On May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen shot dead four students demonstrating against the Vietnam War at Ohio’s Kent State University. On June 15, 1970, The Strawberry Statement opened in New York City cinemas. Though loosely based on a book about a 1968 sit-in at Columbia University, the similarities between the events depicted in the film and the horrors of Kent State were unmistakable. Though it would go on to win the Jury Prize at Cannes that year, The Strawberry Statement was not received well by critics or audiences and has languished in obscurity ever since.
Clean-cut Simon (Bruce Davison, later Senator Kelly in the X-Men franchise) is a San Francisco college student more interested in rowing crew and maintaining a decent GPA at fictional Western University than in getting involved with his school’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. Though not a total square — his apartment is decorated with Che and Bobby posters, and he owns a copy of the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack — he regards activist students with detached bemusement. Simon would rather film a demonstration than pick up a picket sign and join in.
That all changes when his camera alights upon Linda (Kim Darby), a cute co-ed deeply engaged in left-wing politics (Linda: “I’m involved in women’s liberation.” Simon: “I’m in favor of that!”). When Simon finds out she’s participating in a President’s office sit-in protesting the conversion of a playground to an ROTC center, he suddenly develops a social conscience and comes along for the ride. Assigned by protest organizers to collect food, he and Linda visit a corner store operated by a friendly grocer (James Coco), who encourages them to take whatever they want as long as they pretend to rob him — thus allowing him to make an insurance claim.
Things darken considerably during a demonstration at the playground, now surrounded by chain-link. After knocking down the fence, exuberant protesters send one policeman headfirst down the slide, give another a vertigo-inducing ride on the teeter-totter, and suspend a third upside down on the jungle gym. Though the mood is playful, there’s more than a hint of genuine danger — especially when a Franciscan priest begins whacking cops with his protest sign. After getting arrested, Simon calls his parents from jail, informing them that he has “solved my identity crisis!” He’s crossed the Rubicon and become a full-fledged revolutionary — and as Linda informs him, “once you’re in, you’re IN”.
An ominous encounter with a street gang sours Simon further, setting the tone for the film’s memorable climax — the occupation of a campus auditorium by hundreds of students. As they take up the chant, “give peace a chance”, police and National Guardsmen storm the building, spraying tear-gas and swinging batons. It’s a grueling 10-minute scene of mindless violence in which Simon and Linda become separated — perhaps forever.
Based on James Kunen’s novel, The Strawberry Statement was adapted for the screen by playwright Israel Horovitz, father of Beastie Boy Ad-Roc. Laden with stinging dialogue and snappy one-liners (“What if the Paris Commune was this dull?”), it’s a script best appreciated after multiple viewings. Amongst the supporting cast are Bud Cort (looking older here than he would 18 months later in Harold and Maude) as Simon’s rowing partner, a frizzy-haired Bob Balaban as a student organizer, Burt Remsen as a cop, and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father‘s Kristina Howard as slightly kooky revolutionary Irma (“I’m not a strange chick, I’m a strange woman!”).
Youth films were a dime a dozen during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and with few exceptions relied on sex, drugs and rock and roll as selling points. The Strawberry Statement generally eschews those elements, though other signifiers of psychedelic cinema are present: quick-cut montages, ironic use of stock footage (including Richard Nixon singing Home on the Range and H. Rap Brown holding forth on the all-American qualities of cherry pie and violence), and scenes shot through a fish-eye lens by cinematographer Ralph Woolsey.
A bittersweet tribute to young adulthood, the time in one’s life when anything seems possible, The Strawberry Statement is both wryly amusing and achingly sad. It’s easy to sympathize with the good intentions of Simon and his friends, and equally heartbreaking to see the flaws in their logic and the unrealistic nature of their hopes (“the university is involved in racism and war… so we’re starting a revolution”).
So why does The Strawberry Statement remain unavailable on home video? In a word (or two), music clearance. Singer-songwriter Neil Young is notoriously parochial regarding his songbook, and the film features several of his compositions (The Loner, Down by the River, Helpless) as well as recordings he made as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The song-track also includes Circle Game, an upbeat Joni Mitchell composition as interpreted by Buffy St. Marie, and the ubiquitous but always welcome Thunderclap Newman one-off, Something in the Air.
Turner Classic Movies aired a full-frame print of The Strawberry Statement, culled of nudity and profanity and with some dialogue re-looped, in early 2010. If the Internet Movie Database is correct, this print was missing roughly three minutes of footage. If Vincent Canby’s original New York Times review is correct, it was complete but bowdlerized. Regardless, it’s one of the most significant films of the period, and desperately needs to be re-discovered.