Does Stand By Me (1986) Mythologise the American 50s?

Critics have likely called Stand by Me ‘nostalgic’ and ‘sentimental’ due to its imagery of the 50s and its focus on the hope and possibility of childhood. Richard Corliss suggested that “Rob Reiner…knows which buttons to push on the nostalgia synthesizer: the movie is wallpapered with ‘50s artefacts and a terrific score of oldies.”[1], while William Bibbiani said the film “might as well be called ‘Nostalgia: The Movie’”[2]. Within the context of the wider political climate of Reagan’s America, there was a trend of American films mythologising the 50s, the most obvious example of which being Back to the Future. A return to post-war America would reflect an embrace of traditional morality and values, thereby ‘making America great again’. Stand by Me primarily rejects this trend. Its focus on the four boys, who reflect a hero’s journey of separation, initiation, and return, represents a significant possibility for the rejection of tradition. However, this possibility is lost by the conclusion of the film, wherein three of the four boys have either succumbed to the repressive Castle Rock environment or been killed after venturing from the town. The role of Castle Rock is crucial in the representation of the 50s, demonstrating the stagnation of a small town and the suppressive nature of its bitter and reserved adults. This leads to the central struggle of the film to focus on finding a dead body. Therefore, in spite of the hopeful children, Stand by Me does not mythologise the 50s through its critique of middle America repression.

Stand by Me reflects a trend in American film during the 1980s to directly compare their contemporary climate to that of the 50s. Politically, the theme of nostalgia for the 50s is seen throughout the 1980s, primarily as a result of the Reagan presidency and its resulting social climate. Through a promotion of traditional conservative values, Reagan himself was building his agenda on a return to the past, exemplified in his rhetoric of ‘make America great again’.  His 1980 campaign emphasized this, wherein “Reagan sought identify himself closely with traditionalist positions on the social issues.”[3] This climate is reflected in American film at this time of mythologising the 50s. For instance, Back to the Future (1985) features a literal return to the past through time travel, viewing the 50s through rose-tinted glasses; a time which held on to the traditional values promoted by Reagan. The central goal of Marty McFly’s journey is to restore his parents’ marriage and maintain the nuclear family that was perceived to have been lost in the 80s. While eventually he intends to return ‘back to the future’, it is through his experience in the 50s that he gains an understanding of American society, dragging those values into the present day. While watching the film with Reagan himself, Mark Weinberg described the story: “Marty journeys back to a simpler time—when patriotism mattered”[4]. He goes on to describe Reagan’s view of the film as “to recapture the grit and spirit of togetherness that helped win World War II and usher in the prosperity of the 1950s.”[5] Stand by Me also embodies a need to relive the experience of the 50s to process the present. The story is told from the perspective of an older Gordie writing after learning of Chris’ death. This theme could also be seen in the character of Denny Lachance, representing a lost hope of America. He is always shot in high exposure, evoking a hazy nostalgia. Gordie is constantly compared to Denny, both by his own family and strangers who knew Denny, such as the shopkeeper. Gordie is talked about as though he only exists as a comparison to Denny, indicating the present is always a disappointment when compared to the idealized 50s America. However, the use of Denny as a representation of 50s is also a critique of the desire to return to an idealized past. Denny is dead and thus cannot be brought back, emphasized by Gordie coming to terms with mortality by the end of the film. Thus, the past is impossible to return to, and holding onto it with no awareness of the present only furthers their culture of smothered emotions. Denny is therefore evidence that the film does not corroborate the Reagan mantra of ‘make America great again’. Thus, while the political and cultural climate of 80s America led to films desiring a return to the mythologised 50s, Stand by Me does not conform to this for a number of reasons.

