The Gilligan Manifesto


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Gilligan Manifesto
"Soling's own argument is stronger than these but only if one considers the series as propaganda flying so far beneath the radar that one wonders how much influence it could actually have."

If you wanted to have a sensible discussion of Marxist ideas, let's face it, the USA in 1964 is not the first place you'd go. Even West Germany in the 1980s would probably approach the subject more calmly. Much research has shown, however, that people in the US are quite positive about a lot of left wing concepts as long as they're not presented in a political context. Herein, according to filmmaker Cevin Soling, lies the secret of Gilligan's Island.

First aired between 1964 and 1967 and rerun on syndication almost continually since, this fluffy little sitcom is unlikely to seem revolutionary to the Lost generation. Nevertheless Soling argues - with some degree of support from archive footage and from creator Sherwood Schwartz himself - that using it as a platform to present Marxist ideas was always the intention, and indeed the furious way that some viewers have responded to this seems like a good argument in its favour. What's not addressed, however, is how meaningful any of this is. To put it simply, aren't the concepts and values that Soling introduces rather more universal anyway? Some of them certainly pre-date Marx; some might as easily be presented as Biblical. What's interesting about them is not any innate clash with US culture but, rather, the way they sit at odds with how the US imagines its culture.

Copy picture

Perhaps all of this seems a bit much to read into a simple sitcom about seven people who are marooned on an island and attempt to build their own society whilst contending with various visitors, unexpected objects washing ashore and, in one case, the imminent threat of being nuked. Okay, that last example might hint at a political streak, but overall this is the very gentlest of social satires. Archetypes like the elitist wealthy couple and the dim, self-absorbed starlet have been the stuff of US comedy ever since the country was first constituted. Admitting this weakness, Soling spends an entertaining 20 minutes looking at other theories as to what the series is really about. It's easy to make something of a case for most of them, but equally easy to pick holes - a good lesson for conspiracy theorists.

Soling's own argument is stronger than these but only if one considers the series as propaganda flying so far beneath the radar that one wonders how much influence it could actually have. Whilst the film does look at the legacy of McCarthyism it would be interesting to go into this in more depth. Instead we spend an awful lot of time watching clips which doubtless have nostalgic value for some viewers and serve well enough to illustrate Soling's points, but basically keep telling us the same thing.

This is a film most likely to appeal to fans of the series - provided they don't consider it too irreverent - or to those who are drawn to what it has to say about theory-building, the intersection of the political with the cultural or the value of obfuscation in art, rather than the central theory in itself.

Reviewed on: 20 Dec 2018
Share this with others on...
The Gilligan Manifesto packshot
A documentary arguing that Gilligan's Island was intended to sell the idea of Marxism to Americans.

Director: Cevin Soling

Writer: Cevin Soling

Starring: Dawn Wells, Russell Johnson, Sherwood Schwartz, Rennie Davis

Year: 2018

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: US


Search database: