Late in this 1994 film Forrest Gump speaks to the grave of his dead friend Jenny and tells her that he has always wondered whether we just drift accidentally through life or whether we have a destiny. He says that he has decided that maybe the answer is both. The wafting feather that floats down and alights on Forrest’s shoe at the start of the film, and that wafts away in the final scene, embodies this question. Does it float by accident, or is there a purpose, an intent, to where it lands?
Forrest’s life is a series of fortuitous, accidental coincidences that taken altogether would seem incredible were this film not so obviously the fable that it is. He is at the right place and the right time repeatedly in his life, from teaching Elvis how to swivel his hips to playing football for Bear Bryant to winning the Medal of Honor for valor in Vietnam to playing ping-pong with the Chinese. The film is a summary of events in American history from the 1950s through the 80s, a survey of the Civil Rights era, Viet Nam, the tumultuous 60s, and the AIDs epidemic.
What ties the film together is the character of Forrest himself and his love for Jenny. Forrest is slightly below average in intelligence, and his flat, inexpressive reaction to almost everything is his characteristic demeanor throughout the film. He acts on command. When Jenny tells him to “run” to escape from boys who are throwing rocks at him, he does so, and he remembers that command throughout his life. He fits so well into the military because he can follow commands easily and effectively. He takes events one at a time, without fear or prejudice or concern for his own well being. His mother (Sally Fields) tells him he can do anything he wants, and he pretty much proves the truth of her statement throughout the film.
The optimism of Forrest’s mother, her certainty in the promise of her son, belies a selfless ruthlessness. She will do anything it takes to help him, even if this means sleeping with the superintendent of education to ensure that Forrest can attend a regular school.
The poignancy of the film resides in Forrest’s innate goodness, his innocence, and his love for Jenny. These carry him through all the events he experiences. Some might regard him as a kind of saint. He clearly possesses a strong sense of right, of morality and virtue. But to what extent does he choose to be good and virtuous? To what extent is he simply obeying an injunctive command: run?
Why is the film set in the South, specifically in Alabama? Once again, the South offers a natural, bucolic setting for a set of sometimes eccentric characters—although the main such figure is Forrest himself. The setting contributes to the fabulist nature of the story, a story that seems to take place in our own time but that in some other sense seems to be another place and time. The old plantation house in which Forrest lives with his mother and later with Jenny and their son contributes to this atmosphere. Much of the narrative moves from one episode to another of American history, especially the civil rights movement, and the South is the natural setting for those events.
It is odd that although the film makes note of the deaths of the two Kennedy’s and of John Lennon, it does not mention the death of Martin Luther King. The film does not foreground issues of race, but they are present. At the start of the film Forrest is sitting on a bench in Savannah, and a young black woman sits on the other end of the bench, waiting for a bus. He begins to talk to her, and it is clear that she isn’t initially interested—the image of Forrest on one end of the bench and the young woman on the other end, her clear attempts not to be engaged in conversation, is an image of racial division. The film makes a point of showing how Bubba Gump’s mother and her ancestors have served shrimp to generations of white men—when Forrest makes money out of his investments in the stock market, he gives a share of the money to Bubba’s mother, and the film makes a point of showing her seated at a table, being served shrimp by a white woman. Black Panthers whom Forrest meets at a demonstration in Washington, DC, reflect the racial turmoil of the late 60s and early 70s—the film is neither sympathetic to nor critical of the strident statements their leader makes—Forrest is wholly unresponsive. So we know in the film that racial issues and turmoil are going on around Forrest even if he is largely unaware of them. Forrest himself seems to be wholly color blind.
In a sense, the South in Forrest Gump is an enclave away from the real world. It’s a place of isolation, a backwater, and so Forrest’s rise to prominence is all the more remarkable.
Forrest Gump is a fable of late 20th-century American life. Forrest is an American Everyman, prominently present in a series of significant and major events—always present to observe, sometimes present as a catalyst. He’s like all us who lived through that era. It happened to us, we had no control over it, we participated in a minor way, and now it has all passed us by.
Forrest’s life-long love affair with Jenny gives the film special poignancy. His love for her is constant and unwavering. Her love for him changes and wavers a good bit, but in the end she comes back to him, both because of his constancy and because she knows he will be a good father to their son. Forrest does his duty, throughout his life, because he knows it is expected of him, because he doesn’t know of an alternative. Once again, with his constancy, his love for those he has lost, his adherence to family roles and obligations, he is like many of us.