During my childhood, I was a big fan of Gilligan’s Island, being young enough to enjoy Bob Denver’s silliness and old enough to appreciate Tina Louise’s sexiness. Little did I know that I wasn’t watching a mere sitcom but rather a sophisticated satire of capitalist societies and an allegory about survival in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse. At least that’s the driving theory of Cevin Soling’s The Gilligan Manifesto, which has the feel of an overambitious college thesis.
You immediately know that the documentary purports to be much more than a fan appreciation when it begins with footage of J. Robert Oppenheimer and atomic bomb tests. The television show’s familiar theme song is delivered in full during the animated opening credits, followed by the explanation that Gilligan and Mary Ann were the only characters mentioned by name because they were members of the working class.
As silly as it sounds.
The show “played on the subconscious fear of nuclear annihilation,” the narrator intones as we see vintage clips from such nuclear-themed sci-fi and horror films of the period as The Last Man on Earth. Several theories about the series are then presented, including one in which the characters are supposed to personify the seven deadly sins. Apparently, however, that fanciful notion doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
But others are treated more seriously, such as the idea that the series “lampoons capitalist exploitation” through the hapless Gilligan who is constantly being taken advantage of by the rapacious, upper-class Thurston Howell III. Or that the show satirizes the three branches of government, and that it explores “corrupt power dynamics.” Lengthy clips from the series are used to illustrate the lofty points, with the film divided neatly into chapters featuring such titles as “Commodification and Alienation of Labor.”
As you might guess from the title, communism is a key source of inspiration for the humor, with the Professor weighing in on the subject in an episode involving the castaways discovering gold on the island. Among the other historical topics that apparently figured heavily on the mind of creator Sherwood Schwartz are the Red Scare and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The film includes brief interviews with Schwartz, along with castmembers Russell Johnson and Dawn Wells (Schwartz and Johnson have since died). None of their commentary is particularly revelatory, although Schwartz readily admits his more ambitious intentions for the show and seems to be delighting in it finally being taken seriously. Several Harvard professors also weigh in, making you wonder about the university’s curriculum.
While its pseudo-academic subject matter might have made for a reasonably amusing short, the documentary wears out its welcome long before reaching its final arguments. The intellectual posturing, although admittedly seeming to be borne out by some of the clips, proves tiresome and repetitive. As if to pad out the running time, the filmmaker includes enough archival footage to fill a documentary just on the historical period being discussed. And the clips from the sitcom, while certainly fun to revisit, go on way too long.
Strictly for the most obsessive fans of the series, The Gilligan Manifesto mainly demonstrates the pitfalls of intellectuals having too much time on their hands.
Distributor: Cinemaflix Distribution
Director-screenwriter-producer-executive producer: Cevin Soling
Editor: Joe Davenport