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The Interpretation of Imagine in Forrest Gump

In the 1994 movie Forrest Gump (Zemeckis), the main character, Forrest
Gump, played by Tom Hanks, is depicted as a participant in many historical
events. The lm uses special eects to make it appear that Forrest Gump
is actually present in historical scenes with historical gures, such as Presi-
dents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. While Forrest Gump is clever from a
lm-making perspective, it is distorted from a historical perspective. While
viewers will understand that obviously Forrest Gump was really not actually
present during these scenes, viewers will still tend to assume that the pre-
sentation of the underlying historical events is still valid. Although the lm
in this way appears to present history, it actually distorts history. There
are two brief, related scenes that demonstrate this.
The rst scene is the one in which Forrest Gump recalls how he was so
good at ping-pong that he was sent to China to play ping-pong.

...the Army decided I should be on the All-American Ping-Pong Team.


We were the rst Americans to visit the land of China in like a million years
or something like that, and somebody said that world peace was in our hands.
But all I did was play ping-pong. (Roth)

During this scene, the lm shows Forrest Gump playing against a Chinese
player in a huge building with a huge picture of Mao Tse-tung.

As a result, Gump becomes a national celebrity. Famouser even than


Captain Kangaroo, and he is invited to appear on the Dick Cavett show.
This leads to the second scene, in which Forrest Gump appears to be sitting
between Dick Cavett and John Lennon. Cavett introduces the two to each
other, and the following dialogue takes place

JOHN LENNON: Welcome home.

DICK CAVETT: You had quite a trip. Can you, uh, tell us, uh, what
was China like?

FORREST GUMP: Well, in the land of China, people hardly got nothing
at all.

JOHN LENNON: No possessions?


FORREST GUMP: And in China, they never go to church.

JOHN LENNON: No religion, too?

DICK CAVETT: Oh. Hard to imagine.

JOHN LENNON: Well, it's easy if you try, Dick. (Roth)

The phrases no possessions, no religion, imagine, hard to [imagine]


and it's easy if you try are from the John Lennon song, Imagine (Choukri,
1998, Lyrics007, 2007, www.OldieLyrics.com, 2006, elyrics.net, 2007). The
lm implies that Forrest Gump helped John Lennon compose the song based
on the conditions in China.

These two scenes are a distortion of history in subtle but signicant ways.
Regarding the American relationship with China, Forrest Gump states that
that China had been closed to Americans for a million years or something
like that, and he is sarcastic about the importance of the ping-pong trip for
world peace. In reality, China had only been closed to Americans since
the Communists took control in 1949, and the table tennis competition in
1971 actually was an important part of President Nixon's ability to make a
better American relationship with the Communist Chinese government.

 [T]he President has oered to help expose [the Chinese] to contact `with
the outside world', to draw them into `a constructive relationship' with other
nations, and to let them nd `full scope for the inuence to which China's
achievements entitle it'

The great promise in today's table tennis competition, therefore, is the


implication that Peking, too, will no longer let its claim to Taiwan interfere
with increasing contacts with the United States. (Frankel, Changing US
Attitude on China)

Also, when Forrest Gump says, about the Chinese, they never go to
church, it implies a contrast between the Chinese who do not go to church
and the Americans who do go to church. This distorts both Chinese and
American history. It fails to recognize that one reason the Chinese people
did not go to church is that they were forbidden by the government. Many
Chinese actually continued a secret observance of religion, and then were able
to be openly religious one the government became less restrictive (Butter-
eld, 1980). It also fails to recognize that there are many Americans who
are not Christian and who do not go to church.

The lm is also very misleading regarding John Lennon and the song,
Imagine. In the appearance on the Dick Cavett show, Lennon appears
shocked and appalled by the lack of religion and the lack of possessions in
China, and the lm gives the impression that Forrest Gump inspired John
Lennon to write the song as a way of criticizing the situation in China. The
reality is that John Lennon did not feel that the lack of religion and the lack
of possessions were bad. It is clear from the lyrics and the melody that his
ideas of no religion and no possessions were really idealistic and utopian.

