Politics, Protest & Progress in THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT

Stuart Hagmann’s THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT (1970) is often dismissed today as a dated relic of the early ‘70s. During its initial release it was singled out for being exploitive and failing to be a straightforward adaptation of the book it was based on. Many critics claimed that Stuart Hagmann’s direction was erratic and too creative for its own good, which supposedly diminished the film’s political message.

When I recently set aside some time to watch THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT I prepared myself for the worst. I expected to see a confusing, opportunistic, dated and laughable Hollywood film made to cash in on the political zeitgeist of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But I came away from the movie with an entirely different opinion and immediately understood why it had been nominated for a Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1970 and walked away with a Jury Prize.

Not only is THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT a much better film than I had anticipated but it’s particularly poignant considering the current political climate. Student protest, police brutality, free speech and social activism are still hot button issues today. Not a lot has changed in 40 years. We’re still fighting the same battles and wrestling with the same issues that have been plaguing the country for decades. Like other controversial films from the same period such as MEDIUM COOL (1969), ZABRISKI POINT (1970) and PUNISHMENT PARK (1971), THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT asked some important questions that still haven’t been answered.

The script was based on a novel written by James Simon Kunen who was a young college student at Columbia University in New York during the contentious 1968 protests. According to Seth Cagin & Philip Dray in Hollywood Films of the Seventies, the unusual title is credited to a flippant statement made by a college administrator who said, “Whether students vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on an issue is like telling me they like strawberries.”

At the time students across the country who had been motivated by the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam began making demands of their universities. They wanted to become part of their school’s decision-making process regarding issues such as minority study programs, military defense-related research, ROTC recruitment on campus and women’s rights as well as basic things like outdated dress codes. This led to many student demonstrations and protests.

Kunen’s book focused on the 1968 student demonstrations at Columbia University but the film adaptation is set in San Francisco. Apparently the director and producers couldn’t get permission to film their movie in New York and this location change is often sited as one of the film’s major flaws. But New York’s loss became San Francisco’s gain. The city by the bay has always been a radical hot spot and the location change makes the film’s basic concerns regarding human rights seem more universal instead of chained to one particular historic event.

THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT focuses on an awkward student named Simon (Bruce Davison) who’s a member of his university’s rowing team along with his friend, Elliot (Bud Cort). Neither of them have any interest in politics but Simon’s outlook begins to change after a cute girl named Linda (Kim Darby) catches his eye while he’s filming the student demonstrations on campus. Afterward Simon slowly becomes more and more involved in the student movement (author James Simon Kunen plays one of the activists) and their efforts to occupy campus buildings until their demands are met. He also encourages his friends, such as Elliot, to participate by telling him he can ‘meet girls’ through campus protest activities. But after Simon, Linda and Elliot get arrested the student demonstrations begin to take on a more urgent and personal tone.

It would be easy to assume that Simon and Linda’s blossoming relationship led Simon to revaluate his life and adapt Linda’s radical political outlook but things aren’t so simple and straightforward in THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT. Simon is drawn into the student demonstrations for a myriad of reasons. He’s a curious young man and his ego drives him to envision himself as some kind of revolutionary hero in imaginative flashes that illuminate his daydreams. Throughout the film he also voices his personal and political concerns to Linda in various conversations the two share.

Linda: “The University is burning babies and killing men and you’re on the rowing team? This strike is something real. It’s better than being a rowing jock.”

Simon: “I don’t want to blow up buildings. I slaved my ass off to get into this school. I know I’ll hate myself if I just sit back and watch all this… This university stinks. This whole country is getting dumb, DUMB! I mean, this country used to have a dream about things being different, you know? Now everyone’s just content to sit back on their asses and leave things just the way they are.”

The film disregards linear storytelling methods and uses rapid edits to interweave the ensuing drama with news footage of important political figures of the time such as President Richard Nixon playing the piano and Black Panther leader H. Rap Brown giving his memorable “violence is as American as cherry pie” speech. The film also includes references to the Paris Commune and the posters of Che Guevara that cover the campus walls continually come into focus.

