May '68: the Legacy of 1968 (2022)

The turbulent summer of '68 heralded changes in movies - and culture - that still echo today, says Sukhdev Sandhu

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Did the May 1968 uprising began with a dispute about cinema?

One school of thought says it did, that the catalyst came three months earlier when Henri Langlois was sacked from his position as director of the Cinémathèque Française. Langlois had created the institution decades before and had made it into one of the world's finest film archives, personally saving titles such as Abel Gance's Napoléon from oblivion, keeping the place running through the dark years of the Nazi occupation, and curating adventurous programmes that inspired a generation of teenage cinephiles, among them Truffaut and Godard, to become film makers.

Langlois's dismissal, supported by Gaullist ministers, provoked widespread dismay. A 3,000-strong demonstration was broken up with excessive force by Parisian police officers. Directors, from Robert Bresson to Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, refused to allow their films to be screened at the auditorium that was intended to replace the Cinémathèque.

(Video) The legacy of May ‘68 - BBC Newsnight

An international cast of actors and playwrights, philosophers and artists - everyone from Katharine Hepburn to Samuel Beckett - exhorted the government to intervene. Rally after rally was organised, one of which featured Jean-Pierre Léaud, the lead actor in Truffaut's first masterpiece, Les 400 Coups (1959). Eventually, on May 2, Langlois reopened his cinema. The next day, student demonstrations filled the streets of the capital, and the rest is, well, history.

The most enthusiastic backer of this version of events may be Bernardo Bertolucci, who depicted Langlois' rise and fall in The Dreamers (2003) - which provides our cover. But even if the Italian director is indulging in sentimentality, he's absolutely right to think that cinema not only played an important part in fomenting the idealism and discontent that fuelled the combustions of 1968; it documented them, and tried hard for many years both to channel and embody the radical dissent, creative experimentation and utopian energies of those students and workers who brought Paris to a standstill.

All Power To The Imagination!, organised by Gareth Evans and Verena von Stackelberg, is a generous and ambitious two-month season of events dedicated to those much mythologised and still controversial times. Staged at galleries, churches, theatres and cinemas across London, it steers away from nostalgia and misty-eyed clichés - Danny the Red, Oz magazine - and suggests newer interpretations of what was at stake.

What it makes clear is that 1968 was not the start of a new era. The events of Paris had been prefigured by the protests that followed the slaughter by French police of hundreds of Algerians in 1961, a massacre which the government and the press had colluded in covering up. They had been prefigured by the hostility to the American campaign in Vietnam that inspired the resentment of the US military that was dramatized in Peter Brooks's Tell Me Lies (1968) and is echoed in much of the present-day hostility to the War On Terror. It had been prefigured by the national liberation movements of the kind depicted by Isaac Julien in Frantz Fanon: Black Skin White Mask (1996), his documentary about the author of the postcolonial classic The Wretched of the Earth.

Students have always been seen as the period's key agents and cultural galvanisers, not least because their stone-hurling, tight-sweatered antics appealed to picture editors. The 1960s saw a huge rise in the number of people entering higher education and universities being treated by politicians as a crucial cog in the industrial system. The art students featured in Patricia Holland's recently-exhumed documentary The Hornsey Film (1970) rail against the bureaucratisation of their degrees and what they see as the artificial gulf between themselves and their lecturers.

(Video) May 68: When France took a stand

Similarly, in Godard's little-known British Sounds (1969), Essex University students are shown debating revolutionary tactics as well as putting the Beatles under intellectual scrutiny. The film, commissioned and then banned by London Weekend Television, also features militant car-plant workers, a fist punching through the Union Flag, and a naked woman wandering around while an essay by the feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham is recited. Both it and The Hornsey Film were cine-essays as much as conventional documentaries.

1968, whether at the Sorbonne, the London School of Economics or Berkeley, did not initiate an era of campus rebellion; these had flared up in Mexico City, Dakar and Bogota throughout the 1960s. Students worldwide had been at the forefront of campaigns against police violence, state repression, racial segregation. At universities in the Dominican Republic and in Ecuador they were gunned down for protesting against dictatorial regimes.

In Pakistan, university radicals, with the help of the labour movement, played a pivotal role in toppling President Ayub Khan. Funeral Parade of Roses (1969), by Toshio Matsumoto, is an extraordinary response to the student-abetted cultural upheavals in Japan, which relocates Oedipus Rex to Tokyo's bacchanalian underground.

One could argue that, for artists as much as students, 1968 represented a battle over space. They wanted to free the imaginations of their fellow citizens, whose eyes they hoped to open to the increasingly homogeneous and consumerist nature of the society around them. This, as reflected in the Situationist slogan "Sous les pavés la plage" ("Underneath the pavement, the beach"), was a bold, almost surreal project.

It also involved coming up with a new geography of struggle: the barricade, the commune, the squat - semi-autonomous zones that allowed for both self-emancipation and collectivist social models. Even rock festivals, far from being solely about music, were visions, as fleeting but as important as chemically-induced dream-spaces, of an altered and sometimes sublime republic.

(Video) "All Power to the Imagination": Paris, May 1968: The Student Revolt

Adrian Henri's poem "Me", quoted by Jeff Nuttall in his book Bomb Culture (1968), captures the changed landscapes of the late 1960s in which the gaps between past and present, high and pop culture, avant-seriousness and ludic caper, no longer seemed as wide as they once had: Stephané Mallarmé and Alfred de Vigny Ernst Mayakovsky and Nicolas de Staël Hindemith Mick Jagger Dürer and Schwitters Garcia Lorca and last of all me.

