Film Review: The Gilligan Manifesto

Quirky, whip-smart documentary posits "Gilligan's Island" as societal satire that addressed nuclear jitters and subconscious fears of having to rebuild after the apocalypse. Sound silly? It's not.
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Aside from being The Atomic Cafe for a new generation, The Gilligan Manifesto will have you seeing the 1964-67 CBS sitcom "Gilligan's Island" in a legitimately new way. Series creator Sherwood Schwartz often talked of how the critically lambasted show, about seven castaways on an uncharted tropical island, was designed as a comedic microcosm of society. After hearing the eloquent and entertaining case made here by filmmaker Cevin Soling, it turns out Schwartz may have been right all along.

For any of those reading this who have been living on an uncharted tropical island themselves, the series centered on a bumbling innocent, Gilligan (Bob Denver), first mate on a charter boat out of Hawaii that beached after a storm. Despite the best efforts by the boat's captain, called the Skipper (Alan Hale, Jr.), and the tourists on a planned three-hour cruise—millionaire Thurston Howell III (Jim Backus), his wife Lovey (Natalie Schafer), Hollywood starlet Ginger Grant (Tina Louise), farm girl Mary Ann Summer (Dawn Wells) and the generally unnamed Professor (Russell Johnson)—their efforts at rescue are constantly thwarted, often inadvertently by Gilligan. A surprising number of outsiders arrive and, for generally devious reasons, leave the group stranded there. While continuing to hold out hope, the seven castaways work together to feed, shelter and care for themselves.

Was this actually communism in practical action? The Gilligan Manifesto, offering a simple primer on the basics of communism and capitalism, waffles a bit in ultimately suggesting that, while the island society displays aspects of classical communism (food and other resources are shared), the group is more "guided by the spirit of camaraderie," whatever that means in political terms.

Where the film succeeds beautifully, however, is in framing the series as social satire. Arguing that the show addressed subconscious fears of nuclear annihilation—the first of two pilots was produced just a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis—and the prospect of rebuilding society post-apocalypse, The Gilligan Manifesto uses well-chosen episode clips to make a strong a case for the series as practically Pirandello.

In one episode, Gilligan finds a seeming treasure chest. Does it belong to him or or Mr. Howell, who was employing Gilligan to build a barbecue pit? The castaways determine a judicial system is needed to decide the case. Surprisingly sophisticated arguments arise: Gilligan wasn't yet paid, so how that does affect the employer-employee contract? The Skipper gives his friend Gilligan advice—is that witness tampering? Soon most everyone on the island demands justice for this slight or that, with threats of suits and countersuits. The Professor, chosen as judge, eventually decides that everything on the island has always been shared, and so, "by custom and usage," the chest belongs to them all—essentially communism.

In another episode that now seems extraordinarily prescient, the show satirizes government. Gilligan, despite no qualifications for the job, is elected president. Castaways currying favor turn to bribery and power jockeying. Howell says he's qualified to be chief justice because "The government has convicted me six times on antitrust suits, and I've been investigated every year for income-tax evasion." Says the Skipper admiringly, "Any man can stay out of jail with a record like that has got to know something about the law!" Sound familiar?

When the outside world does intrude, the documentary observes, it's often represented as corrupt and militaristic: a naval mine, a cache of bombs or irradiated seeds wash ashore, as do the flotsam and jetsam of society: criminals, power-seeking despots, exploiters and people so self-absorbed they leave behind the castaways.

Within this new light, episodes involving money, the class system, religion and other topics all seem to support Schwartz's lofty point. In an interview for the documentary, the series creator even says that originally he had thought of producing a two-hour satiric drama of a similar group that survives a nuclear apocalypse. (Johnson, who like Schwartz has since died, and Wells also are interviewed, along with three Harvard professors.)

The documentary is nicely filled out with what appear to be public-domain government footage and newsreel excerpts and the like, plus a bounty of nuclear-jitters novelty songs that I would love to have seen credited. A little research shows a couple of them are Prescott Reed's version of folk singer Tom Glazer's "Russia, Russia (Lay That Missile Down)" and "Fallout Shelter" by singer-actor Scott Peters (credited as Peter Scott Peters). There are also snippets of movie trailers for such nuclear-apocalypse exploitation films as Last Woman on Earth, all expressing in pop-culture terms the fearful zeitgeist of the times.

So just sit right back and you'll a hear a tale—and it's one well worth hearing, to remind us that history is always in danger of repeating itself. These are not reruns we want to watch.