First time director Stuart Hagmann worked with three editors on the film including Oscar winners Marjorie Fowler and Fredric Steinkamp. THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT owes its kinetic style to quick cuts and unusual perspective shots. Hagmann’s camera is rarely stagnant and seems to be moving all the time, which breathes life into his postcard perfect location shots of San Francisco. While watching, I couldn’t help thinking that it was truly one of the most beautifully shot films set in the Bay Area during the early ‘70s that I’ve ever seen.

The narrative is driven by a terrific soundtrack featuring songs by John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Crosby, Stills & Nash and features the best use of ‘Give Peace a Chance’ and Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’ that I’ve ever come across. I got the sense that the director not only appreciated the music that was chosen for the film but that he genuinely understood it and revered it, which might be wishful thinking on my part or just good filmmaking on his part.

The film ends with the students staging a massive demonstration inside the school that ends in a storm of tear gas and police violence while protesters chant the haunting lyrics to Lennon’s song, ‘Give Peace a Chance.’ As both Vincent Canby of The New York Times and Pauline Kael of The New Yorker pointed out in their own lackluster reviews of the THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT, Hagmann staged the protest as if it was some kind of bizarre Busby Berkeley musical number but it also references classic Soviet dramas like Eisenstein’s BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925).

At the time it may have seemed rather hackneyed but from a distance of 40 years the film has taken on an incredibly subversive undertone. Director Stuart Hagmann also references Hollywood by having Simon ask his friends if they’ve seen the Mike Nichols’ film, THE GRADUATE (1967), which clearly influenced some of Hagmann’s directing choices. And today it’s hard not to be horrified while watching iconic young film actors like Bud Cort (M.A.S.H, HAROLD AND MAUDE, etc.) and Kim Darby (TRUE GRIT, THE GRISSOM GANG, etc.) getting brutally beaten by the police during the final protest. When Bruce Davison’s character finally explodes at the violence unfolding all around him you can genuinely feel his rage.

Bruce Davison was only 23 or 24-years-old at the time that the film was made but he brings a real complexity to the role of Simon and I admired the way he never let you forget that you were watching a young person being transformed by his environment and experiences. Simon’s awkwardness, naïveté and unfocused anger are commonplace among many young students just entering college who are trying to find their voice while learning to stand on their own two feet. But Davison’s character also has a propensity towards lying and exaggeration, which gives him a distinct  personality. It also allows for some genuinely funny moments in the film.

THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT is available on video and can currently be streamed online thanks to Amazon Instant Video and Warner Video On Demand courtesy of Youtube. It’s also airing on Comcast On Demand if you have cable TV access. The film occasionally plays on TCM but it’s never been released on DVD. I suspect that might be due to the film’s soundtrack, which features many different recording artists and today that can become problematic when a studio like MGM wants to release one of their films.

The movie failed to find a receptive audience in 1970 and I tend to agree with Tino Balio who speculated in The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens: 1946-1973, that a seismic shift happened at the time of the film’s general release which occurred just days after the tragic May, 1970 shootings at Kent State. The American public suddenly had very little interest in seeing radical politics and student demonstrations depicted in the movies they were watching so films like THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT as well as Antonioni’s ZABRISIKI POINT had a particularly hard time at the box office. The fallout from real student activism was making headlines across the country and being seen on television every night so mainstream filmgoers and aging movie critics had little desire to see them fictionalized on screen. And many students had their minds on something else besides the movies.

Whatever the reason for the film’s inability to find a receptive audience, I think THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT is ripe for rediscovery today. In 2011 the film’s sentiment seems particularly poignant and Stuart Hagmann’s creative choices give the film a modern look that makes it one of the most compelling directorial debuts I’ve come across. It’s a shame that Hagmann only made a few more movies before he apparently retired from filmmaking in the late ‘70s including BELIEVE IN ME (1971) and the made-for-television thriller, TARRNTULAS: THE DEADLY CARGO (1977).

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40 Responses Politics, Protest & Progress in THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT
Posted By Christian von Schack : November 24, 2011 7:21 pm

I saw this movie some years ago and promptly fell in love with it. (I suspect it was partly because I’d moved home after living in San Francisco for a while, and really missed the place.) Still, it’s a wonderful time capsule, if occasionally too of its time. I also kind of recognized myself in Simon; in the midst of all this political turmoil yet still vying for the girl. I usually watch The Strawberry Statement whenever I catch it on TV, and I’ll take it over Zabriskie Point any day. Great write-up, and happy to learn more about it.

