went on to score the Oscar for Best Picture and Actor Awards, as well as spawn off a sea food restaurant chain, Bubba Gump’s. So what led this movie, based on a relatively unknown novel to become one of the most charming and enduring stories in American film history, perhaps second only to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life?
Much of this has to do with the natural charm and likability that leading man Tom Hanks brought to the roll. He had already earned an Oscar for his performance in the movie Philadelphia, but it was this movie that solidified his place as a serious leading actor. Once known for his rolls in comedy, he became an A-List leading man, and even led him to being called by some critics as a modern day Jimmy Stewart.
With Hanks’ everyman charm he brought a warmth to the character that wasn’t present in the book character. While Forrest is by no means intelligent, he is a very kind hearted, loyal, and innocent individual. He encounters so much of 20th century history but he barely notices it. For Forrest meeting not just one, not two, but three American Presidents is no big deal for him. Even meeting Elvis before he is famous or John Lennon in the height of his career doesn’t faze him. To him they’re just nice guys he happened to run into on the road of life. There are only three things he believes in, God, his mama, and his friends.
He lives with his loving mother, who is simply known as “Mama”. Played by Sally Field who is willing to do anything to help her son fit in and succeed and that means literally everything. She doesn’t treat her son like he’s stupid and supports him through everything. She imparts on her son, simple, charming, homespun nuggets of wisdom for him to grow on that carry him through life and shape his beliefs.
In contrast to Forrest is the life of his forever love, Jenny Curan, played by Robin Wright Penn. It is more than implied that Jenny is abused and victimized by her father, to the point that she doesn’t fully know how to trust or love anyone. Her desire to fill the pain of her life leads to a life time of bad choices, including illicit drug use and an endless string of abusive relationships. The only constant in her life is Forrest who, like the father toward his way ward son in the parable of the Prodigal son, loves her unconditionally, accepts her in spite of any mistakes she makes and continually waits for her with open arms.
Forrest’s journey takes him from his simple town in Alabama, to college where he plays football to his service in Vietnam. There he meets his best friend, Benjamin Beuford “Bubba” Blue, played by Mylekti Williamson, The two are fast friends and bond quickly on the bus ride to boot camp. In many ways Bubba is a bit like Forrest. Both men are simple minded, yet likable people who have a tendency to ramble. They are also the only ones who seem to take the time to listen to each other.
The two make a pact, like all war-time buddies to go into business together, laying the ground work for Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. However while in Vietnam, their platoon is hit, and Bubba, becomes one of the many casualties of the Vietnam War. Forrest managed to save several members, including his commanding officer Lt. Dan Taylor, played by Gary Sinise a cantankerous and cynical man who is the perfect foil for Forrest’s naïve optimism. Despite their differing outlooks, the two still look out for each other, and Forrest in his own way helps save Lt. Dan in a spiritual sense as much as physical.
Despite the historical backdrop, Forrest Gump really is a very simple story of one man’s odyssey through life. Yet what makes it so great are its few astounding special effects. The helicopters, jet fighters and fire bombings feel real. Through the magic of blue screen, they manage to make LT. Dan look like a double amputee. But the crown jewel, is how they manage to seamlessly blend footage of Forrest with a archive videos of important historical figures and make him interact with them. It actually looks like Forest is meeting Elvis, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, and John Lennon.
Not since Frank Capra has a film not only celebrated an individual and his small community of friends, but felt so American. Robert Zemeckis had already captured the perfect essence of three different time periods in the 50’s, the 80’s and old west through the Back to the Future trilogy and he took it to the next level here. While there are some dark moments in this story, it is surprisingly hopeful, as it is guided by Forrest’s simple heart.
Not to be overlooked is the stirring score by Alan Silvestri. The man behind the score for the Back to the Future trilogy, he had already created one of the most iconic move themes of the 80s. Leave it to him to do the same for the 90s’. His theme for Forrest Gump is as simple and tranquil as the story’s hero . 20 year strong it has become a piano standard and featured on countless romantic albums.
This movie also features some great hits from the 50’s through the 80s. Often times pop music can date a film, but here it works to the films credit. You feel the passage of time as you go from Elvis in the 50s , to the Byrds and Credence Clearwater Revival in the 60s to Lyndard Skynard in the 70s to the likes of Randy Newman in the 80s. It tells you when a new decade has come, and it shows America’s own journey through music.
While Romancing the Stone may have jump started his career, and Back to the Future put him on the map, Forrest Gump is Director Robert Zemeckis’s finest film. Zemeckis is one of the few directors, apart from Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard who can take an honest to goodness everyman American hero, put him n a nostalgic tale, and not make it come across as cheesy, stupid, or as a parody.
While the kids in my class may have loved quoting this movie back in third grade, it was a movie I have come to love more and movie as I’ve grown older. When I watch it with my folks, they can often recall where they were when some of these big events happened during their childhood. What was history for me, was current events to them, and helps connect the past with the present and preserve it for future generations. It is a wonderful tribute to Americana, and it makes for a nice relaxing day in an American history class when after a big exam all you have to do is sit back and make a list of all the historical references in this film ( there’s well over 100.)
However one of the things I love the most about this film is it conveys just what friendship means. While in Vietnam one rainy night, Bubba comes up to Forrest and asks him if he can rest his back against his so that way neither one of them will have to lie in the mud. They show that friendship is all about being there for one another, leaning against the other, and making sure that your friend isn’t wallowing in the mud of life. It’s no wonder then that Forrest is so willing to help Jenny, or rescue Bubba when he falls in the line of duty, or be there for Lt. Dan. He isn’t about to let anyone lie in the mud. Forrest shows us in his own simple way, the kind of person we wish we could be. We would love to be just as gentle, forgiving, loyal, and giving friend. We would love to lead our lives in such a way that we seem to just go with the flow and world shaking things don’t bother us. We come to realize that if more of us could be like him in sprit, then maybe this world could be a better palce.
From its tender story, it’s poignant themes of friendship and faith, to its small and intimate cast of characters, to it’s wonderful look back at the century that changed America, it’s no wonder that Forrest Gump struck a chord with viewers. In an age where films seem to be dark, cynical, and jaded, it’s nice to have a character who is a simple, bright and hopeful as Forrest. 20 years later, Forrest is still running strong. Happy 20th Forrest!