Forrest Gump: An Undying Flame

Forrest Gump is more than a famous movie; it is more than a conglomeration of memorable quotes, such as “Run, Forrest, run;” it is more than just another Tom Hanks film. It will undoubtedly go down in history as one of America’s greatest films. It is a well-rounded movie that achieves this through several aspects: use of historical events, use of music that fits the time period, use of excellent framework and directing, and fantastic character development and the connections that they shared. It is impossible to talk about just one of these aspects because they intertwine so intricately to make this movie.

Scene used in Forrest Gump
Scene from Birth of a Nation used in Forrest Gump Source: http://zebratigerfish.blogspot/2014/11/confederate-flags-in-forrest-gump.html

The Use of Historical Events is Impeccable

Forrest’s life in the film acts like a timeline of the past century of our country’s history. The movie practically begins with a reference to Birth of a Nation as shown above, one of the first feature length films. It was a nice choice because of the movie’s inadvertent central theme of racism, which when paired with Forrest’s upbringing in the deep south, can give a better understanding of how he was raised. Scenes like this are riddled throughout the movie: meeting Elvis Presley, participating in the George Wallace protest, the war in Vietnam, the assassination of President Kennedy, the hippie movement in California, the cocaine scene during the seventies, and the Watergate Scandal. Incorporating these events into the plot line gives the audience a sense of realism. In a way, the movie is not only about Forrest, but about America during these troubled times and how an individual operated in them. Pairing Forrest’s life with actual events makes the audience want to believe that this actually happened, or at least something like this could have happened. This is, arguably, what we all want in films; to believe in a reality that is not our own. We want to escape the modernity of our day to day lives and be part of something more grand than we are, and one can argue that this film does just that. Most people are relatively familiar with these historical events and will most likely continue to do so in the future. We learned about these things all throughout public schooling. The fact that these events are so ingrained within us, lets us project part of ourselves into the film, which is essential of a movie that will stand the test of time.

Forrest Gump
Forrest Gump at the George Wallace Protest Source:

The Music Tethers the Film to Reality

What better way can we give ourselves completely to a film than with something that we are faced with everyday? Politics and historical events are in our everyday lives, but so is music, and this film pairs music with history excellently to give the audience a fuller grasp of the period. Most people, when they hear an older song, can at least recognize what era it’s from. This was definitely evident in Forrest Gump. When “All Along the Watchtower” begins to play while Forrest and the rest of his unit are trekking through Vietnam, it just fit and really brought home the time period. It felt like that song could have randomly been on the radio while the characters were going on with their lives. People twenty years from now will immediately understand what time period this movie is from due to the music correctly paired with America’s timeline. For example, the most recent production of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald with Leonardo DiCaprio used contemporary music to interact with people in a way that will speak to them now, which in the film’s defense, works- now. In twenty years, though, people will only see that it didn’t fit the time period of the roaring twenties. It will not age well. It has already been over twenty years since Forrest Gump was released and the component of music still works.

Narrative Discourse is Constantly at Work

None of this would be possible without a frame for these characteristics to act in. The director, Robert Zemeckis, created a work of art with his use of narrative discourse. Narrative discourse is defined in Tom Gunning’s essay D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film as “the succession of events, real or fictitious, that are the subject of this discourse and which could be studied without regard to the medium, linguistic, or other in which they are expressed”(340). This is a long winded way to say “the means of expression of a story…”(340). He used shots to develop characters and further the plot in a way that, if you’re not looking for it, you won’t see it because it feels smooth and natural. There is a close up in the beginning, for example, of Forrest’s face while he is thinking. Although he is simply recalling a memory from his childhood, he scrunched up his face as if he was trying very hard. Besides a slightly apparent speech impediment, this is the first glimpse the audience has into Forrest’s intellect. Another example is when Forrest is in the field with Jenny and they are praying. Jenny chants, “Dear God, please make me me a bird, so I can fly far, far far away from here.” Afterward there is a pull out shot with a flock of birds flying out of the field into the clear blue sky. This is excellent foreshadowing of Jenny’s tendency to run from her problems. This same symbolism is used again after she had died when birds flew away from her grave site, suggesting that she had escaped her sickness. It is these stylistic choices that give the film an air of worthiness to be carried through the years. It makes it entertaining enough to keep watching, generation after generation.

Forrest and Jenny praying in field
Forrest and Jenny praying in field Source:

The Music Speaks For the Characters

Music, again, plays a large part in this film. Not just when being paired with the times and exemplifying the period, but when being used as another method of storytelling. It is a large part of the aesthetic of the scene. The songs used are meant to cue the audience as to what is occurring with the characters and their surroundings. One example is when the audience is being introduced to Lieutenant Dan, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” begins to play on the radio in the background. This is obviously a nod toward his stature in the army and the respect he demands. Another example is when, again, Forrest and his unit are trekking through Vietnam while things are peaceful and the song “For What It’s Worth” starts to play. Once the lyric “stop, look, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s goin’ down” plays, the music abruptly ends and the unit is attacked by the Viet Cong with a flurry of bullets.

Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump
Forrest in Vietnam Source:

Forrest, as a narrator, does not generally tell the story that well, which makes sense when taking into consideration his level of intellect. The music acts as another form of narration, providing this film another level of uniqueness and allowing it to age better.

When Characters Become Family

The characters in a book or film are something that have the potential to be carried with a person for the rest of their lives. Professor Robert Cowgill once told me of a professor he once had who he said held up a book and said, “These characters are more real to me than any of you are.” If this is properly done in a film, it has successfully achieved immortality. Forrest and the companions he makes throughout the course of the film share a unique connection in that they all represent a part of Forrest. Lieutenant Dan loses his legs in the war: Forrest grows up with leg braces and limited mobility. Bubba, like Forrest, was not very smart. Jenny always felt the need to run from her problems. Forrest literally spent three years of his life running from his. Actually running. Across the country. These characters learned from Forrest, despite his lack of intellect. He fought through and found a way to conquer all of the problems life sent his way. He ran right out of his braces. He became a millionaire even though he was not very smart. And although he did run away, he found his way back to himself. His friends learned to better themselves through Forrest. It’s a beautiful and talented thing to construct such a relationship. One hopes to affect someone’s life the way Forrest affected those around him.

Forrest is an Exemplary Man

We are all faced with this magnanimous question at some point, whether while we are faceless faces walking through a crowd or while we are staring up at the ceiling at three in the morning trying to get to sleep; does it all matter? What the hell’s it all for? Forrest is a good example of why. All of the things he accomplished in his life and all of the people he helped and befriended as previously mentioned in his life, he accomplished just by living it. He is a pure example of that why. That is why this film will last.

This. Will. Last.

There are things we take with us in life, whether it is book, painting, car model, or film. This is worthy of being a companion film. This is a movie that one can keep coming back to year after year. It’s difficult not tear up when Forrest says “I miss you, Jenny” to her gravestone. Someone will always cringe at Lieutenant Dan’s mangled legs. Analysts will never not pick apart a scene in this movie and note how well and artistic it was done because this movie was a work of art. It is worth taking notes on the importance of Forrest Gump.

Works Cited

Gunning, Tom. “D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film.” 1991. Film Theory and Criticism. 8th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2016. 341. Print.

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  1. daylight

    I first saw the film 20 years ago, and I thought it was very good but not really special. But nowadays, I see it as a masterpiece.

    I missed so much 20 years ago, and now after seeing it on a limited theatrical re-release, I saw what I had missed. After some very amusing and quaint exposition, Forrest moves into adulthood and the film approaches its theme. Forrest tells Jenny he loves her, and Roger quotes her reply, “Forrest, you don’t know what love is.” That is the theme of the film, which then proceeds to show us, in many varieties of love, how wrong Jenny was.

    • I saw it a couple of times when I was a teen, and thought it was great. Then I saw it more times when I was in my early twenties, and thought it was a masterpiece. But when you are young, you tend to think every great movie is a masterpiece. It took me time and experience to realize it was just a good movie that rises several questions and can interpreted in very creative ways.

  2. I think Forrest Gump is the greatest movie ever! Tom Hanks did an amazing job of this hard role. I wasn’t born when the movie came out but it will be my all time favorite! Some people think its just a stupid movie but all the fact and the places, people, and event he encountered was amazingly true. i quote this movie all the time, sometimes without knowing it. I am a high school student who just watched the movie for a class project and for this project we had to write a review.

  3. Ronda Cloud

    So very proud to call you my son, you continue to amaze me each and every day!

  4. As someone who has seen this movie more times than I can recall, I must say it is a modern masterpiece. From the score to the acting, the entire movie is fantastic. Despite it’s somewhat absurd (in a good way!) nature, the movie is startlingly real, from Forrest to Jenny.

    • Ryan Errington

      There certainly is a universal appeal within Forrest Gump in regards to its storytelling i.e. connecting historical events and incorporating them to a relatable character.

  5. I’m not a stone cold, heartless villain, but it takes a lot to make me cry when I watch a movie. Bambi’s mother, I couldn’t care less. Jimmy Stewart in, “Oh, what a wonderful life,” – yeah right! The Lion King, when Mufasa bites the big one – on the verge.

    But seriously – I bawled my big brown eyes out, on several occasions in this film. A real tear-jerker, and a wonderful character.

  6. grooove

    Humour, sadness, action, drama and a Vietnam film all rolled into one.