Oh, and the fellow with the red bandana up there is a young Bob Balaban, I believe.

Posted By Christian von Schack : November 24, 2011 7:21 pm

I saw this movie some years ago and promptly fell in love with it. (I suspect it was partly because I’d moved home after living in San Francisco for a while, and really missed the place.) Still, it’s a wonderful time capsule, if occasionally too of its time. I also kind of recognized myself in Simon; in the midst of all this political turmoil yet still vying for the girl. I usually watch The Strawberry Statement whenever I catch it on TV, and I’ll take it over Zabriskie Point any day. Great write-up, and happy to learn more about it.

Oh, and the fellow with the red bandana up there is a young Bob Balaban, I believe.

Posted By Peter Nellhaus : November 24, 2011 9:15 pm

I had a summer job at the downtown Denver movie theater where The Strawberry Statement played, so I got to see the whole film once, as well as repeated viewing of segments. I don’t know how the film would look to me now, but it struck me as pallid compared to Medium Cool. Of course my viewpoint was also affected by my own participation in the making of a film during the student protests of May 1970, a documentary, more or less, titled Street Scenes.

Posted By Peter Nellhaus : November 24, 2011 9:15 pm

I had a summer job at the downtown Denver movie theater where The Strawberry Statement played, so I got to see the whole film once, as well as repeated viewing of segments. I don’t know how the film would look to me now, but it struck me as pallid compared to Medium Cool. Of course my viewpoint was also affected by my own participation in the making of a film during the student protests of May 1970, a documentary, more or less, titled Street Scenes.

Posted By dukeroberts : November 25, 2011 12:29 am

Hippies.

Posted By dukeroberts : November 25, 2011 12:29 am

Hippies.

Posted By Jenni : November 25, 2011 2:04 pm

“The university is burning babies?”…glad I was just a kid when this was made, and therefore missed it. Darby’s line sounds like hippie hysterics.

Posted By Jenni : November 25, 2011 2:04 pm

“The university is burning babies?”…glad I was just a kid when this was made, and therefore missed it. Darby’s line sounds like hippie hysterics.

Posted By Suzi : November 25, 2011 2:46 pm

I saw this film many years ago, so I don’t recall too many of the film techniques used, but I liked your comparison to the Russian filmmakers of the 1920s. It is unlikely reviewers such as Canby and Kael, who were never film historians, would have gotten the references.

Posted By Suzi : November 25, 2011 2:46 pm

I saw this film many years ago, so I don’t recall too many of the film techniques used, but I liked your comparison to the Russian filmmakers of the 1920s. It is unlikely reviewers such as Canby and Kael, who were never film historians, would have gotten the references.

Posted By MedusaMorlock : November 25, 2011 7:33 pm

Great look at a film that I now definitely need to see, or see again. Don’t have strong memories of it.

What a cast, too!

As someone who is both excited and distressed by the way our country is reacting to the current much-needed protests, it’s hard and sad to realize that the same problems are out there now, only much worse.

Wonderful job, Kimberly!

Posted By MedusaMorlock : November 25, 2011 7:33 pm

Great look at a film that I now definitely need to see, or see again. Don’t have strong memories of it.

What a cast, too!

As someone who is both excited and distressed by the way our country is reacting to the current much-needed protests, it’s hard and sad to realize that the same problems are out there now, only much worse.

Wonderful job, Kimberly!

Posted By Fred : November 26, 2011 12:22 pm

Thanks for an enjoyable profile of a largely forgotten film. I only saw this once on a late night television broadcast in 1982, with commercials and obvious cuts, but hope to see it again after reading your review. I remember really liking the cinematography (I agree with your assessment of how great the film made San Francisco look), the acting (especially Bruce Davison, whom I’ve always enjoyed, especially his devotion to independent films) and the soundtrack. Neil Young’s “Down by the River” was used to great effect, although I still prefer the use of Thunderclap Newman in THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (something about seeing bankers in bespoke Saville Row suits wading through raw sewage for ten pound notes just does it for me I guess).

