Pete Appleton is a struggling screenwriter. It’s 1951 and cold-war paranoia over Communist sympathizers in Hollywood is heating up. Despite being completely apolitical, Pete comes under scrutiny for an association he had with a young lady in college ("I got dragged to poetry readings too; that doesn’t make me Carl Sandburg"). The studio pulls support for his latest project. He’s despondent. After a night of hard drinking, Pete heads up the California coast with no particular destination in mind. But where he ends up was certainly not on his travel itinerary.
After he and his car plummet off a bridge into a raging river, Pete gets knocked out and washed ashore in the picturesque coastal community of Lawson, California. With amnesia. To make things interesting, the townsfolk find him oddly familiar—a dead ringer for Luke Trimble, one of Lawson’s many lost war heroes. Naturally, they welcome him with open arms. Even Luke’s old flame, Adele, wants desperately to believe that, after over nine years, her love has returned. And since Pete has no clue who he is, there’s no reason for him not to believe them. The town seems revived. It even rallies to reopen The Majestic, a classic movie theater that serves as a symbol of civic unity and a reminder of more carefree days.
Then things take a nasty turn. Just as Pete’s memory returns and he realizes he must tell his new friends the truth, G-men track him down and subpoena him to appear at a formal hearing. Pete faces a difficult choice: play ball and cooperate with the committee in order to salvage his career, or apply what he learned in Lawson and take a stand for what he believes is right.
positive elements: There’s a marked contrast between the selfish, superficial atmosphere of Hollywood and the giving, caring community of Lawson. We witness many acts of charity. Stan finds Pete on the beach and walks him into town for a hot meal and medical attention. Doc Stanton offers his services at no cost, buys Pete his breakfast and even gives him a clean shirt. Harry (Luke’s father) immediately embraces Pete and cares for his needs. We hear about the heroic sacrifice of fallen WWII soldiers. As Pete and Adele act on their romantic attraction, there’s lots of kissing but no indication that either is interested in anything more intimate—a sweet, innocent romance. Members of the community unite to refurbish The Majestic, and are quick to lend supplies and labor. Doc and Adele share a loving father/daughter relationship. A letter from Luke reads, "When bullies rise up, the rest of us have to beat them down, whatever the cost." Harry describes a kindness once showed to a classmate of Luke’s who was regularly abused by an alcoholic father. An optimist, Harry surveys the dilapidated Majestic and says, "I am looking around and all I see is potential!" Several people work to acquire a special gift for The Majestic’s loyal doorman. An exchange between Adele and Pete suggests just how deeply movies can impact our psyches and life choices (he remembers films even when he can’t recall his own identity; she chose a career in law solely as a result of seeing The Life of Emile Zola when she was 11 years old). A Hollywood agent refers to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence as mere pieces of paper with signatures on them—contracts open to re-negotiation—though it’s clear the filmmakers (and Pete) don’t agree with this cynical attitude.
spiritual content: During a funeral, the reverend recites Psalm 23:6.
sexual content: Just this: Pete admits that his interest in a Communist girl during his college days was that of a "horny young man."
violent content: A bitter guy slugs Pete in the jaw. From quite a height, Pete’s convertible flops upside down into the river. A blow to the head leaves him unconscious. During a B-movie matinee, a character gets knocked cold and the villain is run through with a sword. A scene from The Day the Earth Stood Still finds a soldier shooting a peace-loving alien.
crude or profane language: More than 40 profanities or crude expressions (most are mild, but the count includes two s-words) are spread throughout the film’s 2 1/2 hours. However, among them are numerous exclamatory uses of God’s name.
drug and alcohol content: A few instances of cigarette or pipe smoking. Pete drowns his sorrows with booze and ignores the bartender’s suggestion that he’s been drinking too much to drive.
other negative elements: It would be foolish to assume that Hollywood’s treatment of McCarthyism and the blacklist era doesn’t contain some inherent bias. For years, the industry has resented what it considers a dark period of creative censorship and intrusive profiling. It’s fairly obvious that films like Woody Allen’s The Front (or for that matter, The Majestic) aren’t exactly out to present both sides of the story. And since Washington, D.C., isn’t in the business of crafting entertainment that offers an opposing viewpoint, we can be left with a one-sided argument. Therefore, viewers with personal memories or connections to that period in history may feel that the U.S. government is unfairly vilified for their role in the "witch hunts."
conclusion: There’s a renewed sense of patriotism in the United States right now, and The Majestic will no doubt warm the hearts of audiences longing to recall a simpler time. They’re also reminded that some things—namely the documents on which America was founded—are not mere contracts open to easy change. The film has been called Capra-esque, and on many levels conveys the sense of innocence, decency and joy that has made movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington so enduring. It creates a generally good feeling. Still, depending on how viewers choose to internalize its themes, some might walk away convinced that it’s a tribute to WWII veterans, while others might accuse The Majestic of subtly preaching pacifism and unbridled tolerance. There’s a lot to sort through, and some of the pieces don’t quite fit together to form a clear, cohesive sociopolitical statement.
Director Frank Darabont says, "I always try to avoid the, ‘what am I trying to say with this film’ thing. It’s art. You figure it out. You take what you will from it. However, being an immigrant of Hungarian descent and a naturalized American citizen, [this] story is something I believe in strongly. It deals with basic principles of what the country stands for, ideals that are constantly being corrupted by people in power." Judging by his latest film, it’s safe to assume Darabont is referring to politicians when he says "people in power." Of course, "people in power" could also include the Hollywood establishment with its back-door bully pulpit. Here, the spoils are principles such as First Amendment freedoms. Generalized ideals. Abstract rights. Why one believes Darabont and company are so passionate about exalting them will go a long way toward how viewers will feel walking out of the theater.
In any case, The Majestic is an entertaining slice of Americana that makes you think about all kinds of issues. As much as I could have done without the profanity, I really enjoyed meeting characters I’d want as next-door neighbors. People to care about. People to root for. That’s a rare thing on the big screen.