Macreedy vs. Forrest

Summary: This post contrasts two movies, which illustrate opposite positions on the question of whether man possesses free will or is moved by forces outside his control.  The pro-free-will movie shows that the issue is not only one of determining the course of the events in one’s life, but also of determining one’s own character – and how the latter is responsible for the former.

If a man accepts free will, he holds he can determine his own character and his own future.  If he rejects free will, he holds that his character and his future are determined by something other than his own choices.  The acceptance or rejection of free will is therefore a fundamental premise that underlies everything else that man does.  In particular, this premise is implicit in every artistic product of man, such as literature and theater.  Consider the issue with respect to movies, by contrasting the view implicit in each of the following:  Bad Day at Black Rock, starring Spencer Tracy, and Forrest Gump, starring Tom Hanks.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) is set several years after the end of World War II.  From the moment that John Macreedy (played by Tracy) gets off the train at Black Rock, he finds the townspeople both unhelpful and threatening.  It goes beyond the suspiciousness that some small-town inhabitants exhibit toward strangers – it is clear from the outset that the town is hiding something.  Macreedy is looking for a man, Komoko, in nearby Adobe Flat.  No one will tell him where that is, or help him to get there by taxi or car rental.  The hotel manager claims there are no vacancies, though the hotel is obviously empty of guests.  Exposing the lie by perusing the hotel register, Macreedy helps himself to a room key.  Soon, goons from town start threatening him, physically camping in his room and obstructing his path to goad him into a fight.  Their gang leader is Reno Smith, who gives them orders at every step.  The goal is to terrorize Macreedy, as everyone in the town seems to be terrorized by Smith, and thus to drive the newcomer from the town.

But surprisingly, Macreedy is simply not afraid.  Nothing the townspeople do dissuades him from his goal to find the man Komoko.  In fact, Macreedy gradually becomes more determined to find Komoko as a consequence of the town’s actions.  He is told by a townsman that Komoko died trying in vain to farm a dusty desert plot.  Macreedy by now is suspicious enough that he doesn’t believe that story.  He finds a woman who will rent him her jeep, and drives to Adobe Flat, barely dodging death as one of Smith’s men tries to drive him off the road.  Again, Macreedy exposes the townsman’s lie about Komoko’s death, spotting a deep water well on the property that would have made the farm a success.  Macreedy also spots what looks like a grave on the property.

With what he has found out, Macreedy tries to contact the state police, but the telephone won’t connect to the outside – “lines busy” the operator says – and the wire Macreedy pens at the telegraph office is never sent.  Macreedy tries to rent the jeep again to drive to another town, but the woman refuses him – Smith has had a “conversation” with her.

Meanwhile, Macreedy’s refusal to be intimidated, and his commitment to the truth, have had an effect on two of the townspeople who for years have kept quiet and evaded what happened between Smith and Komoko.  The town’s doctor and the sheriff have both despised themselves for their cowardice in going along with Smith.  Each has lost his self-respect.  Seeing Macreedy act with quiet conviction has galvanized them to act as men instead of slaves, and they help Macreedy fight against Smith.

See the movie to discover what the town has been hiding all these years, why Macreedy stopped there, and how this fight comes out.  Whatever the outcome, the essence of the movie’s theme emerges from the above events:  Man can choose whether he will focus on facts or bury them in terrorized silence and liquor.  Man can choose to focus even after having made the opposite choice for years.  And a man’s character can have a powerful impact on others by exemplifying a moral ideal, at least for those who choose to contrast his character with theirs and see the difference.

At the time Black Rock was filmed, the cultural onslaught against free will had not yet gained full steam.  Philosophers, at least those in the cultural mainstream dominating the universities, were indeed teaching their students that free will is an illusion.  But their arguments were not as widely accepted as they are today.  Fast forward four decades to a time when the premise of free will had been under active, even aggressive, attack by intellectuals throughout the culture (and the 60’s-70’s counter-culture) – in newspapers, literature, theater, popular books, as well as classrooms.  It is now 1994, and one of the most popular movies of the year is Forrest Gump.  Forrest, played by Hanks, is a mildly retarded boy, whose mother fights energetically to keep him in normal classes in school so that he won’t be stigmatized in “special” education.  One of her favorite lines is “stupid is as stupid does,” meaning if one doesn’t act stupid one won’t be.  Her wishful thinking aside, Forrest’s subnormal intelligence can’t be hidden:  The movie portrays him blundering into one idiotic adventure after another (accidentally teaching Elvis to swivel his hips, exposing the Watergate scandal, unintentionally inventing a viral tee-shirt slogan).  Another favorite line of Forrest’s mother (and the theme of the movie) is “Life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get.”  In other words, things just happen to a person in life.  He is neither the cause of what happens, nor is he able to know what will happen in advance.  Life is just like selecting chocolates from a box – you might get cream-filled, or solid chocolate.  Who knows?

