They say life is what you make of it and that the things you do will have a profound effect on the people around you. This has never been truer when talking about Forrest Gump. Forrest Gump is the Oscar winning movie that garnered Tom Hanks his first Academy Award that signalled a turning point in his career to become one of the most well loved and respected actors of his generation.
Over the years Forrest Gump has gathered a reputation for being the quintessential Oscar movie that delivered on its promise. The story of a seemingly simple man sitting on a bench talking to whoever would listen about his life has been the subject of parody, cliché and misremembering as the vast majority of the audience would have remembered Forrest Gump to be a saccharine story about a mentally challenged man, whose life story ran alongside the story of the latter part of 20th Century American history. However, after twenty-five years, a repeat viewing of Forrest Gump opens up a lot more about the history of cinema, gender bias and what drives audiences to see the movies that inspire them.
When Forrest Gump is growing up, he realises that he’s different and due to an unnamed condition (most likely polio) he wears leg braces in order to help him get around. He also has a difficulty in understanding things in the same way as other people, but his mother is always there to reassure him that he is just the same as everybody else. Right from the very start the audience gets introduced to a young Forrest and instantly they sympathise with him because of his disability, and that when he goes to school, nobody wants to know him and makes fun of him because of his differences.
The audience’s hearts are also warmed because there is one person who instantly takes to Forrest and doesn’t treat him any differently than anyone else. That person is Jenny. So, Forrest’s early life is a coming of age story about young love, friendship and finding what defines you as a person. Something that everybody can identify with. Often this format is used in cinema and the fulfilling ending where the introverted lead finds his place in the world speaks to the audience. The audience identifies with the lead and put themselves in their place hoping that their story either played out in the same way or that it will do soon.
However, as this is only the start of Forrest’s life then the story is told in a more condensed way, so his revelation of individuality into adulthood is quite literally shown when Forrest starts running and loses his leg braces. When a protagonist overcomes their disability against all the odds in a movie it works as a metaphor for self-realisation and often triumph. Director Robert Zemeckis uses this as the first big feel good moment of the movie because it’s something that the audience would recognise in films they’ve seen before – and that’s not the last of these inspirational movie tropes.
Unlike Forrest, Jenny’s life starts in an abusive relationship with her father and so the abuse she suffered as a child colours the way the rest of her life unfolds. Whereas everything that happens to Forrest is down to chance, where all the good things happen to the titular character, every so often the movie turns to Jenny’s life, showing the tragedy of what her life has become.
This not only reflects society where men are the leaders and heroes of the world, whereas women have to work hard to be treated equally, but also reflects cinema. Even now, but particularly in the mid 90’s, a biopic of a woman who achieved something incredible is less likely to be made, purely because the protagonist is female. This is emphasised in Forrest Gump as the audience may wonder exactly how Jenny’s life turned out the way that it did and why there is not more about it.
Although the film does prefer to tell Forrest’s story, the implication is that Jenny’s life story is less interesting because it does not inspire as much hope. So, therefore Jenny is the love interest, mother and wife in what could have been a powerful and dramatic story where she is the protagonist.
Throughout the course of the film Forrest Gump becomes a war hero, a champion sports star and even has a ‘rags to riches’ story where him and Bubba make a success of their shrimp business along with Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinese). In fact, through Lieutenant Dan’s interactions with Forrest, Lieutenant Dan comes to terms with his own disability which brings about yet another inspiring movie trope and parallels Forrest’s own issues with disability when he’s younger. All of these things put together give the audience a warm and hopeful feeling as Forrest Gump is not only a movie in the guise of a biopic, but also encompasses Forrest’s life as the epitome of the all-American cinematic hero.
There are many things that can be read into Forrest Gump; the theory that Forrest is a metaphor for America in himself, the idea that Forrest’s passive inclusion in his own story means he’s more of an observer on life rather than a participant, and the theory that he’s an angel sent to look after Jenny (think of the feather). However, whatever you think of Forrest Gump, on multiple viewings there is always something new to find. The script is hilarious, heart-warming and heart-breaking all at the same time with many quotable lines beyond ‘Life is like a box of chocolates’.
The saccharine nature that the film is known for is not as prevalent as most may think if they saw it again. Despite Forrest’s intelligence, his sense of honour and chivalry come through in his character as he is as quick to defend Jenny’s honour as he is to save those who are in need of help on the battlefield.
This makes Forrest less of a simple, misguided protagonist and more of a strong willed, kind hearted hero who knows the repercussions of his actions.
However, if Hollywood questioned the image of the all-American hero with a fast punch and a unwavering sense of honour for the woman he loves, then maybe they could see it for the cliché it is and look further afield to find stories from all walks of life.
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