Forrest Gump, released in 1994, is perhaps the best-known movie to feature the city of Savannah. Starring Tom Hanks, and directed by Robert Zemeckis, the story of Forrest’s eventful life was the highest grossing film of that year at the North American box office, and at the time the fourth highest grossing film ever (not accounting for inflation) after ET, Star Wars IV and Jurassic Park.
Although set in Alabama, most of the film was shot in Georgia and South Carolina. Among its most iconic scenes are those in which Forrest recounts his extraordinary life-story to passersby, seated on a bench at a bus stop. Those scenes were filmed in Savannah’s Chippewa Square, which has remained a draw for tourists visiting the city ever since the movie’s release.
Forrest Gump’s opening scene is of a white feather, floating gently downwards from the sky. The first view of Savannah is not of Chippewa, but of Madison Square, the St John’s Episcopal Church and Scottish Rites Building in the background.
The film then makes an invisible cut to the scene on Chippewa, the feather seen floating in front of the steeple of the Independent Presbyterian Church and then across the street, the First Baptist Church in the background. It finally lands at the feet of Forrest Gump, seated at a bench beside a bus stop on the north side of Chippewa Square, the monument to Georgia’s founder just visible behind him.
Throughout the movie, Forrest is shown speaking to other people waiting for the bus, recounting each chapter of his life to a different fellow passenger.
The Forrest Gump production came to Savannah in the fall of 1993. Although only portions of Forrest’s narration are shown on screen, Tom Hanks performed it in its entirety seated on the bench in Chippewa Square, so that director Zumeckis could cut to whichever parts he wanted when putting the scenes of the movie together.
The flow of traffic around the square had to be reversed in order to make the setting work. Traveling in the regular, counter-clockwise direction, the bus’s doors would open on the other side of the street, rather than toward the bench’s location on the square.
A few other minor elements of the film were made in Savannah. The diner in which Jenny works is Debi’s Restaurant on the north-west of nearby Wright Square. The restaurant’s association with the movie is heavily commemorated in its front window. Additional scenes were filmed on West Bay Street, and at Love’s Seafood Restaurant off US Highway 17 near Richmond Hill, at the bridge over the Ogeechee River.
Most of the filming for Forrest Gump took place in South Carolina, with additional scenes, besides those in Savannah, filmed in North Carolina, Virginia and California. The vicinity of Beaufort, SC, around 40 miles from Savannah, provided many of the film’s locations.
Varnville, SC stood in for Forrest’s fictional hometown of Greenbow, Alabama. The Gump family residence, though, was not an existing house but a purpose-made set, built on the grounds of Bluff Plantation, situated on the bank of the Combahee River near Yemassee, SC. As the house was not built to the required residential code, it was torn down after production was complete.
The little church at which Forrest later prayed for shrimp, however, is real: it is the 1833 Stoney Creek Independent Presbyterian Chapel, a few miles west of Yemassee.
The Mississippi River bridge on which Forrest is interviewed by a TV crew is the Woods Memorial Bridge, just south of Beaufort’s Historic District. Even the Vietnam War scenes were filmed in South Carolina, on Fripp and Hunting Islands, the mountains added later with CGI.
Many visitors to Savannah go to Chippewa Square hoping to take a photograph with the movie’s emblematic bench. It is not, however, an original feature of the square, whose real-life benches are all situated in its interior, not the perimeter.
The bench used in the movie was a prop, fashioned out of fiberglass (to mimic cement) and wood slats and placed on the northern edge of the square, where the Chippewa Square sign stands today. To the disappointment of countless visitors, there is no bench to be seen there now.
Despite its absence, interest in the spot has at times been so intense that the area was once roped off, to prevent trampling by people eager to document their visit to the Forrest Gump bench’s location. So far, the city has not seen fit to place a real bench to replicate the fake one in the famous spot on Chippewa Square.
The original bench is no longer in Savannah at all, although there is a copy of it in the Savannah History Museum. In fact, there are several benches in existence.
Keen observers will have noticed that the bench on which Forrest sat in Chippewa Square is not the same as the one used in the movie’s publicity and poster art. The Chippewa Square bench is double width, just under 10 feet wide; the poster bench is single width, around 7 feet wide.
Paramount, the studio responsible for Forrest Gump, states that these were the only two props used in the production of the movie. Subsequent to the film’s release, the studio made additional, replica, benches to distribute as gifts to those involved with its making. Several were given to the movie’s numerous Oscar nominees, and another was shipped to Savannah.
The original copy of the longer bench resides on the Paramount lot in Los Angeles, where it is viewable on public tours. The shorter bench used in the movie’s publicity was scheduled to be offered at auction by Christie’s of New York in June 1995, but the sale did not go ahead. Its present location is unknown.
Some copies of the longer bench – their provenance not entirely clear – are still in circulation. One, the property of a Texan music producer and memorabilia collector, featured in a 2012 episode (titled “Auctions Are Like a Box of Chocolates”) of the TV show Hollywood Treasures. Another bench, said to have been acquired directly from Paramount in the mid 1990s, was sold at auction in 2013 for the sum of $25,000.
The only time the real bench was in Savannah was for the brief period of actual filming, after the completion of which it was removed. City officials had hoped to receive the original prop, but were obliged to content themselves with one of the several replicas. It was unveiled in June 1995 at the Savannah History Museum, where it remains on display to this day.