Take a turn onto Bull Street in the historic district of Savannah and you might, if you are not aware of the context, think you are entering a standard downtown American park. It is not until you take a closer look that you realise this is no ordinary section of the city — although, lately, the clues have been obvious.
Debi’s Restaurant, a five-minute walk north, has a heavily commemorated front window offering passers-by to “dine in where Jenny worked.” Another giveaway is the pair of selfie-snapping tourists outside the Presbyterian Church, holding up their phones to take pictures of a pre-tossed white feather floating gently downwards.
For many, the district will be instantly recognisable. This is Chippewa Square, the very place where scenes from the box office hit Forrest Gump was shot, and where the loveable lead dispensed wisdom to perfect strangers on a park bench. Everything from “stupid is as stupid does” to the eminently quotable, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you gonna get”.
Most years, around the anniversary of the film’s release, Chippewa attracts Forrest fans keen to pay homage to Gump — a kind-hearted man with an IQ of 75, who we see teach Elvis to dance, shake hands with JFK and Nixon, and work the late-night TV circuit alongside John Lennon. With a narrative to melt the hardest of hearts, it became an immediate hit, winning six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Tom Hanks
Filmed primarily in Savannah and South Carolina, I’m picking up Forrest’s trail and exploring the landscapes and historic towns immortalised in Robert Zemeckis’s classic.
I make conversation with the selfie-snappers, who are eager to share their Forrest knowledge: “Don’t expect to find the bench here,” says one, “Uh-huh. The real bench was moved to the Savannah History Museum after filming,” explains the other.
Savannah is a gorgeous place. On foot, I make my way across the city’s tree-shaded streets, passing more squares (there are 22 in total, each an oasis of green and flowering shrubs) to find the museum housed in a former passenger rail station. I learn the history of Georgia’s first city, eyeball Johnny Mercer’s Oscar and Grammy awards, and spot Juliette Gordon Low’s carriage but it’s Forrest’s bench, complete with the vintage suitcase, which attracts the crowds.
Of course, as loved as he is, Gump is not the total of the city’s movie culture. The Savannah College of Art and Design, one of the nation’s premier art schools, stages the Savannah Film Festival: a mecca for budding filmmakers which has been taking over the beautifully restored Trustees Theatre every October since 1998.
But back to Forrest. You may remember he was raised in Greenbow, Alabama, however, many scenes were filmed in the South Carolina Lowcountry; a tangle of small towns and islands cut off from the mainland by tidal marshes and inlets. Following a night sampling Savannah’s southern food and music scene, I’m itching to explore these camera-friendly locations.
The next day, I take Route 17 in search of Hunting Island. One of the most popular state parks in South Carolina, it impresses with dense, jungle-like forest, a saltwater lagoon, and the only lighthouse in the state accessible to the public. With pelicans cruising overhead, I wander an oyster-grey beach, dotted by eerie shapes of uprooted trees left by the surging sea.
It’s easy to believe you’re somewhere in South East Asia, perhaps Malaysia, the Philippines, or, say, Vietnam?
In the film, we see Forrest deployed for service in ‘Nam. In reality, the crew didn’t leave the United States. Instead, Hunting Island and neighbouring Fripp were used as stand-ins for those raging war scenes, including where Gump saves his wounded platoon from the Viet Cong (receiving the Medal of Honour for his heroism), and when his “best good friend” Bubba dies in his arms.
After strolling a marshy boardwalk, I climb the 19th-century lighthouse, a white-and-black striped tower watching over the Atlantic, and take in panoramic views of the surrounding maritime forest. It’s raining, but the subtropical scenery from 130-feet keeps me entertained.
I had better luck with the weather later when I drove along Route 21, pit-stopping at Port Royal where the stormy shrimp boat scenes with Lieutenant Dan were filmed (using fire hoses and jet engines to create Hurricane Carmen) — before reaching a colonial town often dubbed “the best small town in America”. Lined with gorgeous antebellum homes, and linger-worthy riverfront cafés, it’s unsurprising Beaufort (pronounced byoo-furt) is popular with filmmakers; Deliverance, The Prince of Tides, and Die Hard: With a Vengeance were also shot here.
During Forrest’s epic journey across the United States when he “just felt like running”, our protagonist was interviewed by a television crew whilst crossing the Mississippi River. In fact, he was crossing the Richard V. Woods Memorial Bridge: a moveable swing bridge, connecting the sea islands to downtown Beaufort.
In true Forrest-style, I take a run. The bridge is a delight at dusk, made blood-red by the setting sun, and offering views towards Lady’s Island, the place where Forrest yells, “Lieutenant Daaannn!” before jumping off his shrimp boat.
The next morning, after staring slack-jawed at Beaufort’s veranda-wrapped Gone With The Wind-style mansions, I visit a spot popular with the cast during filming. I’m at the Chocolate Tree, a local chocolatier who provided the famous box that Forrest offers Jenny. After talking Tom Hanks and purchasing some fine dark chocolate, the staff invited me to “come back in October for the Run Forrest Run 5K”, an annual Forrest Gump-themed run that takes place at the Beaufort Shrimp Festival. It’s clear the town is proud of its famous son.
Varnville is next on my list; a stand-in for fictional Greenbow and a good place to spot young Gump. Objectively, Varnville is not great. It’s basically a strip of shops and restaurants. However, some stores dressed for the film elected to retain the look, giving Main Street a 1950s halcyon feel. Soon as I show up, an elderly local takes one look at me and says: “Y’all here to see that Gump stuff, ain’t ya?”
She points me towards the storm drain that poor Forrest gets his leg-brace caught in, and Palmetto Avenue where Gump and his devoted mother (played by Sally Field) can be seen walking hand-in-hand. Further scenes were shot in the mock barber shop and by the railroad tracks, whilst it’s a short hop to McPhersonville where an older Forrest prays for shrimp at Stoney Creek Presbyterian Chapel.
What I really wanted to see, though, was on the Bluff Plantation.
Some of the film’s structures – like Forrest’s family boarding house and Jenny’s farmhouse – stood on this 1,200-acre estate, perched on a lonely bluff overlooking the Combahee River. It is here that the location famously served as the backdrop for Forrest and Jenny’s wedding. They were built specifically for the movie, but I’m disappointed to learn that they were torn down after production and deemed “not to code”.
But all is not lost, because the location of arguably the film’s most-loved scene can still be sighted. After shattering those cage-like leg braces fleeing a group of bullies, Gump unwittingly discovers that he’s blessed with a rare talent — he can run like the wind. With his muscles suddenly strong, Jenny yells one of the most memorable film quotes of all time, “Run, Forrest, run!”
Today, the seemingly inconsequential path is a picture of southern splendour: grand oak trees drip with Spanish moss, and tidy lawns lead to a private, antebellum-style property — so I decide it’s probably best not to recreate the run-scene.
Instead, I soak up the sight of the film’s final act; where Forrest and Forrest Junior sit waiting for the school bus. The bookend images of a feather floating gently in the breeze symbolised director Robert Zemeckis’s vision, “It was a metaphor for the randomness of life and the destiny of life, that it lands at Forrest’s foot, that it could land anywhere”.
It was an appropriate ending to my own random travels in the footsteps of Forrest Gump.
By Andrew Day