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Firstly, the narrative of the death of Ray Brower dispels any sentimentality. The nature of the story focusing on seeking out death and addressing one’s own mortality is inherently not conducive to nostalgia. Heldreth identifies that the story is “at the literal level, a journey to see death.”[6] Tony Magistrale argues that “Ray Brower’s mutilated corpse comes to symbolize the dead world of adult society and, more specifically, Castle Rock’s morality.”[7] The ‘dead world of adult society’ is perhaps the most significant element to the film’s deconstruction of nostalgia, highlighting both the stifled environment of small-town 50s America and the attitudes of its adults. The environment of small-town America serves as a setting to reject any attempt to mythologise the American 50s. While it could be seen as idyllic through the lens of a simpler time, this is ultimately a façade, which fails to conceal entrenched repression and stagnation. This is evidenced through the desire of the four boys leaving the town in order to reach some truth about themselves and their lives. Children must escape this environment to understand and express themselves. The restricted and suppressive actions of those around them in Castle Rock serve to show that emotionality can only be achieved in the wilderness. Specifically, male vulnerability is not permitted in Castle Rock, as the choice to focus on four boys further emphasizes repression through a gendered approach. It is clear that the boys therefore feel no attachment to the town itself, as any idea of ‘belonging’ is only applicable to their friends, where “the four boys are united, at least in their sympathy for one another’s plight.”[8] This maintains an emotional centre in the story as they move out from the supposed safety of the town. Disillusionment with small-town life is present here, which forces finding a dead body to become an exciting adventure.

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Another aspect of this environment is the stagnation in the middle American Frontier experience. Firstly, the junkyard the boys pass through is “filled with all the American things that get empty, wear out, or just don’t work anymore”[9], demonstrating that holding on to objects and ideas of the past hinders further progress. This reflects the sluggish nature of Castle Rock as a town. Their “journey to escape is contrasted with inertia, stagnation, and images of drowning”[10], images which are utilized throughout both the novella and film. Chris emphasizes that he, Teddy and Vern will drag Gordie down from becoming a writer, the only one of the four who is seen as being able to break free from Castle Rock, saying “They’re like drowning guys that are holding onto your legs…You can only drown with them.”[11] Symbolically, the pond in the forest threatens drowning, while also filled with leeches, able to suck the life from our characters. The linear nature of most of their journey furthers this concept. Following the rail of established path does not allow for significant progress to be made, while moving into wilderness forces them to address their issues and talk openly about their lives.

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More evidently, a significant critique of the American 50s is in the representation of adults. Distant or abusive parents show the corruption of adulthood. The cruelty and disillusionment of the older boys and Ace also demonstrates how early this corruption occurs. Each of the boys elucidate this corruption through their own experiences. Chris’s story of stealing money from the school is a strong example of this: “Who would have believed him if he had told on the teacher, an impeccable figure of authority, who grabbed her chance and spent the money on herself?”[12] Here it is suggested that not only are adolescents not protected and cared for by the adults of Castle Rock, they are judged and taken advantage of for the benefit of those adults. Additionally, “Teddy’s disfigured ears and hearing impairment stand as a constant reminder that sometimes the person entrusted with a child’s well-being might also present the greatest threat to it.”[13] Teddy’s is perhaps the most vivid example of parental abuse. Not only is the physical damage obvious, the psychological impact of this treatment leaves Teddy still idolizing his father in spite of his violence, along with attempts to risk his own life to repeat the perceived heroism of his father’s past. The boys’ own friendship is therefore “necessary for them to establish non-familial bonds.”[14], as “an alternative to the sterility of their families and the larger corruption of their community”[15]. The treehouse is a significant instance of this, serving as a “necessary refuge from the irrationalities of Castle Rock parents”[16] and a symbol of isolation from the outside world. As a structure it is both whimsical in its appearance to reflect their child-like experience, while also a fortress in which they can be protected from adulthood. The environment of Castle Rock therefore removes any opportunity for a nostalgic, mythologised view of the 50s through a culture of stagnation and repression perpetuated by distant and cruel adults.

