When Hal Ashby meets Arthur Penn: Did this scene from ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ influence ‘Harold And Maude’?
Alice’s Restaurant and Harold And Maude were two films released just two years apart, in 1969 and 1971 respectively. Both possess a rebellious countercultural spirit and feature characters living outside society’s expectations. They also both reference the Vietnam War, specifically in relation to draft dodging. Alice’s Restaurant was released around the time Harold And Maude was being written and, as many cinephiles will have a noticed, there is a scene in the latter which very much resembles one in the former. So is there a connection?
Firstly, the scenes in question. In the sequence of Alice’s Restaurant directly based on Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” song, Arlo’s character is forced into the draft. Consequently, he must undergo a series of examinations, one of these being a visit to a psychiatrist, or shrink. Wishing to convince the shrink that he is mentally unfit to join the army, Arlo confesses to being positively bloodthirsty in a frenzy of jumping and screaming. Below is a transcript of the scene’s dialogue, the majority taken from Guthrie’s song.
Arlo (Narration) … And I proceeded on through and I finally came to see the very last man. I walked in, I walked up, I said: “What do you want to see me about?” He said…
Military Officer: See the shrink!
Shrink: Come in, my boy, come in.
Arlo (Narration): I went up there, I said “Shrink, I wanna kill. I wanna kill! I wanna see blood, gore, guts and veins in my teeth…
Arlo (Narration): …Eat dead, burnt bodies! I mean kill!” And I started jumping up and down yelling “Kill! Kill!” And he started jumping up and down with me, and we were both jumping up and down!
Arlo, Shrink: (Screaming) Kill! Kill!
Military Officer #2: (Enters) You’re our boy! Right this way.
Arlo’s plan eventually works, however, as they exempt him soon after due to his arrest for littering. This lands him on the ‘Group W bench’. While very humorous, the purpose of this satirical scene is clearly to portray military personnel as dangerously unhinged, exposing the barbarism that hides behind their strict codes of order. It also depicts how they are enticed and aroused by violence, therefore easily manipulated to that effect. They encourage this immoral behaviour, yet will not tolerate a minor offence which goes against their “code of honour”. In attempting to prove himself mentally unfit, Arlo has simultaneously proved the army psychiatrist to be really so.
Not so far away, Harold And Maude’s draft-dodging scene also involves a hilarious encounter with a military figure. It occurs after Harold is ordered by his overbearing mother to see his Uncle Victor, a staunch patriot hoping to enlist him for the Vietnam war. Beforehand, Harold and Maude have hatched a plan to free Harold from the draft by showing him, in a similar fashion, to be mentally unfit due to over-enthusiasm. So Harold is driven to the barracks to meet Victor. After Victor recounts a war story of his own, Harold details on his aspirations for brutal combat, the exchange reaching its peak when Harold produces a shrunken head, horrifying his uncle. Here is the screenplay extract for this scene.
As we can see, the conversation takes a similar turn. Conversely, though, Harold And Maude produces a different kind of irony, conveying how someone such as Victor, who has killed opponents in battle, is shocked by the projections of a young man relating something similar, only in more graphic detail. In contrast, Alice’s Restaurant exposes the barbaric nature at the heart of the military, Harold And Maude expose their unwillingness to face up to the realities of what they do, particularly by those in commanding positions who see themselves as honourable. This sequence continues when Maude appears as an anti-war protestor, prompting Harold, in pro-war persona, to act as though she is a communist. In the ‘attack’, Harold sends her through a hole in the ground. A characteristic prank now exempting him from the draft.
Despite this subtle variation of focus, these scenes do suggest a shared DNA between the films. In Harold And Maude’s case, Harold’s actions fit with his penchant to pull darkly humorous pranks on his relations, meaning that if this scene is a reference, it has been embedded into the film very skilfully, no surprise considering the level of filmmaking on display. However, it just seems to resemble the content and theme of Alice’s Restaurant’s scene so closely as to go beyond mere coincidence; the idea of it being created entirely separately seems unreasonable.
It is very possible that Colin Higgins, as a film student in 1969, would have gone to see Alice’s Restaurant, Arthur Penn’s follow-up to his highly influential Bonnie And Clyde. While this Harold And Maude scene was featured in the screenplay by 1969, it is also not difficult to imagine the film’s director Hal Ashby enjoying Alice’s Restaurant, considering his anti-war politics and good natured, rebellious spirit. He too may have even had Guthrie in mind when including the scene.
In conclusion, while there is no concrete evidence available to link these two films by their respective draft-dodging sequences, it would be most unusual if they were unconnected. However, unless this is ever confirmed, their likeness is all we can base a judgement on.