I hope that many of you have witnessed the beautiful cinematic perfection that is the 2007 film “Across the Universe.” If you haven’t, I highly suggest dropping whatever you are doing and watching it right now. It’s worth it. (I might be slightly biased considering the story unfolds through covers of Beatles songs, but it also stars Jim Sturgess and Joe Anderson, so who can have a problem with that?)
This movie tells the story of several protagonists who get wrapped up in the hippie counterculture movement of the 1960’s. One of the main characters is Max Carrigan (his namesake is Maxwell’s Silver Hammer off of Sgt. Pepper), who drops of out of Princeton University and moves to New York City with his friend, Jude (Hey….Jude). Since Max is no longer enrolled in college, he receives a draft notice and must report to an Army health screening. This happens through the song I Want You (She’s So Heavy). You can watch the clip of this scene here.
When Max walks into the building, he sees the famous “I Want You (for the U.S. Army)” poster. Uncle Sam sings “I want you…I want you so bad” and reaches out to him beyond the paper. I think the motion of Uncle Sam lunging forward looks as if he is fiercely trying to grab Max, making Uncle Sam seem overbearing and forceful. This aligns with the counterculture’s distrust of their “tyrannical” government, and Max trying to run away represents the counterculture’s resistance to the draft.
However, through the song, Max cannot keep running away and the army men gain increasing control over him. One brilliant way that the creators of Across the Universe demonstrate this transfer of power is through the choreography in the song. Each new recruit pairs with a current soldier. The dance begins with both men staging a fist fight (fighting for dominance), but the current soldiers eventually knock the recruits to the floor (soldiers winning control) where the recruits start army crawls and push-ups while the current soldiers stand over them, making them lift their feet from time to time. The soldiers fling the recruits over their shoulders and onto a conveyor belt that carries the recruits to the next level. I think the sequence of choreography in this scene does an excellent job representing the power struggle between draft-dodgers and the government during the Vietnam War.
Later in the song, just in time for the first time they sing “She’s so heavy,” the movie shows the new draftees marching over a barren jungle, carrying the Statue of Liberty. They are wearing only white underwear and shoes. The choice in clothing makes the recruits seem vulnerable and ill-prepared, which is another complaint the counter culture movement (and even those not affiliated with the movement) maintained about the soldiers who were sent to Vietnam. The boys carrying the State of Liberty represents these men carrying the burden of America’s choices on their backs. At this point in the song, the beat is repetitive, heavy, and slow, making the march seem exceedingly arduous. Therefore, I think this sequence accurately represents the grueling duty American soldiers were forced to carry out against their will in Vietnam.