Imagine there's no Heaven


It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I'm a dreamer


But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one (Choukri, 1998, Lyrics007, 2007, www.OldieLyrics.com,
2006, elyrics.net, 2007, Wang, 2000)

In real life the song Imagine has a much more positive tone. Lennon asks
people to imagine a utopia. This mischaracterization of John Lennon and
his song was noted by one observer, as follows

 [T]he lm features an account of the on-air composition of John Lennon's


antiwar song Imagine, a plea for peace that decries the power of materialism,
nationalism, and religion. In the hands of the lm's producers, the song is
transformed into a denitive statement about Americanness. As composed by
Forrest Gump in a televised interview with Dick Cavett, Imagine denigrates
atheism and antimaterialism in China and extols Gump's love of American
consumerism and Christianity. In Gump's hands, a revolutionary message
becomes a celebration of conformity to dominant values. (Wang, 2000)

An alternative possible interpretation is that the lm is saying that John


Lennon actually wrote the song Imagine because he endorsed or admired
the situation in Communist China. This is also misleading because it omits
that Lennon was imagining  dreaming  of a future peaceful and happy
state, and because it contradicts the song's hope for a future in which there
are no countries

There is no question the Lennon's song was radical and that it makes a
political statement, as even he acknowledged,

Imagine, both the song and the album, Lennon said, is the same thing
as Working Class Hero and Mother and God on the rst disc. But the
rst record was too real for people, so nobody bought it . . . Imagine was
the same message but sugarcoated. . . . Imagine is a big hit almost every-
where  anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic,
but because it is sugarcoated it is accepted. Now I understand what you
have to do: Put your political message across with a little honey. (Gilmore,
2005)
However, it is misleading for the lm to suggest that John Lennon sup-
ported or admired the Communist dictatorship in China.

These simple examples of how Forrest Gump misstates and distorts his-
tory tells us that it is very dangerous to think you can learn history from
lms. Films may change the understanding of history even in short incidents
that seem insignicant at rst.

A famous quotation from 1984, by George Orwell, shows how history can
be manipulated. Who controls the past controls the future: who controls
the present controls the past (Orwell). What this means is that those who
control the present can control how history is understood, and by controlling
peoples' understanding of history, they can inuence the future. Filmmakers
are part of who controls the present, so they should understand that they
have a responsibility to not create a distorted, dishonest rewriting of history.
References

Fox Buttereld. At a Reopened Church in China, a Crowd Is Due on Easter.


The New York Times, 5 April 1980.

Sam Choukri. Lyrics: Imagine. Bagism, 6 November 1998. URL


http://www.bagism.com/lyrics/imagine-lyrics.html.
elyrics.net. Imagine lyrics. elyrics.net, 25 May 2007. URL
http://www.elyrics.net/read/a/a-perfect-circle-lyrics/imagine-lyrics.html.
Max Frankel. Changing U.S. Attitude on China. The New York Times, 14
April 1971.

Mkial Gilmore. Lennon Lives Forever. Rolling Stone, 5 December 2005. URL
http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/johnlennon/articles/story/8898300/lennon_
Lyrics007. John Lennon - Imagine lyrics. Lyrics007, 12 February 2007. URL
http://www.lyrics007.com/John%20Lennon%20Lyrics/Imagine%20Lyrics.html.
George Orwell. 1984. 27 June 1998. URL
http://www.mega.nu:8080/ampp/1984.html.
Eric Roth. Forrest Gump. The Internet Movie Script Database. URL
http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Forrest-Gump.html.
Jennifer Hyland Wang. `A Struggle of Contending Stories': Race, Gender,
and Political Memory in `Forrest Gump'. Cinema Journal, 39(3):92115,
2000.

www.OldieLyrics.com. JOHN LENNON lyrics - "Imag-


ine". www.OldieLyrics.com, 12 June 2006. URL
http://www.oldielyrics.com/lyrics/john_lennon/imagine.html.
Robert Zemeckis. Forrest Gump, 6 July 1994.