Posted By Fred : November 26, 2011 12:22 pm

Thanks for an enjoyable profile of a largely forgotten film. I only saw this once on a late night television broadcast in 1982, with commercials and obvious cuts, but hope to see it again after reading your review. I remember really liking the cinematography (I agree with your assessment of how great the film made San Francisco look), the acting (especially Bruce Davison, whom I’ve always enjoyed, especially his devotion to independent films) and the soundtrack. Neil Young’s “Down by the River” was used to great effect, although I still prefer the use of Thunderclap Newman in THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (something about seeing bankers in bespoke Saville Row suits wading through raw sewage for ten pound notes just does it for me I guess).

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 26, 2011 2:28 pm

Christian – Thanks! It really is a great ‘San Francisco’ film and I love how Hagmann captured the city in ’70.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 26, 2011 2:28 pm

Christian – Thanks! It really is a great ‘San Francisco’ film and I love how Hagmann captured the city in ’70.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 26, 2011 2:29 pm

Peter – MEDIUM COOL and THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT are such different films about very different people that it’s hard for me to compare them really except for the subject matter they tackle. THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT is much more youth/activism/music focused for example but I think they’re both terrific & powerful movies.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 26, 2011 2:29 pm

Peter – MEDIUM COOL and THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT are such different films about very different people that it’s hard for me to compare them really except for the subject matter they tackle. THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT is much more youth/activism/music focused for example but I think they’re both terrific & powerful movies.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 26, 2011 2:30 pm

Jenni – The ‘burning babies’ comment was a direct reference to 1) Columbia University’s involvement with the the US Department of Defense at the time and 2) The fact that the US was indeed ‘burning babies’ durning the Vietnam war. The photos of napalmed kids were one of the things that caused a major public backlash against the war in Vietnam. It’s important history that all Americans should become familiar with. Google ‘Kim Phuc’ for more information but be prepared to see some horrible photos of ‘burning babies.’

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 26, 2011 2:30 pm

Jenni – The ‘burning babies’ comment was a direct reference to 1) Columbia University’s involvement with the the US Department of Defense at the time and 2) The fact that the US was indeed ‘burning babies’ durning the Vietnam war. The photos of napalmed kids were one of the things that caused a major public backlash against the war in Vietnam. It’s important history that all Americans should become familiar with. Google ‘Kim Phuc’ for more information but be prepared to see some horrible photos of ‘burning babies.’

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 26, 2011 2:32 pm

Suzi – Kael actually did reference Russian film in her own review, which surprised me as well.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 26, 2011 2:32 pm

Suzi – Kael actually did reference Russian film in her own review, which surprised me as well.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 26, 2011 2:34 pm

Medusa – I think you’d find the film really interesting in light of current events. Highly recommend it!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 26, 2011 2:34 pm

Medusa – I think you’d find the film really interesting in light of current events. Highly recommend it!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 26, 2011 2:38 pm

Fred – Thanks a lot! I was really surprised by how good Davison was. He’s always a reliable actor but he really gave 110% to his role in THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT. And he’s so young that it’s sort of extra surprising I suppose. And thanks for bringing up THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN! I really like that funny oddball film and it does make good use of the Thunderclap Newman song but I’m sucker for films shot in San Francisco and I just love how the music seems to capture the spirit of the city in 1970.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 26, 2011 2:38 pm

Fred – Thanks a lot! I was really surprised by how good Davison was. He’s always a reliable actor but he really gave 110% to his role in THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT. And he’s so young that it’s sort of extra surprising I suppose. And thanks for bringing up THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN! I really like that funny oddball film and it does make good use of the Thunderclap Newman song but I’m sucker for films shot in San Francisco and I just love how the music seems to capture the spirit of the city in 1970.

Posted By Kingrat : November 28, 2011 5:15 pm

Kimberly, thanks for an interesting article, which makes me interested in seeing a film which never sounded like something I’d enjoy.

Though I’m far from being one of Pauline Kael’s biggest fans, she had a very good grasp of film history. If you check the official film histories which were extant when Kael wrote, you’ll find that she wrote capsule reviews of most of the films available to and admired by the critics of the time.

As for ZABRISKIE POINT not finding a wider audience, that’s not surprising, despite some lovely visuals. The disjointed script could have been written by not very bright people on acid–in fact, I believe Antonioni’s girlfriend got the major credit–and the two non-actor leads, though nice to look at, were dismally untalented. Nice shot of Rod Taylor with the American flag outside his office, though.

