The Warner Archive has released the 1970 counter-culture drama The Strawberry Statement. The film was released in an era of increasing unrest, sandwiched between the 1968 Chicago riots at the Democratic convention, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F. Kennedy and the shooting of student protesters at Kent State University (which, in a nightmarish example of unintended "good timing" occurred one month after the release of this film.) Although the movie was honored at the Cannes Film Festival, the general consensus was that, like Antonioni's more notorious failure Zabriskie Point, the film was an unfocused and unsuccessful attempt to play upon the unrest among young Americans during this era. Looking at the movie today, that criticism still holds up. The story centers on Simon (Bruce Davison), an apolitical student at a San Francisco university (it was actually filmed at Berkeley) who gradually becomes interested in the protest movement. Students are on strike and are occupying the dean's office (a not uncommon practice of the day) to protest the closing of a community playground for inner city children. The university, which owns the property, intends to put in an ROTC office temporarily, and then lease the land to big business. The students have succeeded in virtually closing down the university and Simon becomes more enamored with their cause. Before long he is occupying the dean's office, too, and begins a romantic relationship with a more radical protester, Linda (Kim Darby). The film meanders between their encounters, life on campus and anti-Establishment rallies. However, a clear depiction of the characters or their motivations is never provided. Simon is charismatic, but rather hollow. Linda is never presented in anything but a superficial manner. We know nothing of her background or motivations. There are no other major characters, though reliable supporting actors like Bud Cort, James Coco and Bob Balaban contribute positively.
The film's director, Stuart Hagmann, had a brief and rather undistinguished career, primarily highlighted by this MGM production. He relies on fast cuts, inventive camera angles and a score filled with rock and folk music provided by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Thunderclap Newman to compensate for the weak screenplay that had been based on a recently-published novel. The script by Israel Horovitz does provide some nuance in assessing protest movements. This was filmed during an era in which the military was draft was going full force, even as the Vietnam War was becoming increasingly unpopular. Adding insult to injury, the young people who fought that war weren't allowed to vote at the time because the voting age was 21. (Even today, with a voting age of 18, soldiers who are deemed old enough to drive tanks into combat can't legally enjoy a beer.) Consequently, presidential candidates who had run on a Vietnam withdrawal policy in 1968 (Senators Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy), had enormous support from a base that could not vote for them. The war that had been started by Democrats and escalated by the newly-elected Republican President, Richard Nixon, seemed to be a quagmire that would go on forever. (Curiously, our Afghanistan quagmire was started by a Republican president and escalated by a Democratic president, so not much has changed in terms of the political Establishment.) Where The Strawberry Statement succeeds is in its depiction of the various motives those who comprise a protest movement might have. Some are true believers, some are idealists, some are just weak-willed followers, and others just want to get laid in the name of upholding democracy. Radical protesters complain about a lack of freedom and rights, even as they ironically decorate their dorm rooms with posters of Che Guevara, a man who sacrificed his life in an attempt to tear down dictatorships even as he courted the totalitarian state of Fidel Castro. There are rather pretentious uses of film clips of key political figures of the day including H. Rap Brown and President Nixon, who is seen serenading White House guests while playing Home on the Range on the piano. There must be significance to this somewhere, but it comes across as bizarre. The film does show how even the most sincere political protest movements, from the Tea Party on the right and the Occupy movement on the left, inevitably become defined by the crazy fringe element that often negates the validity of their message. (In this film, protesters assail police officers, using their "Peace Now" signs as instruments of destruction.) The film succeeds in capturing the craziness of the era in the final, harrowing sequence in which an army of policeman brutally assail students at a sit-in, who are peacefully signing "Give Peace a Chance." Here, director Hagmann finds his stride and provides a truly mesmerizing sequence. However, despite the fine performances of the cast, the film falls short of its overall potential.