The story of Forrest Gump is a myth of 20th-century America. Like any good myth, it filters historical facts through allegory, creating a symbolic journey that helps us make sense of a complicated era. So, what does Forrest Gump has to say about us -- and our national identity?
Forrest Gump: The Myth of America
Forrest Gump is a myth of 20th-century America. Robert Zemeckis’ film comprehensively tracks the story of America from the post-WWII period into the post-Watergate era. And like any good myth, it filters historical facts through allegorical characters and a particular language to create a symbolic journey that makes emotional sense out of what was a deeply complicated and confusing era for many Americans.
“Somebody shot that nice young President when he was in his car. And a few years after that, somebody shot his little brother, too.” - Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump
In this myth, Forrest himself embodies our country’s central spirit. So as Forrest Gump turns 25 this year, here’s our Take on what this modern American myth has to say about our national identity.
Forrest, The American Spirit
Forrest’s life story is interwoven with major historical events from the 1950s to the 1980s. Zemeckis even inserts Forrest into real archival footage, in a technique considered pretty cutting-edge when the movie was made in 1994. Thus the film rewrites history so that the character is there, the secret catalyst of all the events that define our collective memory. Big personal events in his life map onto pivotal historical moments or have recognizable history as a backdrop. The film also uses the most iconic music associated with the periods it covers, making this feel at times close to an audiovisual textbook. The result of this historical rewrite is that Forrest’s story is America’s story. It begins with a shameful past, Forrest is named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first “Grand Wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan, so the story starts in the shadow of America’s original sin. His childhood in the 50s is pretty peaceful and happy, just like the decade was a prosperous one for many Americans. Forrest’s confusion as he runs straight off the college football field reflects the 60’s tumultuous conflicts over civil rights. In Vietnam, he watches his friends get killed and wounded in a war that doesn’t make sense.
“I don't know much about anything, but I think some of America's best young men served in this war.” - Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump
Personally feeling the defining American tragedy of this era. The cultural divide between establishment types and counterculture hippies again affects Forrest very personally, as he and his love Jenny are separated by their very different paths. Forrest helps open up US relations with communist China. Post-military life, he becomes an exemplary entrepreneur, transforming a dinky boat into a successful shrimping business literally overnight. So he lives that American ideal of getting obscenely rich through simple perseverance. Then he’s an early investor in the tech boom.
“He got me invested in some kind of fruit company.” - Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump
In 1976, Forrest sets off on a three-year cross-country run after Jenny leaves him and his personal heartbreak is linked to a national need to heal and process the tumult of the 60s. Jenny’s death in the early 80s is part of the dawning AIDS crisis and it symbolizes a mourning for something beautiful and pure of our national character that was lost in these times. But while he’ll never be over his grief for Jenny, his touching life as a father and the vast potential of his son, Forrest Jr, leave us with optimism that the kids and the future of America will be alright. So what exactly is the movie trying to say by choosing this unassuming, largely passive simpleton to carry the mantle of our country’s history?
At first glance, Forrest lacks stereotypical American traits, like ambition, ego, self-interest, or career goals. The very first thing we’re told about him is that he’s slow-witted. Even his last name, Gump, is a word for “fool.” Yet he achieves all the trappings of the classic American Dream: serving his country, becoming a successful capitalist, meeting presidents, and starting a family with the woman he’s always loved. And while it may seem he rises purely thanks to dumb luck, in fact he possesses key qualities that account for his success and reflect something about our national character. One of his greatest gifts is his single-minded focus and straightforward dedication to the task at hand. When someone gives Forrest a simple direction, like to run across a field, keep his eye on a ping-pong ball, or reassemble a gun, he excels at this.
“Why did you put that weapon together so quickly Gump?” - Drill Sergeant in Forrest Gump
“You told me to, drill sergeant.” - Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump
“Jesus H. Christ. This is a new company record.” - Drill Sergeant in Forrest Gump
It’s like there’s no extra clutter in his brain distracting him and getting in the way of his focus and because he’s so unintellectual, he never gets bored with tasks others would find repetitive. And this aspect of Forrest’s nature may be getting at how the U.S. does well when it channels its energy into achieving very clear objectives. Another of Forrest’s defining skills is his ability as a runner, which symbolizes stamina and resilience. His love of running captures an American enthusiasm and all-or-nothing attitude - if you’re going to do something, why walk when you could run? And it also represents the fortitude to keep going no matter how tough it gets. In the scene where a group of local teenage boys chase Forrest, their car features a prominent Confederate flag license plate as if Forrest is trying to outrun the evils and pain of our country. Yet Forrest always does outrun whatever danger is after him, even as the forces chasing him get more and more formidable. Even though Forrest’s life is marked by disadvantages, he has a low IQ, a crooked spine, and an absent father, he miraculously overcomes his disability.
