The 1960s were the best of times, and the worst of times—a time of idealism that began with Camelot, and a time of despair that ended with mind numbing assassinations. No matter what your political views—the 1960s were turbulent times that awakened many youth from their innocence and dumped them into days of disillusionment, leading to inevitable disruption and protest. Indelible images of police dogs attacking Southern blacks and policemen clubbing young American whites during the 1968 Democratic Convention remain fixed in our history. The decade that heralded Civil Rights struggles, the Free Speech Movement, and the Anti-War Movement found major battlegrounds on several college campuses nationwide.
While the Free Speech Movement was born at the Berkeley campus, the first major Anti-War Movement landmark incident occurred at Columbia University in April, 1968 with a student revolt led by radical Mark Rudd and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), regarded as a left wing Socialistic loonies by the FBI. 19 year old sophomore James S. Kunen kept a journal of those tumultuous times that he transformed into a best selling account of the student strike at Columbia called The Strawberry Statement.
Attempting to profit while the student revolutionary subject was still hot, MGM studios financed a hackneyed film version based loosely on Kunen's book, and even tossed the young author into a cameo role as the chairman of the student riot. But if you want a better picture of student activities inside the administration buildings during the Columbia student take over (or what it was like on any college campus during the late 1960s where anti-war activities were taking place), read Kunen's first hand written account and avoid this lame capitalistic Hollywood exploitation of the counter culture.
One thing that the meandering film does get right is the fact that “the Movement” is unfocused and confused. But The Strawberry Statement was designed to be an organized film and not serve as a cinema verité piece. Besides, the producers couldn't even get Columbia University to cooperate, nor could they get any other major university to serve as a film location, so they ended up filming in San Francisco at some non-descript place that they called Western University and setting the scene in 1969 (established by the Sharon Tate murder over the radio). We don't see much of the collegiate lifestyle since there is no campus—director Stuart Hageman has to rely on a few shots of the hilly streets of San Francisco and glimpses of the city parks to accompany the required inside shots of a building and a gym that serve as the main location for the student strike and eventual police riot.
MGM should have expected the 109-minute film to play unevenly and episodically since Hageman was not wired to make a full length movie. His only previous experience came from directing a few TV episodes of Mannix and Mission Impossible, but this was a hack job from the start without much hope of creating a film of lasting artistic value. Taking the raw copy of Kunen’s short lived best seller, first time screenwriter Israel Horowitz (who also cameos as Dr. Benton) adapts the journalistic book into a facsimile of a screenplay, sniping bits and pieces and mixing in enough sex and violence to warrant an R-rating. I’m not sure exactly what Horowitz did write because much of the film feels improvised and irritating. (Actually irritating describes the camerawork more than the ineptness of the script at times—one notable irritant occurs during a student protest where the camera repetitively goes from long shot to medium to match the arm movements of a chant.)
The strongest part of the film lies with Bruce Davison's (Longtime Companion) performance as Simon (who would actually be Kunen in the original book). Young Davison demonstrates a naturalness as a college student devoted to his rowing crew before getting caught up in student demonstrations, initially because he is attracted to coed Linda (Kim Darby). Unfortunately, Bud Cort's talents are wasted here, as he's not given a whole lot to do—he communicates far more about this period in 1971's quirky Harold and Maude.
Not much really happens in The Strawberry Statement to make it memorable. The film portrays a few days in Simon's life as he first gets involved with the student strike against the university for taking over a children's playground to transform it into an R.O.T.C. property. Initially an outsider who catches only glimpses of the radical student leaders rants from the edges of the crowd, Simon begins taking pictures and then gets assigned to get food for the student rebels and to fix the Xerox machine by plugging it in. Starting as a sympathizer, Simon gradually becomes more involved with the protest—receiving a Stephen Crane-like “red badge of courage” that his fellow protestors assume was awarded by the local “pigs.” Simon even gets a blow job from that incident from the mysterious large breasted female who reminds him of the native girl on page 43 of his well worn National Geographic magazine.
We don’t get any real sense of the depth of the issues involved during the film. The SDS leaders are staging “teach ins” and discussions, but Simon is far more interested in making out with Linda. But then, again that does match what happened in real life back in the 1960s—it just doesn't make for an interesting film when Simon and Linda serve as little more than plot devices in a banal script.
In reality many protesting students weren't very aware of the issues either—relying on simplistic slogans, romanically rebelling against the establishment, or hoping to meet a “cool chick” with the idea of getting laid. For a great many pseudo-radicals sexual fulfillment was more on their minds than ending the war in Vietnam, but this idea was brought out more clearly and with a great deal more humor by Woody Allen’s character in Bananas. In a sense the film version of The Strawberry Statement serves as a period piece to remind us of those days and what the less glamorized aspects of college protests were really like.
One telling moment occurs in the park when Simon and his new girlfriend are making out and are suddenly startled by a group of young blacks approaching them. Even though they have been protesting in favor of blacks being admitted to the college, they both fear these tough looking real live blacks, thinking that they are certain to get mugged. Simon’s inept and awkward defense of filming them with his insta-matic only provokes one of them to crush the camera beneath his feet before the group unexplainably moves on—it's actually never established why they would target the young white couple in the first place. Neither is the concept of confronting student idealism with reality developed any further—the whole situation is just dropped! But the whole movie consists of such disjointed moments, so that you wonder just what you actually saw after it is over.
Since I attended the University of Illinois at the time of the famous Columbia student strike, I didn't witness the intense turmoil that campuses like Columbia, Berkeley, and Wisconsin experienced. But I did get a sense of the scene through the media and first hand in 1970 after the Kent State shootings and subsequent national student strike. So the film brings back a few memories—notably in the film's “climax” where police fill the gymnasium with tear gas and bash a few student bodies.
Those final scenes are meant to be shocking, but they are no more so than actual documentary footage of police riots. We're supposed to really feel for Simon and his girlfriend, but the film doesn't allow us to form a real relationship with either one of the stereotypes. Had it been a true cinema verité piece or a well-crafted drama, we would. Since the film is such a mangled mess, we are only thankful that the final denouement is at hand.
Surprisingly, this film won a Jury Prize at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, but any film portraying U.S. collegiate riots would have been recognized at that point in history. Sadly, The Strawberry Statement doesn't stand the test of time and becomes more of an embarrassment for student activists of the period. Even the lame Alice's Restaurant serves as a better period piece. But if you want a more definitive view of the times that were a-changing, read Kunen's book The Strawberry Statement, watch Easy Rider or Woodstock, or listen to Dylan's Blonde on Blonde album. All those will prove to be a far wiser investment of your valuable time.