“Steinbeck's The Forgotten Village”
by Dr. Susan Shillinglaw, San Jose State University
Steinbeck’s desire to work on a movie without any involvement from Hollywood, together with his love for Mexico, led to the controversial 1941 “semi-documentary” The Forgotten Village. The film was produced in 1940, after several discussions with Herbert Kline, Paul de Kruif, and Pare Lorentz, on a budget of $35,000. Steinbeck’s fascination with themes that convey a strong social message is obvious in The Forgotten Village, where the central figure is a boy who detaches himself from an archaic society dominated by superstitions and joins a world of reason and scientific progress. The boy comes to the realization that education is the only tool that can help break the wall of ignorance that separates the remote village from the rest of the world, and can ultimately save the members of the small community from suffering and death. As Jackson Benson points out, Steinbeck’s previous contact with the migrant camps, his witnessing of the terrible life conditions that could have easily been prevented, play an important role in the writer’s rendition of the clash between two very different ways of thinking and living.
Unlike his friend Ed Ricketts, whose focus is on “non-teleological thinking,” on acceptance and contemplation of things as they are, Steinbeck is more inclined towards action and change where necessary. In Ed Rickett’s view, to intervene into the life of the village, even though for a good cause, means to interrupt the flow of a different time, to alter the structure of a unique society. Modernity is at odds with this traditional way of life, so one should abstain from introducing anything foreign into the lives of the villagers, if one wanted to preserve their identity. For Steinbeck, progress is important, as long as it does not become an end in itself, as long as it does not lead to a dehumanized world. The reaction to the movie was rather negative. In late October 1941, Steinbeck writes to Mrs. Roosevelt in order to thank her for her “help in the matter of the censorship of The Forgotten Village”: “I detest the application of the words ‘inhuman’ and ‘indecent’ to this film. It seemed to me that it was undertaken and carried out with considerable purity of motive”(A Life in Letters 235). The New York State Board of Censors had indeed called the movie “indecent”, and the America First Committee saw in it a ratification of socialism. The “indecency” consisted, according to the censors, in a child birth scene, as well as a scene of the mother nursing the infant. But as Steinbeck points out: “In the picture there is no nudity. No suggestiveness and no actual birth is shown. The indecent fact which seems to have upset the board is that child birth is painful in primitive communities where there is no medical care, not only painful but dangerous”(John Steinbeck, Writer 490). The Board of Censors consequently banned the movie until later that fall, when, as Jackson Benson notes, the movie was finally released. It definitely impressed the critics, but it was not widely distributed. In spite of all the controversy, Steinbeck would always be proud of The Forgotten Village.