So his superpower reveals the optimism at the heart of this movie.The implied message is that our country’s 20th-century journey is about triumphing over darkness, even when it seems impossible. Jenny first tells Forrest to run away from problems but Forrest’s impulse to run is ultimately a zeal for running itself, embodying the wisdom that the journey is really the destination. When Bubba later repeats Jenny’s instructions during battle,
“Run, Forrest!” - Bubba in Forrest Gump
Forrest, characteristically, does what he’s told, but he quickly sees a problem with running away so he runs back into the line of fire. What’s beautiful about the scene of him rescuing his wounded brothers, is the simplicity of his motivation. In contrast to the grandiosity of Lieutenant Dan’s dream of dying heroically, his instinctual understanding that we don’t leave our friends behind is what heroism really is. This scene also shows that when the core things he knows are important are on the line, Forrest isn’t just mindlessly obedient. So Forrest is actually a lot smarter than people think in a critical way, it’s just that he only really concerns himself with the few things that truly matter. Forrest also has a total lack of ego and a down-to-earth love of his home, qualities many successful Americans pay lip service to, but rarely practice.
And while Forrest is not a creative “ideas” guy himself, he’s responsible for Elvis’ moves, the lyrics to “Imagine,” and the “shit happens” slogan. All these revelations come out of his ability to be himself in a totally unfiltered, un-self-conscious way and this realness sparks breakthroughs in others. Most fundamentally, he embodies true egalitarianism, the virtue of being receptive and an inexhaustible ability to love.
“I’m not a smart man but I know what love is.” - Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump
The Other Americas: Mama, Jenny, Bubba and Lt. Dan
If Forrest is the central spirit of America, the supporting characters represent other key mythical or spiritual aspects of our national identity. Forrest’s first inspiration is his mother, who represents fierce love of family and the power of a homegrown, folk wisdom. Mrs. Gump’s words are essentially a bible to her son, which translates the complicated world into accessible language and evocative metaphors. Almost all his beliefs come from her. When he needs guidance, he looks for ways to interpret his mother’s teachings as needed, just as one might interpret a Bible verse. Mama Gump instills in Forrest the liberating knowledge that, despite differences in our gifts and our fortunes, on the deepest human level, everyone is really equal. More often in our American culture we emphasize telling kids they’re special, one of a kind but the characters in this story who feel they’re special, smart, important, or entitled to a special life suffer due to that thinking.
"I was Lieutenant Dan Taylor." - Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump
“You’re still Lt. Dan.” - Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump
Forrest’s stable, well-adjusted temperament comes out of the philosophical tools his mama gave him for processing his world, especially what’s dark and troubling about it. She doesn’t lie to Forrest that he’s smarter than he is, instead she drills into him the point that he has control over whether he does stupid things or not, and that’s what really counts. So instead of denying her son’s disadvantages or shielding him from the upsetting aspects of life or history, she equips him with a matter-of-fact worldview that doesn’t allow adversity or hardships to make him feel disempowered. Later we see pretty much every other character unable to deal with the kind of adversity that Forrest overcomes and his resilience is largely thanks to his mother’s education which taught him to look truths in the face, while not letting anyone talk you out of the most important things you know deep down.
Forrest’s childhood sweetheart Jenny represents historical trauma. Her father’s abuse leads her to repeat a pattern of self-harming choices and toxic relationships with men. For a long time she rejects Forrest’s love, .