Gump is not intended to be taken as seriously as is Black Rock.  It is played partially tongue in cheek, cataloging how many zany situations befall Forrest.  That lack of seriousness is perfectly consistent with Gump’s theme.  If consequences just happen by accident and are not connected to effort, thought or action, then how can they be taken seriously?  One absurd outcome is as likely as another.  All one can say about Forrest’s character is that he has a passionate stubbornness: he devotedly sticks to the phrases his mother gave him, repeating them throughout his adventures.  Not exactly in the same universe as Spencer Tracy choosing to expose the tyranny and hidden crimes at Black Rock.

The political Left began the “you didn’t build it” movement (see introductory post).  They accuse the “right” of being defenders of free will, and using the concept in an attempt to exclude the supposedly underpriviledged from getting their “fair share” of society’s pie.   In an illuminating demonstration that the issue of free will is not a strictly political one, however, and that the right is hardly an advocate of free will, this movie has been taken to be a “conservative” movie politically.  National Review ranked the film in 2009 in the top 25 of the “Best Conservative Movies” of the last quarter century, apparently reacting positively to Gump’s being too much of an “amiable dunce” to get involved in drugs and the 60’s hippie movement.  Gump is just a “regular guy,” experiencing the joys and sadnesses of life, however they happen to occur.  Bob Dole said the movie proved that the American Dream was within everyone’s reach, apparently un-dissuaded by the fact that all of Forrest’s “dreams” weren’t anything he set out to do but happened by chance.  Or perhaps Dole was admiring Forrest’s devotion to barely understood slogans.

A fundamental premise such as free will has an enormous impact on the life of an individual man, and on the life of a culture.  If men believe they have choice, that those choices are responsible for the outcomes in their lives, they will act accordingly – planning, thinking, taking actions that help them achieve their goals.  They will also establish moral codes holding men responsible for their choices and actions.  Their art and literature (including lighter entertainment like much in cinema) will reflect that underlying premise.  Movies like Bad Day at Black Rock will be the result.

By contrast, if men believe that they have no choice, that whatever happens is an accident (whether of birth or mysterious firing of neurons), they will not plan or pursue goals, or spend the effort to think about their futures.  They will act with no particular reason or purpose.  They will  deny the intelligent any distinction relative to the morons.  And in such a culture, the art and literature (including cinema) will reflect that underlying premise.  Movies like Forrest Gump will be the result.

In the final analysis, it is the responsibility of philosophy to present the arguments defending free will and exposing the fallacies in the arguments against it.  For those considering the two alternatives – free will or accident – there are an enormous number of arguments and sub-issues to digest and evaluate.  It could seem an overwhelming task to make sense of it all.  It is therefore helpful to have a concretization that sums up in stark terms the alternatives of both sets of fundamental premises.  Is the life you strive for that of a Forrest Gump, mouthing inherited lines like a parrot and swaying like a feather with every wind, absurdly becoming a Medal of Honor winner and making a fortune in Apple stock, which he thought was a fruit company?  Or is the life you strive for a John Macreedy, confident, just, courageous, choosing to make a stand against what seems like an all-powerful evil?  The concrete images make the difference clearer to direct perception.  The choice between the two alternatives is then not only easier to make, but also comes with the level of conviction that only a powerful concrete, added to the philosophical arguments, can engender.

2 comments to Macreedy vs. Forrest

  • Brian Phillips

    Another movie that brilliantly dramatizes the role of choice in one’s life is “Ninotchka,” starring Greta Garbo. At the beginning of the movie, Ninotchka is an unthinking spokesman for the Soviet dictatorship. But over the course of the movie, she must repeatedly make choices. Slowly, she comes to realize that those choices–her choices–are gravely important and are hers to make. And her happiness, or lack thereof, depends on her choices.

  • icouldanddid

    Thanks for your comment, and for the excellent description of how an individual, programmed with communist propaganda all her life, might discover that she has free will – and come to cherish it. Having seen the movie, I would concur with your assessment.

    Readers who have other movies they think dramatize free will are invited to comment and describe those movies briefly. There are several such in the history of cinema, and it would be worthwhile to catalog them.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>