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While Stand by Me presents a strong critique of the specific small town experience of 50s America, the film does mythologise the past to a certain extent, emphasizing feelings of hope and possibility. The dreams and innocence of youth in the 1950s is the primary source of nostalgia and sentimentality. In many ways, Stand by Me focuses on the loss of innocence for these children; their entrance into adulthood. However, this is not as cynical as it could first appear, due to their rejection of the establishment and resisting being “bogged down by the spirit-corrupting concerns of adulthood.”[17] Innocence is seen in the symbolism of the deer, suggesting that despite the journey towards death, there is still beauty along the established track. The emphasis on this as a significant moment in the film promotes this wistful purity. Additionally, this is demonstrated by the strength of bonds between friends. They are often protective of each other, with Chris looking after Gordie because his parents are unable to give him the care and attention he needs. While their forming of caring bonds outside of parental relationships could be seen as an indictment of the adults of Castle Rock, it could equally show the maturity and agency of the boys themselves. Brought together, “the four boys are united, at least in their sympathy for one another’s plight.”[18] The closing line of the film is bittersweet in saying “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anybody?”[19] This is perhaps the most nostalgic line in the film, looking back with fondness. On the other hand, they are not all able to maintain this feeling of hope. Teddy still “tried several times to get into the Army” and then “spent some time in jail”. Vern “is now the forklift operator at the Arsenal Lumberyard.” [20] Only Chris and Gordie escape Castle Rock, with Chris becoming a lawyer. Even this does not earn a happy ending. “Chris who would always make the best peace tried to break it up. He was stabbed in the throat. He died almost instantly.”[21] This cynicism suggests the corruption of adulthood is not restricted to Castle Rock, as escape from this does not guarantee freedom from brutality.

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The boys also represent the traditional narrative of the hero’s journey, through which they reject tradition.  Each of the boys must rebuff the judgement imposed on them by their town and its adults. Heldreth identifies that “for each of the boys, home has become a limitation. Teddy fights against being labelled the son of a ‘looney’ by Milo Pressman, Vern rejects being treated like a juvenile delinquent because of his brothers, Chris rejects his brothers and his father, and Gordon withdraws from his family that ignores him.”[22] Through this journey, they are able to move beyond what is prescribed to them according to their town or family, escaping the imposed restriction. By being “prepared to traverse into the world of experience”, they are “leaving their innocence behind.”[23] Magistrale identifies the “standard plot of the hero’s adventure… by the processes of separation, initiation and return”[24] Through their rejection of what has gone before and their embrace of future self-determination, they embody this hero’s journey. The ‘separation’ is evident in the beginning of the film, with the boys’ departure from Castle Rock. Their ‘initiation’ is the main feature of their narrative, as throughout the film there are a number of obstacles they must overcome, beyond simply that of escaping the Castle Rock environment. For instance, Chopper the dog could be seen as a mythical beast, with its reputation known around Castle Rock. Although the reality is not as dramatic, the boys still feel as though they have escaped the beast, and thus overcome this obstacle, bringing them closer together. At this point, Teddy has to be comforted by the other boys and Gordie says “I’m not sure it should be a good time.”[25] They have therefore not only grown closer through this initiation, but they have also gained a deeper understanding of, and maturity towards, their journey. This is concluded when Gordie is able to successfully intimidate Ace, where “they clearly depart the scene as the victors”, at which point “the hero’s initiation phase is completed, and now he can return home.”[26]

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Through his storytelling, Gordie is able to combat the repression; his story exposing the truth beneath this illusion. There are clear parallels between Gordie and Lardass Hogan, both of whom feel trapped by their environment and viewed as an outsider by the rest of their community. Gordie believes he can see through the hypocrisy of Castle Rock and middle America, allowing his own character to act on this, with “the greatest revenge idea a kid ever had.”[27] Hogan has the ability to express himself, and thus expose everyone around him, violently deconstructing their tradition through a cathartic rejection. Naturally, Gordie frames this in a fashion which is somewhat more juvenile and accessible for his friends, but the extensive description of each person in the crowd ‘barfing’ on others shows his desire for everything to be exposed and pain to be inflicted on those who have ‘othered’ him. Gordie’s rejection of his environment through his stories is indicative of the boys’ ability to overcome the stagnant 50s culture, contributing to the nostalgic memory of past hope. However, these themes are mostly lost by the conclusion of the film, with the maturity they have gained corrupting the innocence they once felt. It is therefore suggested that nostalgia for an idealized past is still not constructive even when shown through the eyes of hopeful children, as their environment will always corrupt that hope.

