He's a lover, a fighter, a football star, and a multimillionaire. In other words, he just might be the perfect all-American man.
Well, except for one teeny-tiny problem: his teeny-tiny IQ.
Before we dive in, keep this in mind: throughout the course of the movie, Forrest ... doesn't change. Like, not even a little. This protagonist just doesn't have an arc. But hey, protagonists are like a box of chocolates.
Maybe you believe IQ measures something meaningful; maybe you don't. Either way, we can all agree that Forrest isn't going to be winning any "most intellectual" awards. He wouldn't even have made it into regular school if it weren't for his momma.
In fact, we can trace just about all of Forrest's success to his devoted and loving momma. In addition to having a way with uptight principals, she has a down-home way with words that enables her to put complex life truths into phrases that Forrest can understand—and that he later uses to get himself through just about every sticky situation life throws at him.
Life throwing a few unexpected changes his way? Momma Gump has a saying for that. In Forrest's own words: "My momma always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."
Mrs. Gump knows that Forrest doesn't need long explanations about the vicissitudes of life; he needs a simple, easy-to-understand analogy that turns the abstract nature of fate into something concrete, tangible, and, above all, delicious.
Someone casting aspersions on your intelligence? Momma Gump has a saying for that, too: "Stupid is as stupid does." In other words, a person is only as stupid as he acts—and Forrest might act clueless sometimes, but he never really acts stupid.
Let's just do a quick run-through of some of Forrest's major actions. He:
So, who's the stupid one now?
You might think that having an IQ of 75 would hold a person back. And, okay, we'll be honest and say that we'd rather our neurosurgeon or tax attorney break 100. But Forrest does surprisingly well with his low digits. In a lot of cases, he comes off better than the genius standing next to him. Could it be that intelligence doesn't always correlate with financial or social success?
Excuse us for a moment while we consider our advanced humanities degrees and weep silently.
Ahem. Back to Forrest, whose low IQ often works to his advantage. For example, Forrest doesn't really understand the race politics of the Deep South, making him basically the least racist person in Alabama. When one charming fellow talks about "coons" wanting to get into the University of Alabama, the meaning of the word zooms right over Forrest's head. He says, "When raccoons tried getting on our back porch, Momma just chased them off with a broom," and then rushes over to pick up a book that one of the African-American girls drops.
It turns out that, just as a low IQ apparently makes you immune to prejudice, it also makes you great at following rules—which means that Forrest is a natural in the Army. Remember back when Forrest refuses to get on the school bus because he's so intent on following his momma's orders not to talk to strangers? Multiply that by a whole Army's worth of orders, and you'll get some idea of how Forrest reacts to the structured life of an Army private.
On his very first day of training, a drill sergeant asks him what his job in the Army is, and Forrest yells back, "To do whatever you tell me, drill sergeant!" The sergeant is so happy with this answer that he calls Forrest a genius and says he'll be a general someday.
Hmmm. Maybe—just go with us for a minute—raw IQ isn't the best way to measure a person's value, after all. (Can you see Steve Jobs successfully completing basic training?) And, as the movie continues, Forrest does almost come across as a genius. At least, he has a genius for trusting the right people, in large part because he always trusts himself and his momma's rules.
Turns out, it's pretty handy to lack the intelligence for self-doubt.
Forrest may be a war hero, a shrimping genius, and a ping-pong whiz, but there's one thing the guy can't seem to wrap his head around: the ladies. Or, at least one lady by the name of Jenny Curran, his childhood sweetheart whom he loves faithfully all throughout her life. This is where the movie's basic ironic stance becomes kind of grim.
Wait, ironic? Isn't this movie supposed to be all positive and innocent, like its hero?
Not when it comes to narrative perspective. See, as the audience, we get Forrest's perspective on events, but we also can use our superior smarts to figure out what's really going on in situations that go straight over sweet, dumb Forrest's head. That's narrative irony: when the audience knows something the character doesn't.
This difference can be endearing, like when Forrest talks about racial dynamics or presidents. But other times, it's definitely unnerving, like when poor Forrest says that Jenny's dad is "a very loving man." Eek.
Forrest goes on and says, "He was always kissing and touching her and her sisters." Unfortunately, it goes right over Forrest's noggin that Mr. Curran's a child molester... not just a guy who really loves his daughters.
This innocent attitude means that Forrest is completely incapable of meeting Jenny on her level. He insists to her that he's "not a smart man, but [he] know[s] what love is," which, OK, he probably does. But, he can't ever understand what she's gone through—so could they ever really be together as equals?
