Forrest Gump at the Archives

Films from the National Archives can be found all over the world. Clips from our collection end up in documentaries, television shows, museums, classrooms, and living rooms. But sometimes, they end up in places you would not expect.  When dealing with archival film, you never know what you’re going to get…

In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Forrest Gump, I have scoured NARA’s holdings to find a few examples of archival footage that made its way into the movie. The actual historical significance of each clip is paired with its “Gumpized” version.


1.      George Wallace Speaks at the University of Alabama

On June 11, 1963 George Wallace blocked the doors of the University of Alabama to protest the school’s first African American students. In his “School House Door” speech, Wallace argued that the federal government had no authority to intervene in statewide education. President Kennedy eventually federalized the Alabama National Guard  and Wallace acquiesced. The event did, however, bolster Wallace’s popularity. This clip comes from Universal Newsreels, one of the most widely used collections in the Motion Picture department.

In Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks is inserted next to Wallace’s podium. Forrest curiously watches as the chaotic day unfolds. Forrest then rushes to the aid to one of the new students, Vivian Malone, when she drops her book.  Forrest picks up the book, smiles for the camera, and goes to class like any other day.



2.       Medal of Honor Recipient

In the original footage, President Johnson awards five men with the Congressional Medal of Honor.  The third man to receive the award, Sgt. Sammy Lee Davis, is replaced by Forrest in the film. In reality, Sgt. Davis received his award on November 19, 1968. A year earlier, Davis saved the lives of three fellow soldiers amidst heavy fire from Viet Cong forces. He now goes by “the real Forrest Gump.” The clip below comes from the Army Library Copy Collection, 1964 – 1980 (Local ID: 111-LC-56387).

Forrest Gump loosely reflects Davis’ story. Forrest receives his Medal of Honor after saving his fellow soldiers in Vietnam. Upon receiving the award, LBJ asks Forrest where he was shot. Forrest then pulls down his pants to show the president his “buttocks.”



3.      Ping Pong Diplomacy with Richard Nixon

The original archival footage features a young man named Pelton Stewart. Stewart met Nixon in 1971 to be recognized as the Boys Club of America, “Boy of the Year.” The archival footage seen here comes from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California. It is part of the Naval Photographic Center Film collection.

In the movie, Forrest is recognized as the U.S. Ping Pong team’s “Player of the Year”. After receiving the award, the president recommends that Forrest stay at the Watergate hotel. Unfortunately for Forrest, people in the office building across the street are looking for “a fuse box or somethin’” and their flashlights keep him awake. He suggests that maintenance man check it out.



4.       Birth of a Nation

When Birth of a Nation debuted in 1915, most films were about 10-15 minutes in length and cost $200-300 to produce. Birth of a Nation was a staggering 3 hours long and cost over $100,000 to film. Although the film was a prolific piece of cinema, the deeply racist plot line led to the revitalization of the Ku Klux Klan. A copy of D.W. Griffith’s classic film is preserved at the National Archives.

Forrest-Birth of a Nation

Forrest Gump is named after Confederate Army general, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest claims that the general started a club called the Ku Klux Klan and rode around wearing his bedsheets. In the image above, Tom Hanks is seen donning Klan regalia. As Hanks rides off to join other Klan members, he is superimposed onto footage from Birth of a Nation.  


Special thanks to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum for providing footage for this blog.

All still images were taken from:  Forrest Gump (1994), Paramount Pictures.