By 1970, the film studios of Hollywood, or what was left of them, were trying to desperately connect with the hip and new power of the youth market that exploded on to the scene in the late sixties. Films like “The Graduate”, “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Easy Rider” proved if you made them, they will come…..maybe. MGM, a studio that epitomized the essence of old Hollywood, purchased James Simon Kunen’s best-selling non-fiction book, “The Strawberry Statement”, which detailed his personal experiences as a student at Columbia University during the April 1968 student protest and eventual takeover of University buildings.
Playwright Israel Horovitz was hired to turn Knuen’s journalistic book into a screenplay. Among Horovitz works was the off-Broadway play, “The Indian Wants the Bronx” which opened in 1968 and starred two unknown actors by the name of Al Pacino and John Cazale. Pacino and Cazale won Obies for Best Actor and Best Supporting, respectively. “The Strawberry Statement” was his first screenplay.
Unlike the book, the film is set at a fictional University in San Francisco instead of Columbia in New York City. Most likely because, and this is an assumption on my part, Columbia did not want to relive or re-ignite the 1968 uprising and refused to let the film be set on its campus. Subsituting San Francisco for New York was a good and reasonable choice.
Our counterculture hero is Simon (Bruce Davison), an apathetic jock on the University’s rowing team. He only becomes involved in campus politics because of his attraction to Linda (Kim Darby) a cute girl who is supposedly an activist but other than spitting out a couple of lines about caring and causes seems not to do much more than be Simon’s girlfriend. Women in general are treated mostly as sexual objects and gofers for the men who are really doing the organizing.
A group of students are protesting the Universities decision to build an ROTC center. The organizers call for the students to strike. Simon seems to be only half-heartedly into the entire movement but that all changes in the last 15 minutes or so of the film when life becomes drastically more confrontational.
The students are occupying the administration building. Outside the police and the National Guard, equipped with tear-gas, stand ready to close in. The students are sitting on the floor in a large circle chanting John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” as they prepare for the oncoming assault. The police and National Guard begin to move in, a full-scale riot breaks out with the police and National Guard beating on the students with nightsticks. Simon and Linda are caught in the middle of the riot. Separated, they are fighting for their lives as the film ends with a frozen shot of Simon trying to jump over the police who are reaching out to grab him.
Whether one sympathizes are with the students or think they got what they deserved I’m sure depends on one’s point of view. (One posting on IMDB naively called the student protests “communist riots”). While many students were radicalizes by the times, or at least became more politically aware, many others did not participate in these demonstrations, they just wanted to go to school, get an education, get a job and probably avoid the draft and getting this asses shipped off to Vietnam.
Looking at the film today, the students come off as naïve; the film itself is part satirical (thanks to Horovitz’s writing) and part Kent State. Were the shootings at Kent State where National Guardsman fired more than 60 rounds of ammunition killing four students and wounding nine others, influential to the filmmakers? It’s doubtful since the incident at Kent State happened on May 4th and the film was released in Mid-June of the same year. The timeline seems very tight. Clashes between the authorities and protesters already had a history i.e. the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention.
One of the highlights of the film is its magnificent soundtrack, that begins during the opening credits with the Joni Mitchell song, “The Circle Game” sung by Buffy Sainte-Marie. Other works include, “The Loner” and “Down by the River” by Neil Young, ‘Our House” and “Helpless” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “There’s Something in the Air” by Thunderclap Newman and as previously mentioned the students chanting a powerful version of “Give Peace a Chance” just prior to the final confrontation with the police and National Guard.
Overall, the film is erratic; there are times when it conveys a realistic feel of the time and place, mostly through the music and art direction. A nice touch is a scene in Simon’s room where we hear an LP on his turntable playing Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra”, a nod to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Thanks to Horovitz there is some absurdist humor, though irrelevant to anything else going on in the film contributes to the personality of those times. That said, our counterculture hero Simon is not very radical, his interest in the movement has more to do with hooking up with Linda and hopefully getting laid than that of any higher political calling. His dedication to the movement is limited as we see when he sneaks out of the building, controlled by the students, to attend his team’s rowing practice.
The cast includes Bud Cort and Bob Balaban as two of the students, James Coco, as a grocery store owner, who sympathize with the “revolutionaries”, though in he credits he is listed as being one of “The Establishment.” The book’s author James Simon Knuen also has a small role as well as screenwriter Horovitz.
For director Stuart Hagmann, this was his first feature film. His film career was mercifully short. With a commercial and TV background, his camera technique, is filled with zooms, twirling upside down camera movements that he may have seen as hip but was then and now just plain annoying. His motto seems to be forget substance, just check out what I can do with this camera!
During this period, Hollywood came out with a series of films about student unrest, most of which were dismal like “Getting Straight” and Stanley Kramer’s “RPM” in which student Ann-Margret was having an affair with Professor Anthony Quinn! Some were more successful works like Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool” and Paul Williams little seen, “The Revolutionary.”
The title of this film, by the way, supposedly refers to a statement made by a Columbia administrator who said the opinions of the students on administrative manners meant no more than as if they said they like the taste of strawberries. The administrator has since stated that he was misquoted. Kunen also offered the statement that the title partially refers to the rock group, The Strawberry Alarm Clock.
The copy of this film I watched was a severely edited TCM version; one of the few “R” rated post 1970’s films I have watched on TCM. I was appalled by the sloppy unnecessary editing; after all, the film was shown in the middle of the night, somewhere around 2:30AM. Anyone up at that late time should be old enough to make their own decisions about whether they want to watch an “R” rated film or not. There were obvious cuts for female nudity and a ridiculous fogging of Bruce Davison ass in a shower scene. Editing vulgarity resulted in a lot bull…that made Simon sound like a stuttering idiot in one particular scene. I know TCM has shown other films that contained nudity. When originally released, the film “Kramer vs. Kramer” has nude scenes, so I now wonder how TCM handled this. I always thought TCM had the integrity to show films uncut but I guess I was wrong.