Mike Nichols’ 1967 film The Graduate entertained American audiences with its stark portrayal of seduction, betrayal, and inter-generational conflict, ultimately winning Nichols the Academy Award for Best Director. The film seemed to speak to the political and social events of the era, and its message of youthful escape from the dictates of the old guard resonated with a generation of young people growing up in the midst of “The Greatest Generation’s” stunning failure to live up to the ideas that supposedly defined their generation. However, a close look at the film’s plot alongside the mis-en-scene of dramatic final scene reveals that far from offering a message of rebellion or escape, The Graduate just reinforces conservative ideology by celebrating the concept of marriage and chastity. Ultimately, The Graduate turns out to be nothing more than a slickly produced piece of conservative propaganda, using the themes of the 1960s’ emerging sub-cultures in order to mask its own destructive message.
To begin one may note the almost ridiculous piety with which the film views the institution of marriage. Mrs. Robinson is made into a villain due to her decision to have sex outside of her marriage, and the film presents her and Ben’s relationship as a one-sided seduction, even though they do not actually act on their desires until Ben initiates a second meeting. That the older, sexually-active woman is made into a villain is simply one element of the film’s otherwise mundane recreation of sexism, but criticizing all the instances of the film’s sexism is well beyond the scope of this study. Furthermore, while the film’s closing does present a tense climax with Ben racing to the wedding, the fact that the film treats the wedding as some kind of final, impassible deadline only serves to reinforce the idea that marriage is somehow sacred, instead of a left-over of a time when the laws for owning property were based on family bonds.
However, while the film’s plot reinforces the idea of marriage and chastity as things worth preserving, the worst example of its conservative ideology that pretends to pass itself off as something progressive or counter-cultural comes in the final scene, when Ben and Elaine make their escape. Essentially, the film presents the couple as a pair of updated, modern saints, whose pure love helps them escape from the clutches of a perverted old guard. In other words, Ben and Elaine are not here to replace previous ideas with something new, but rather to purify an idea that has been corrupted by materialism and greed. Thus, their dissatisfaction with the lives their parents have planned for them does not stem from a genuine rejection of outdated ideals, but rather from a desire to return to a more rigid conception of behavior that does not allow for decadence or pleasure and replaces the “materialistic and contrived” with an equally-contrived spirituality (Beuka 13).
The first clue that the film is presenting Ben and Elaine as purified symbols of a conservative idealization of chastity and marriage comes when Ben is trying to make his way to the wedding and his car runs out of gas. Up until this point he has held on to the trappings of the materialistic world of his parents even as he wishes to escape it, but when his car runs out of gas, he must get out and run. In a sense, he is undergoing a kind of purification ritual, as the physical trial of running to the church purges him of any connection to his previous life.
When Ben arrives at the top of the church, banging his hands on the glass and shouting Elaine’s name, the audience is shown that this trial was successful, and he has transitioned into a more purified person. The film shows him in a wide shot, standing at the top of church, while his khaki outfit appears a bright white in the light of the sun and his outstretched arms give him the appearance of a saint in supplication, or even Jesus himself. Before he starts shouting, Ben actually says “Oh Jesus God,” and closes his eyes in what could easily be interpreted as a silent prayer. Like an angel descending from heaven, he appears in the sky to rescue the virginal Elaine from the crowd of black-clad onlookers, including Mrs. Robinson, whose villainously “untamed” nature is demonstrated by the animal fur lining her outfit. The idea of the two young lovers as divinely-blessed representatives of an older, purer world is continued when they make their escape out of the church as Ben swings a cross around, warding off the wedding guests like a priest trying to keep back a pack of vampires.
The final close-up shots of Ben and Elaine sitting the back of the bus, their smiles fading to looks of worry, completes the saintly picture of the two by suggesting that they have chosen the more difficult path, in the same way that the road to heaven is supposed to be much narrower than the road to hell. Though the road will be hard, they have succeeded in escaping from the corrupted world of their parents, even going so far as to take public transit instead of a car, which would be a far more materialist mode of escape. However, while the final shot of the bus pulling away into the distance attempts to give the audience the impression that Ben and Elaine are moving forward into the unknown, in reality they are simply going backwards, to a time when religion and marriage were considered more sacred than anything else.
With this in mind it becomes clear why Ben absolutely has to “save” Elaine before she consummates her marriage. Because Ben and Elaine are representative of an older, destructive idea that celebrates the arbitrary and restricting institution of marriage, and thus if Ben were to come to Elaine after she had consummated her marriage they could no longer reinforce the supposed sanctity of marriage as such. Mrs. Robinson is a villain precisely because she violates her marriage, and so in order to become the heroes of the story Ben and Elaine must make their escape before their actions might violate a marriage in the same way.
The most offensive part of the whole thing is the way the film tries so hard to present its conservative ideas as something progressive or forward-looking, in line with the social movements of the time. An uncritical viewing of the film might see Ben’s disruption of the marriage as a means of criticizing the institution, but this is merely what the film would like its audience to think even as it reinforces that institution. In the climax of the film, it is not the marriage that is the problem, but rather the way in which the older generation has seemingly corrupted the institution by reducing it to nothing more than a social and economic transaction. The irony of the film is that the villainized adults are really just bringing marriage back to original, “traditional” definition, but because they have not taken any pains to pretend that the marriage is anything more than this, they must be punished. The sanctity of marriage depends not only on its being a way to control people, but also on people pretending that the ritual and its legal consequences have anything to do with love or devotion. Thus, Ben and Elaine are the representatives of this “true” tradition, because they maintain the importance of marriage and the fiction that it is anything other than a cruel left-over from society’s long history of repression and ignorance.
Having examined how the film’s plot and mis-en-scene contribute to its representation of marriage, one can easily understand how The Graduate essentially uses the counter-cultural movements of its era in order to reinforce and perpetuate outdated, repressive ideas of sexuality and behavior. Ben and Elaine are not arbiters of some new, liberating movement, but rather the representatives of a conservative idea that must punish the previous generation for failing to adequately maintain its fictions. Ultimately, the importance of The Graduate within film history is a testament to its sheer propagandistic power, and it is a perfect example of the way in which destructive, repressive ideas adopt the look and feel of their challengers in order to maintain power.