Me: ‘What is Forrest Gump’s motivation?’
Robert McKee: ‘To please his mother.’
Those of you who have been to one of Robert McKee’s ‘Story’ seminars will know that the windows for Q&As are very limited: the beginning of the day, if you get there early enough, or at the end of a long day – no one is allowed to ask questions during McKee’s seminar. But in one of those brief windows I took the opportunity to ask a question that had puzzled me ever since I’d first seen Robert Zemeckis’ 1994 film in which Tom Hanks plays the central character and I thought if anyone would know it’d be McKee.
But his answer didn’t seem to hit the nail on the head entirely.
Of course, Forrest Gump’s mother, played by Sally Field, is a huge presence in his life, she is after all his mother, and she does, as all mothers do, everything she can to help him. But she has no specific plan for Forrest: she doesn’t hold up any particular people as role models he should aspire to (his dad went on vacation and just never came back); she doesn’t tell him that if he behaviours in a good and decent way he’ll get there in the end because she knows, as Forrest himself says, he’s not the smartest man; and, apart from sleeping with the school principal, she does nothing to manipulate events so Forrest will get ahead. She tells him early in the film that he is no different from anyone else – which isn’t a resounding call to action. She has absolutely nothing to do with Forrest’s talents, his ability to run fast and play ping-pong, talents that, contrary to every storytelling convention, he takes to like a duck to water with no training or struggle. When Forrest asks her what his destiny is, she tells him that he has to figure that out for himself. Then she dies. But perhaps the most important aspect of his life upon which she has no impact at all, because as far as we know he never tells her, is his love for Jenny.
I always thought that if any one person was motivating Forrest Gump it was Robin Wright's Jenny. Jenny is the constant throughout Forrest’s life: from the moment they meet on the school bus when they are children, they are like peas and carrots. She sneaks out of her grandmother’s trailer to be with him and he sneaks into the single sex college to be with her. He writes to her every day he is in Vietnam and meets her again at an anti-war demonstration when he returns. He thinks of her as he lies under the stars, alone on his shrimping boat, and when he moves into his mother’s house. And it is there, unexpectedly, that she comes to him. They spend a night together and then she is gone again. When they do finally get together, it is only briefly, because she is dying. But not once, throughout all their meetings, which are defined by Forrest’s desire to protect Jenny from the world, does he make a concerted effort to find her or to follow her when she decides to go: it is just that through the tumult of world events their lives collide - but she always leaves and Forrest accepts it meekly. So even Jenny, the love of his life, doesn’t motivate him to do anything.
The only person who motivates Forrest to do something is Mykelti Williamson's Bubba. Forrest makes a promise to Bubba that when Bubba has a shrimping boat he will be his first mate. But Bubba dies in Vietnam so Forrest buys a boat, names it Jenny and acts as captain. Only he completely fails to catch any shrimp – until a literal deus ex machina, the bane of any storytelling expert, arrives in the shape of a hurricane and conveniently decimates the shrimping industry.
This lack of a desire to achieve anything means that Forrest Gump is essentially the same character at the beginning of the film, when he is nine years old having his leg braces fitted, as he is at the end of the film, when he sits down to await his son’s return from school.
Of course, main characters who don’t change over the course of a story have always existed, most commonly in the Western. Alan Ladd’s Shane, Clint Eastwood’s the man with no name and Yul Brenner’s Chris in ‘The Magnificent Seven’ are all exactly the same at the end of the film as they are at the beginning. But they are all men who are motivated to do something - usually to bring order where there is disorder - and because they are motivated to act when no one else can they change the lives of everyone around them.
Forrest Gump changes people’s lives - only not by design but by complete accident. This is most perfectly illustrated in the sequence where he runs across the USA. After Jenny has left him again, and in his own words ‘For no particular reason at all’, he starts to run. He runs to the end of the road, then he decides to run to the end of town, then across the state of Alabama and then all the way to the ocean. And because he’s managed to run that far, he turns around and runs all the way to the other ocean. And he keeps doing this for three-and-a-half years. Along the way he gives one man the idea for the ‘shit happens’ bumper sticker and another the idea for the yellow smiley face on a t-shirt. He doesn’t plan to and it only happens because he runs through some dog shit and then gets splashed in the face with mud. Ardent fans of the film will know that he also inadvertently teaches Elvis to dance and casually gives John Lennon the lyrics for ‘Imagine’. But he has no goal which he accomplishes before leaving; no enemy that he defeats before riding into the sunset.
So maybe the answer to the question I asked Robert McKee is that Forrest Gump is a unique character who has no motivation, a character who is sustained by love, specifically his enduring love for Jenny – and over the course of the two-and-a-half hour running time of the film, across the span of US history, and contrary to every storytelling convention - that is enough…