The movie doesn't really make it clear, but in the end, we're not sure that it matters. When Jenny is dying, Forrest unselfishly takes care of her. He doesn't need to be smart to do that; he doesn't need to have a Ph.D. in virology to know that Jenny is sick and needs his help. No wonder she proposes to him. You know how Forrest's mom always said life is like a box of chocolates, and you never know which one you're going to get when you bite down? Well, we know what's inside Forrest: nothing but the highest-quality, premium love.
Jenny Curran is a textbook—almost too textbook, if you ask us—example of what happens to an abused child. When Forrest looks at her, he just sees a little girl whose father loves her just as much as his mother loves him, but we know better: her father "was a very loving man," Forrest says. "He was always kissing and touching her and her sisters."
Yikes. No wonder Jenny "never wanted to go home," and no wonder she prayed with Forrest that God would turn her into a bird so she could fly away.
Although Jenny's dad is eventually arrested and she's sent to live with her grandmother, the damage is done. She never loses that desire to become a bird, but instead of realizing her ambition of becoming "a singer like Joan Baez," poor Jenny just makes one bad decision after another: posing nude, then singing nude, then dating an abusive guy, then boarding a hippie bus to California (like that's going to end well), then getting involved in a gross '70s drug scene—it's just a sad litany of What Not to Do.
But, let's have some sympathy for the girl. Forrest is happiest at home because, for him, home is a source of comfort. His mother spends all of her life telling him to be happy and content with who he is, while Jenny's childhood was a horror show that made her want to be anything but who she is.
No wonder she seizes on any opportunity to be, do, or feel differently—and no wonder she runs away from Forrest's offer of a safe, comfortable home. She wouldn't even know what to do with a safe and comfortable home if she got one.
But then, she starts dying.
See, Forrest Gump isn't going to let Jenny get away with her bad behavior, and she's cosmically punished for it. Thanks, we assume, to some promiscuous sex and unsafe needle use, she comes down with an unnamed virus that—wink wink, nudge nudge—we know perfectly well is AIDS. And then, she wants to marry Forrest. In other words, it takes a lethal illness to teach this girl the lesson that we've all known from the beginning.
In the immortal words of 1994's best-known girl group, don't go chasing waterfalls. Jenny might have had dreams of flying away, but in the end, she belongs with Forrest—buried in a small plot of land right where she grew up.
Hmm, the movie looks a lot less optimistic through Jenny's eyes, doesn't it?
You know what they say: behind every successful man is a wise, loving mother with an inexhaustible fount of clichéd sayings. (We might not be remembering that quite right.)
Mrs. Gump's main character trait, we see, is a deep love for her son, leg braces, IQ of 75, and all. She dedicates herself to giving him a normal life and convincing him that he's just as good as everyone else, which makes her a pretty darn good mom in our eyes. Take what she says when Forrest gets upset about being different: "If God wanted everybody to be the same," she says, "he'd have given us all braces on our legs."
Notice how she makes having braces the standard? She's so dedicated to her boy that she's willing to rewrite basic biological facts—most people don't have braces on their legs—in order to make him feel good.
She's also willing to perform some rather unpleasant biological acts in order to ensure that he gets every chance at a normal life. When the principal of the Greenbow public school tells her that Forrest can't attend, she says, "He might be a bit on the slow side, but my boy Forrest will get the same opportunities as everyone else" and then proceeds to ensure that he does by having sex with the principal.
Seems like a radical act just to get her kid into a school that probably hasn't seen an updated textbook in 20 years, don't you agree? Maybe. But, attending public school also puts Forrest into a situation where he can get a football scholarship and go to college—which is more than most people with average IQs can say.
Forrest is definitely a momma's boy, and one of the ways we see this is in his favorite phrase, "My momma always said ..."
It's easy to make fun of Mrs. Gump's folksy sayings, such as: "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get"; "Stupid is as stupid does"; and "You can tell a lot about a person by his shoes." But let's give her some credit: Mrs. Gump knows her son. He's got an IQ of 75; he's not going to respond to philosophical musings about fate and destiny and character. Those concrete metaphors and easy-to-remember phrases stick with Forrest, giving him comfort and direction everywhere from a school bus to a jungle in Vietnam.
Right before Mrs. Gump dies, she gives Forrest one last piece of advice. "Death is just a part of life," she says. "Something we're all destined to do." Trite? Yes. True? Also yes. After she dies, Forrest may be a momma's boy without a momma, but he'll always have her words to guide him.
If Jenny and Forrest are like peas and carrots, then Forrest and Benjamin Buford Blue, aka Bubba, are like … shrimp and shrimp. Er, peanut butter and peanut butter?
Well, we can't quite make the simile work, but the point is that they're basically the same person. Like Forrest, Bubba isn't too bright. Like Forrest, he likes to talk about himself and tell people stories from his life. Like Forrest, he's a friendly, family-oriented guy who just wants to make people happy.