“I would never hurt you, Jenny.” - Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump
“I know you wouldn't, Forrest.” - Jenny in Forrest Gump
Seemingly because she thinks she should be with a man who will hurt her. Forrest and Jenny are inversions of each other, Forrest is slow, while Jenny is very smart and perceptive. Forrest grows up contented in the warmth of his mother’s unconditional love, while the first thing Jenny knows of this world is her father’s abuse. Forrest runs everywhere, toward the world; Jenny shares that open, “go where life leads you” attitude but for her it’s really running away. Her recurring desire is to become a bird but she can never escape the pain she’s trying to be free from because it’s deep inside her, eating her from within. In the novel that Forrest Gump is based on, Forrest wasn’t as squeaky clean but Richard Corliss writes that in the film adaptation, “screenwriter Eric Roth transferred all of Forrest's flaws and most of the excesses Americans committed in the '60s and '70s to her.” So we can see how the film explicitly turns Jenny into a symbol of America’s inability to heal from past wounds.
She represents the 60s counterculture that strove to break with past injustice and create a future based on love and equality. But Jenny is too wounded to really do this, so her dreams of peace give way to attempts to escape reality just as the free love movement eventually deteriorated in a similar way. Despite her tragic fate, Jenny represents an incredible beauty in the American spirit and history, the idealism of the 60s was a remarkable dream. Likewise, in Forrest’s eyes, nothing and no one compares to Jenny. Forrest’s life is always tinged with sadness because, however much he prospers, the one he loves isn’t with him for most of it. This incredible person with so much potential can never live the life she should, because she was terrorized by the man who brought her into this world and that’s a terrible injustice. So though Forrest himself embodies the optimism and resilience of our national character, his love for Jenny captures that the losses and suffering of the less fortunate among us will always color even our country’s greatest joys and achievements. As happy as Forrest is being a dad to Forrest Jr, he’ll never stop missing Jenny. Bubba represents the American entrepreneurial spirit. His dream is to start his own business and rise on the capitalist ladder.
“I'm going into the shrimping business myself after I get out of the army.” - Bubba in Forrest Gump
It’s significant that the one main character of color in the film has the most capitalist drive, for this young black man, the capitalist American Dream represents the chance to make a better life than his ancestors had. And after Bubba dies and Forrest makes his dream a reality, we see the power of money in freeing Bubba’s mother from that oppressive history.
“She didn’t have to work in nobody’s kitchen no more.” - Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump
Yet Bubba himself never gets to make this happen, so he also becomes a symbol of the great human potential that our country has lost to senseless wars. Lt. Dan represents the American military tradition. His wish to continue in his ancestors’ footsteps captures the military’s illustrious past and how it’s a way of life for generations of American families but his crisis in Vietnam interrupts that tradition and shatters his worldview. This gets at how Vietnam made people question previous assumptions that America was “the good guy.” Instead of finding glory, Lt. Dan is permanently scarred and returns to a world that doesn’t respect his sacrifice. Yet in the end this man comes to be grateful that he survived. And the suggestion is that by making it through this test, he comes out the other side with a richer understanding of what life’s about. Finally, Jenny’s and Forrest’s son, little Forrest, signals the promise of the next generation. He embodies the best of both his parents: his mother’s intelligence and his father’s open-hearted capacity for love. The movie tells us that this young boy does not represent a departure from history, he has his father’s first name and will grow up in the exact same house. So little Forrest represents the power of building and improving upon our country’s past to live up to our full potential.
This film and its values are as American as apple pie. It celebrates capitalism and lets us buy into the dream of becoming rich, it emphasizes the importance of being a good person who loves your hometown and your motherland, and it hints at a divine presence watching over us. The filmmakers intended the story to be apolitical. Even when Forrest speaks his thoughts on the Vietnam war, the mic gets unplugged so we don’t get to hear them.
Within the story, his fellow citizens can’t understand how he can have no political ideology, everywhere he goes they try to project motivations onto him. Forrest grounds his story in events that dominate our collective national memory, and which are inextricably bound up with personal memories. So the goal of this exercise is to bring us together with shared stories, and to illustrate the link between personal and communal well-being. His gift for storytelling echoes the U.S.’s ability to craft a narrative about itself that people want to buy into. If there’s one image that this modern American myth has made eternal, it’s young Forrest breaking free of his restraints and doing what nobody thought he could do, never letting the bullies and darkness of the world overtake him. And this, too, is Forrest Gump’s fundamental belief about the American spirit: we can do the impossible.