In conclusion, while Stand by Me does not engage in a nostalgic or sentimental mythologising of the American 50s, it does idealize the concept of the past. The conservative climate of 80s America provided films which exhibited a desire to return to a mythologised 50s. Stand by Me primarily resists this trend through a deconstruction of small-town America. Overall, it is deeply critical of 50s America, as seen through the eyes of the four boys and their experience with their parents and other adults, encompassed in this middle America environment. Despite the idyllic façade, life is stagnant and repressive, and only by escaping this can the four boys learn about themselves and each other. However, it takes a more positive stance when representing adolescence and the boys themselves. They are hopeful, positive and open with each other, allowing for what has been repressed by those around them to be revealed and discussed. Through this process, they symbolize a better future for America. This shows the idealization of a past time where there was aspiration and desire for progression. This possibility does embody a desire to return to the past, but not necessarily the past of the 50s, allowing the film to be able to stir feelings of nostalgia for a forgotten youth. However, even this positivity is mostly spurned by the close of the film, wherein only two of the boys are able to escape Castle Rock, with Chris ultimately dying even after his escape. The film is therefore critical of both the American 50s and the contemporary desire of the 80s to return to that time.

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[1] Richard Corliss, ‘Cinema: No Slumming in Summertime’ (Time, 1986), http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,962128-2,00.html [Accessed 2/4/2019]

[2] William Bibbiani, (The Wrap, 2019), https://www.thewrap.com/every-stephen-king-movie-ranked-worst-to-best-photos/ [Accessed 2/4/2019]                                                                                         

[3] Reichley, A. James. “The Conservative Roots of the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan Administrations.” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 96, no. 4, 1981, pp. 537–550. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2149893.

[4] Mark Weinberg, ‘What I Learned Watching Back to the Future with Ronald Reagan’ https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/02/27/ronald-reagan-press-aide-movie-nights-with-reagan-217095 [Accessed 3/4/2019]

[5] Ibid. 

[6] Leonard Heldreth, The Gothic World of Stephen King, p.65

[7] Tony Magistrale, Landscape of Fear, ‘Voyage to Selfhood and Survivial’ (1988), p. 95

[8] Tony Magistrale, Landscape of Fear, ‘Voyage to Selfhood and Survivial’ (1988), p. 92

[9] Stephen King, The Body, p. 345                                                                

[10]Leonard Heldreth, The Gothic World of Stephen King (1987), p. 66

[11] Stephen King, The Body, p.380                   

[12] Stand by Me (Rob Reiner, 1986)

[13] Korinna Csetenyi, ‘Fall from Innocence: Stephen King’s The Body’, http://americanaejournal.hu/vol5no2/csetenyi [Accessed 1/4/2019]

[14] Korinna Csetenyi, ‘Fall from Innocence: Stephen King’s The Body’, http://americanaejournal.hu/vol5no2/csetenyi [Accessed 1/4/2019]

[15] Tony Magistrale, Landscape of Fear, ‘Voyage to Selfhood and Survivial’ (1988), p. 94

[16] Joseph Reino, Stephen King: The First Decade, Carrie to Pet Sematary (1988), p. 131

[17] Jonathan Davis, Stephen King’s America ‘Childhood and Rites of Passage’ (1994), p. 48

[18] Tony Magistrale, Landscape of Fear, ‘Voyage to Selfhood and Survivial’ (1988), p. 92

[19] Stand by Me (Rob Reiner, 1986)                                                                  

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Leonard Heldreth, The Gothic World of Stephen King (1987), p. 66

[23] Jonathan Davis, Stephen King’s America ‘Childhood and Rites of Passage’ (1994), p. 56

[24] Tony Magistrale, Stephen King: The Second Decade (1992), p. 30

[25] Stand by Me (Rob Reiner, 1986)

[26] Korinna Csetenyi, ‘Fall from Innocence: Stephen King’s The Body’, http://americanaejournal.hu/vol5no2/csetenyi [Accessed 1/4/2019]

[27] Stand by Me (Rob Reiner, 1986)