  7. Freeman

    I think this is just one of the few few movies which I connected with so well..

  8. Forrest Gump is just one of those movies that is truly amazing every time i watch it, the powerful emotion of the characters keeps the moving going.

  9. All the references regarding the various presidents over time was also hilarious and Forrest’s journey was so captivating.

  10. Branson

    This movie brings tears of all kinds of emotions to me every time I watch it. Tom Hanks – what a legend and what a performance! I couldn’t even recognise him in the movie because Forrest was such an excellently developed character!

  11. Lanette

    The most important thing is that this movie is all bout destiny and fate.
    It starts with gliding of a feather in the air. Feather is a symbol of destiny in this movie.

    And the main emphasis of the story is the interaction of people with their destiny. And that also we have a fate that is assigned for us but we can change it by our choices and options that are in our hands.

  12. Lafleur

    Forrest Gump is the most beautiful thing ever made by a human…

  13. My favorite film for many years.

  14. Quite simply, the greatest film ever made.

  15. Chaya Crespo

    One of the very best movies of all time that can be watched over and over.

  16. I saw this movie when I was a kid, and many times after that. And my understanding develops as I grow older. IMHO, this is a very deep yet fun movie. It entertains you in many ways you could imagine. I give it TWO BIG THUMBS.

  17. This film is beautiful from beginning to end. A masterful story that is entertaining, thoughtful, and brilliantly written, directed, and acted. The score is amazing as well.

  18. BigPenguin

    Amazing movie, I must have seen it 20 times.

  19. Sharita Busch

    this movie is one of the best movie i seen

  20. I think you raise good points as to why the moving will having staying power aside from just being a great enjoyable movie.

  21. I love your second to last paragraph most 🙂 It kind of – at least as I see it – puts that single man above all those calamities in the history of the nation. No matter what was going on around him, Forrest’s light was just flowing on by simply being. I hope it doesn’t sound too cliche 🙂

    When you take away all the burdening, often resentful or fearful contemplations of a ‘smart’ man, what remains is childlike love. And I think that’s exactly what was going on with Forrest. He didn’t even realise how he impacted the lives of those around him, I guess. He didn’t set any heroic gestures as his purpose, even though he was ordained a hero. His love was simple and oblivious of itself.

    And that’s what puts the political and cultural timeline somewhere to the back of beyond, because no plots or wars or revolutions could change Forrest’s heart and make him fight against life itself (which we often end up doing when affected by that massive madness of the society), and that’s really just amazing.
    “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is” 🙂 To me, that is the key phrase in the whole movie. And that is in its way the answer to the question “does it all have any meaning?”, that’s true.

    I should wind up with this before I start to seem suspiciously hippie))
    I also liked a lot how you emphasised the role of the music in the movie, especially when you characterised it as an extra narrator)
    I always pay much attention to soundtracks, and maybe it’s not that uncommon, but it’s always nice to know that someone digs into it, too and to nod while reading their article)

    It is a wonderful commemoration of a beautiful picture you’ve done here, thank you.

  22. Forrest Gump is one of my favorite films and I really think you nail the idea of the film on the head. It is supposed to cover a long period of interesting American history, though I fear it’s story may get lost over time due to people just watching it not as a meaningful tale but for it’s quotability, but it actually has a much more meaningful message. concerning how one simple man can play a part in the history of a country.

    But the direction and soundtrack are also what makes this a movie that will be loved for years to come.

  23. Love this movie and makes me cry every time.

  24. Forrest Gump is timeless. I liked the book slightly better though!

  25. Deki

    Forrest Gump is a true American hero.

  26. You are so right about all the aspects that make this film incredible! It is truly a masterpiece that will live on forever.

  27. Tom Hanks is goat! I couldn’t see anyone else playing this character other than him. Looking back on it, I do see how much they incorporated in Forrest Gump. It did hit home for a lot of topics, childhood abuse, mental illness, friendship, war, love,selflessness, self determination, etc. Forrest Gump is forever legendary.

  28. digitalpounceseo

    I love the movie Forrest Gump! The music as the author says really gave you the extra believability and enveloped you in the era.

  29. Stephanie M.

    Lovely article. I think you’re correct that Forrest Gump has stood, and will continue to stand, the test of time, for all the reasons you mentioned. I also like the movie for its treatment of a character with a disability. Forrest has an intellectual disability and speech impediment, yet has run across the country, served in the Army, and met many famous personages. You don’t see many characters with disabilities doing things like that–if they do, they are touted only as “inspirations.” But for Forrest Gump, this is all just another day at the office, precisely because he takes it that way. More than the history, more than the music, it is his outlook on life and the way he lived it that made me take notice of the film for the first time.

  30. Joseph Cernik

    A good essay. The reference to Birth of a Nation, that was interesting.

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