Forrest pours his heart out on a bus-stop bench, and Bubba pours his out on a bus seat, on a bus that's taking the two men to the Army. He tells Forrest his name and his entire family story, which culminates with him saying he's a shrimp fisherman at heart and that he knows "everything there is to know about the shrimping business." He then goes on to list just about every type of way there is to prepare shrimp, ending with, "shrimp salad, shrimp in potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That's about it."
(But, is it? Is it really?)
Forrest and Bubba eventually grow so tight that Bubba even says straight out, "You know why we're a good partnership, Forrest? 'Cause we be watching out for one another, like brothers and stuff." He and Forrest promise each other that they'll go into the shrimping business together when the war is over as Bubba says, "We can just work it together, split everything right down the middle."
Unfortunately, Bubba dies before this dream can come true. But, to the end, Bubba remains true to his simple dream just like Forrest does. His final words are, "I want to go home," a heartbreaking statement because it shows us that Bubba never loses his innocent wish to go back home and fulfill his dream. Sniff.
Okay, here's our question: why does he have to die in the first place? Why can't the daring duo be Forrest and Bubba rather than Forrest and Lt. Dan? For that matter, why aren't we watching Benjamin Buford Blue rather than Forrest Gump?
We think it comes down to the ugly little side of American history called racism. Forrest and Bubba are two sides of the same coin, but one of those sides happens to be black. And, no matter how low Forrest's IQ is, he's got the privilege of being a white man.
That athletic scholarship? Bubba could never have gotten that, no matter how fast he runs: the University of Alabama only reluctantly desegregated in 1963.
That lucrative ping-pong sponsorship? Black athletes didn't win lucrative endorsement deals until decades after the 1970s.
In our opinion, Bubba suffers the same fate as Jenny: he doesn't fit into the movie's narrative of American optimism and success, so he's got to go. We bet you're really crying now.
Lieutenant Dan Taylor, Forrest's superior officer in Vietnam, has a lot to live up to. As Forrest tells us, "Somebody in his family had fought and died in every single American war." (Question: wouldn't it be more impressive if someone had fought and lived? Then again, we don't know much about war.)
It's not that Lt. Dan has a death wish or anything. In fact, he's a downright decent guy, and definitely someone you want on your side in a war. He's got two interests: protecting his men and winning the war in Vietnam, and he does everything he can to fulfill those two life goals, including swearing at Forrest to leave him to die when he loses his legs in a firefight.
Forrest, of course, carts off Lt. Dan anyway, and the experience nearly wrecks the guy. Instead of dying a hero, he ends up a wheelchair-bound cripple (in his view). In his own words: "I should have died out there with my men, but now, I'm nothing but a goddamn cripple, a legless freak!"
Gee, don't go easy on yourself or anything, buddy.
Lt. Dan thought it was his destiny to die on the battlefield just like his ancestors. And check out that key word: destiny. If we've learned anything from Forrest Gump, it's that destiny doesn't come pre-installed, like some version of Windows you can't escape. We write our own destinies through our actions; it's not determined by who we are intrinsically. (Think back to Forrest's "stupid is as stupid does.")
So, when Lt. Dan says to Forrest, "Now, you listen to me. We all have a destiny. Nothing just happens. It's all part of a plan!" we're supposed to realize that he's wrong. Thinking that way turns Lt. Dan into a man who's convinced that his life doesn't matter since he's supposed to be dead. As you can imagine, the consequences are not good. He ends up sliding into brutal depression and alcoholism, and he adopts just about every abusive personality trait you can imagine.
But, Lt. Dan is a man of his word. You might say that he does what he says he will. So, when he cynically laughs that he'll join Forrest as first mate if Forrest ever does set up as a shrimping captain, he keeps his word: "I told you if you were ever a shrimp boat captain that I'd be your first mate. Well, here I am."
By doing that—by taking action for once rather than bemoaning his loss of destiny—Lt. Dan actually writes himself into a pretty sweet future as the part-owner of a multimillion-dollar shrimping company, a savvy early investor in Apple, the owner of a fancy pair of prosthetic legs, and, of course, a man with a hot fiancée.
Not bad for a guy who was supposed to die on a battlefield in Vietnam.
When Forrest first hears that there's a Forrest Jr. running around, his first question is whether he's "like me." Now, usually a dad wants to hear that his son is like him—but not in this case. Forrest is super relieved to hear Jenny say that Forrest Jr. isn't like him at all—that he's "very smart. He's one of the smartest in his class."
Once Jenny dies, Forrest takes on the role of being Forrest Jr.'s only parent. On his first day of school, we see the boy go through the same routine that Forrest did. The last thing Forrest tells his son in the movie is that he loves him, to which Forrest Jr. answers, "I love you, too, Daddy."
Looks like they're going to do just fine together.