Posted By Kingrat : November 28, 2011 5:15 pm

Kimberly, thanks for an interesting article, which makes me interested in seeing a film which never sounded like something I’d enjoy.

Though I’m far from being one of Pauline Kael’s biggest fans, she had a very good grasp of film history. If you check the official film histories which were extant when Kael wrote, you’ll find that she wrote capsule reviews of most of the films available to and admired by the critics of the time.

As for ZABRISKIE POINT not finding a wider audience, that’s not surprising, despite some lovely visuals. The disjointed script could have been written by not very bright people on acid–in fact, I believe Antonioni’s girlfriend got the major credit–and the two non-actor leads, though nice to look at, were dismally untalented. Nice shot of Rod Taylor with the American flag outside his office, though.

Posted By clockwork : December 3, 2011 1:46 pm

It doesn’t matter what that movie tried to do or not….the simple facts today are that anyone who tries to PROTEST and/or QUESTION the LAWS and AUTHORITY is branded as a TERRORIST, but America forgets its SONS & DAUGHTERS and the AMERICAN REVOLUTION too easily:):):)!!!!

Posted By clockwork : December 3, 2011 1:46 pm

It doesn’t matter what that movie tried to do or not….the simple facts today are that anyone who tries to PROTEST and/or QUESTION the LAWS and AUTHORITY is branded as a TERRORIST, but America forgets its SONS & DAUGHTERS and the AMERICAN REVOLUTION too easily:):):)!!!!

Posted By dukeroberts : December 3, 2011 6:03 pm

Sorry to interrupt, but what a ridiculous statement made by clockwork. Okay. As you were.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 3, 2011 6:03 pm

Sorry to interrupt, but what a ridiculous statement made by clockwork. Okay. As you were.

Posted By clockwork : December 4, 2011 9:00 am

Sorry to interrupt your cozy little MONOLOGUE, but the only RIDICULOUS attitude here is your NOT wanting to debate without BIAS:):):)!!!

Posted By clockwork : December 4, 2011 9:00 am

Sorry to interrupt your cozy little MONOLOGUE, but the only RIDICULOUS attitude here is your NOT wanting to debate without BIAS:):):)!!!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : December 4, 2011 3:57 pm

clockwork writes: “It doesn’t matter what that movie tried to do or not”

Actually it does matter because my post is about this movie. Although I made mention of the unrest that the country is currently facing from large vocal protest groups on all sides of the political spectrum, the focus of this post is on the movie, THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT, and I’d like to keep the discussion on point as well as civil. There’s no need for insults, etc.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : December 4, 2011 3:57 pm

clockwork writes: “It doesn’t matter what that movie tried to do or not”

Actually it does matter because my post is about this movie. Although I made mention of the unrest that the country is currently facing from large vocal protest groups on all sides of the political spectrum, the focus of this post is on the movie, THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT, and I’d like to keep the discussion on point as well as civil. There’s no need for insults, etc.

Posted By clockwork : December 5, 2011 10:11 am

K L writes:”Actually it does matter because my post is about this movie. Although I made mention of the unrest that the country is currently facing from large vocal protest groups on all sides of the political spectrum, the focus of this post is on the movie, THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT, and I’d like to keep the discussion on point as well as civil. There’s no need for insults, etc.”

Indeed, there is no need of insults….the kind I got from the poster below my comment above!!!:):)

Posted By clockwork : December 5, 2011 10:11 am

K L writes:”Actually it does matter because my post is about this movie. Although I made mention of the unrest that the country is currently facing from large vocal protest groups on all sides of the political spectrum, the focus of this post is on the movie, THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT, and I’d like to keep the discussion on point as well as civil. There’s no need for insults, etc.”

Indeed, there is no need of insults….the kind I got from the poster below my comment above!!!:):)

Posted By clockwork : December 5, 2011 10:13 am

TSS was and is a movie that HAD to be made….one way or the other……lest we forget the May 1970 MURDERS in Ohio….peace :):):)!!!!

Posted By clockwork : December 5, 2011 10:13 am

TSS was and is a movie that HAD to be made….one way or the other……lest we forget the May 1970 MURDERS in Ohio….peace :):):)!!!!

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