Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"We all have a destiny." - The Redemption of Lieutenant Dan

Though it may be overly sentimental at points, Forrest Gump remains one of my favorite films. It’s beautifully told, superbly acted, and wields a mighty theme. The message that someone who is branded “stupid” by the world is essentially one of the most encouraging, accepting, peaceful people on the planet. Forrest is an openly loving person surrounded by hurting people who are greatly influenced by his character. Additionally, it's just a fun story that weaves its central character in and out of some of the most defining moments of recent American history.

There are many themes and characters I could discuss from the film, but my focus today is on my favorite character, Lieutenant Dan. He's played brilliantly by Gary Sinise who is pretty much just as awesome as his character in real life.

When we first meet Dan he’s doing pretty well. He’s an army lieutenant focused on both the welfare of his men and his obsession with fulfilling his destiny of dying with honor on the battlefield. Forrest informs us in his narration that a member of Dan's family died on the field in every great American war. Dan is kind of an abrupt, no-nonsense guy, but he makes a good leader because of his instincts and awareness of his comrades.

Not long after Forrest joins up with Dan in Vietnam, they find themselves in a middle of an intense enemy attack. Forrest saves many lives that day, including Lieutenant Dan’s. Dan has been horribly injured. He begs screaming to be put down and left to die as Forrest carries him away from danger, but Forrest does what he's best at and just keeps running.

Soon after we find Forrest and Dan in the hospital together. Forrest is recovering from his bullet wound “in the buttocks” and eating all the ice cream he can. Dan has had both his legs amputated below the knee. He is defeated, purposeless… or so he thinks. One night in his despair he grabs Forrest right out of his bed and pins him on the floor…

Lt. Dan: Now, you listen to me. We all have a destiny. Nothing just happens, it's all part of a plan. I should have died out there with my men, but now, I'm nothing but a goddamned cripple! A legless freak. Look! Look! Look at me! Do you see that? Do you know what it's like not to be able to use your legs?

Forrest: Well...yes sir, I do.

Lt. Dan: Did you hear what I said? You cheated me. I had a destiny. I was supposed to die in the field… with honor… That was my destiny, and you cheated me out of it! You understand what I'm saying, Gump? This wasn't supposed to happen. Not to me. I had a destiny. I was...Lieutenant Dan Taylor…

Forrest: You're still Lieutenant Dan.

That line holds such incredible power. Though Forrest is simple, so is the truth. Dan put his entire identity into being a war hero. That’s all he was to himself. A soldier whose sole purpose was to die on the battlefield. So when that honor was “taken” from him, he was left to contemplate the horrifying truth, that he doesn’t know who he truly is at all.  

We leave Dan for a time during the story. When we next see him it’s not hard to imagine with those missing years were like between that hospital in Vietnam to the moment he finds Forrest on the streets of New York. His hair is long and messy, he’s dressed like a homeless bum (though he’s not homeless), and pushing himself around in a rickety wheel chair. Forrest is thrilled to see him, though Dan doesn’t seem to reciprocate.

Though he appears to be nothing but a ball of bitter rage, it’s clear that Dan has missed Forrest and desperately needs a friend. They reconnect over the holidays and it’s during the New Year’s Countdown when the world around him is cheering and throwing confetti that we see Dan’s true self. Miserable and alone.

Very rarely do we get glimpses of male depression, so I am grateful this film does not shy away from sharing a little bit of what that’s like. The bitterness, the anger at life, at God, whatever. Dan talks to Forrest on Christmas Eve about God, and it’s pretty obvious who he’s really angry at.

Forrest leaves Dan again to keep his promise to his fallen friend, Bubba, and start a "shrimpin' business." Dan scoffs at the idea saying, “If you’re ever captain of a shrimping boat, I’ll be your first mate.”

Naturally, Dan eats his words. Forrest does captain a boat, though not a lot of shrimp seem to be coming aboard. Dan keeps his promise and joins Forrest as his first mate. Unfortunately, even together they don’t seem to be able to catch enough shrimp to make a cocktail.

Forrest: [dejected] No shrimp.

Lt. Dan: Where the Hell is this God of yours?

Forrest: [voice over] It's funny Lieutenant Dan said that, 'cause right then, God showed up.

Suddenly, a violent hurricane sweeps across the water. Forrest is terrified, flailing around trying to keep the boat afloat, but Dan is in another place all together. From atop the crow’s nest, he laughs maniacally, screaming at the sky.

Though I was quite young when I first saw this film, I completely understood what was happening in this “showdown” between Dan and God. Dan’s anger was as fierce as the storm. He was tired of losing. His legs, his dignity, even the shrimp. He wanted God to end it, take it all, wash it away. 

Yet, much to Dan’s surprise, this was not a storm of wrath, but of grace.

The waters calmed and the storm had destroyed every shrimp boat except their own. With no competition, they found shrimp in abundance. Their loss had been replaced a thousand fold. Soon Forrest and Dan became two of the wealthiest men in the south.

As they found themselves sailing through smooth waters- both literally and figuratively- Dan turns to Forrest and for the first time thanks him for saving his life in Vietnam. He then lifts himself onto the boat edge and falls into the water, swimming beneath a heavenly sky. 

Water represents rebirth, baptism, being washed clean. Though he never actually says so, Forrest and the audience can now surmise that his own storm has passed and he now is at peace with God, and life.

The wonderful thing about Grace is that it is an overflowing fount. Lieutenant Dan lived through some of the hardest things a man can live through in this life, and through that pain and suffering a new and more glorious life was born.

When I think of his story, I am reminded of Job 23:1-10...

“Today also my complaint is bitter;
    my hand is heavy on account of my groaning.
Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
    that I might come even to his seat!
I would lay my case before him
    and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would know what he would answer me
    and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
    No; he would pay attention to me.
There an upright man could argue with him,
    and I would be acquitted forever by my judge.
“Behold, I go forward, but he is not there,
    and backward, but I do not perceive him;
on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him;
    he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him.
But he knows the way that I take;
    when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold."

In the last, tearful chapter of the film- during Forrest’s marriage to Jenny- we finally see Dan again. Several years have passed and we can see he really has come out as gold. He’s cleaned up and standing tall on two titanium alloy legs. The “magic legs,” as Forrest calls them. At his side is his fiancée, who happens to be Vietnamese, and that in a way brings his journey full circle. His loss, his suffering, and pain did have purpose. He was right about having a destiny, and it's safe to say that in the end the destiny he was given in grace was far greater than any fate he originally intended for himself. 


  1. Oh, wow! I love this, Alexis! This is such an excellent analysis, and it brings a tear to my eye! ;'-) (No joke!) The themes of grace and rebirth are so strong in Lieutenant Dan's story and you've really highlighted them well in this post. Awesome. :-) I don't care what people say about this film, yeah a little cheesy, a little on the nose, but still such a good film, with great themes! Will always be one of the greats.

    1. Thank you, Danielle! Tears in YOUR eyes?? WOW! hehe. ;-) Well it definitely brings tears to my eyes. Elena, Eric and I watched it again the other night and it's one of those movies I could watch over and over. I wanted to write a post about it last year on it's 20th anniversary but it didn't happen so I'm glad I got to this time. Yes, it will always be one of the greats even if it's a little sappy here or there, it's the right kind of sappy when it is. :-P

  2. Wow, Alexis, this was such a great post and character analysis! I had forgotten how beautiful and tear-jerking Dan's journey was. They don't make films with real stories like this very much anymore.

    1. Yeah, and what's more amazing is he isn't even the main character yet he was so well developed, everyone in this film is though. Good writing is what's needed for good productions! ;-)