The instabilities and euphoria of 1968 inspired directors in different ways. At that year's tempestuous Cannes festival, Godard told a critic: "I'm talking to you about solidarity, and you talk about tracking shots. You're a bastard!" In America, younger directors such as Scorsese, Coppola and Woody Allen all looked to Europe for inspiration. With the Hollywood studio system in decline, MGM, desperate for a slice of the revolutionary pie, decided to finance Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (1970).

Mark Harris, in his Pictures at a Revolution (reviewed on these pages last week), has argued that 1968 saw a face-off between old and new Hollywood, shown most vividly in the shortlist for that year's Oscar for Best Picture: Doctor Dolittle versus darker, more provocative fare such as The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde.

Many of the most adventurous American films rejected gloss, stuffiness, and "Hollywood values". They included Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool (1969), about a cameraman's responses to an increasingly febrile political climate; William Greaves's Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968), a self-reflexive examination of the relationship between directors, crews and actors; William Klein's Mr Freedom (1968), in which a jingoistic superhero is sent to rescue France from Communism; Robert Downey Senior's absurdist liberation holler Pound (1970), in which humans play the mutts at a New York dog home.

They embraced alienation, expressionism and freewheeling satire in their treatment of political themes. Hand-held cameras, non-professional casts, cinéma vérité techniques, docu-drama formats and bold use of music became commonplace. The results were sometimes muddled and hysterical, but rarely boring. The same was true here in England, with Lindsay Anderson's establishment-baiting If… (1968), Peter Whitehead's head-spinning The Fall (1969), and Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg's trippy Performance (1970).

(Video) 23. May 1968

Many cultural naysayers would argue that it's been downhill ever since. But the organisers of All Power To the Imagination! would disagree. Not only have they have programmed stunning new films such as Ulrich Seidl's Import/Export and Nicolas Klotz's Heartbeat Detector that are as innovative and shocking as any 40 years ago, they have invited philosophers, historians and activists to discuss their themes and spotlight examples of the revolutionary spirit in the present era.

It's clear from the playful, subversive work being produced by legions of hackers, interventionists and culture-jammers across the world that 1968 is a cluster of ideas rather than a singular event, a dynamic energy rather than a date to be commemorated. One could argue that 1968 - its interest in alternative media, democratization of expression, commitment to new forms and languages of art - is more visible and pertinent in 2008 than ever before.

The archive of the international underground - Brazilian Cinema Novo, site-specific art, cine tracts, revolutionary zines - has in recent years been recovered and made available in a new kind of space: that of the internet. There it exists as a resource and as a series of potential imaginative detonations for anyone who looks for or chances upon it. The speed and low cost of its digital distribution all across the world would have delighted many of those who were alive in 1968: the internet, and the "free culture" that it enables, represents a creative commons that make good on the dreams of 40 years ago.

As such, perhaps Jean-Paul Sartre was right when, reflecting in 1968 on the meaning of the spring uprisings, he argued: "What is important is that the action took place, at a time when everyone judged it to be unthinkable. If it took place, then it can happen again."

(Video) How May 1968 shaped our world


Why did students protest in 1968? ›

Multiple factors created the protests in 1968. Many were in response to perceived injustice by governments—in the USA, against the Johnson administration—and were in opposition to the draft, and the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War.

On what date of May 1968 did second Tuesday fall? ›

May 21, 1968 (Tuesday)

What did May 1968 achieve? ›

Well over a million people marched through Paris on that day; the police stayed largely out of sight. Prime Minister Georges Pompidou personally announced the release of the prisoners and the reopening of the Sorbonne. However, the surge of strikes did not recede. Instead, the protesters became even more active.

Why is 1968 a turning point? ›

The year 1968 is also described as the turning point in Americas history because of the civil rights movement, the anti-war protests, and the technological advancements made throughout this eventful year that would forever change America.

What was happening in 1968? ›

Other events that made history that year include the Vietnam War's Tet Offensive, riots in Washington, DC, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1968, and heightened social unrest over the Vietnam War, values, and race. The National Archives holds records documenting the turbulent time during 1968.

What day was Memorial Day on in 1968? ›

Johnson, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate Memorial Day, Thursday, May 30, 1968, as a day of prayer for permanent peace, and I designate the hour beginning in each locality at eleven o'clock in the morning of that day as a time to unite in such prayer.

How many days were there in 1968? ›

The year 1968 has 366 days.

What are the 5 themes of geography for Paris France? ›

5 Themes of Geography: Paris (Lidya) :) The five themes of geography are location, placement, human environment interaction, movement, and region.

What was the first cause of the French Revolution? ›

The French Revolution began in 1789 and lasted until 1794. King Louis XVI needed more money, but had failed to raise more taxes when he had called a meeting of the Estates General. This instead turned into a protest about conditions in France.

Who was the president of France in 1968? ›

President of the French National Committee
Name (Birth–Death)
-Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970)
2 more rows

What war started in 1968? ›

On January 30, 1968, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops launched the Tet Offensive against South Vietnamese and United States targets. The Tet Offensive became a major turning point in the Vietnam War.

What started the Vietnam War? ›

Gulf of Tonkin Incident. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, also known as the U.S.S. Maddox incident, marked the formal entry of the United States into the Vietnam War. “In the summer of 1964 the Johnson administration was laying secret plans for an expansion of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

What did students protest in the 1960s? ›

Student activist Marco Savio founded and led the Free Speech Movement, which spread across college campuses. Between 1960 and 1966, students initially protested civil rights, property, and campus issues before becoming active in the antiwar movement at the height of the Vietnam War.

What big events happened in 1968? ›

Other events that made history that year include the Vietnam War's Tet Offensive, riots in Washington, DC, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1968, and heightened social unrest over the Vietnam War, values, and race. The National Archives holds records documenting the turbulent time during 1968.

What were the 3 main protests of the 1960s? ›

All of the protest movements of the 1960s captured public attention and raised questions that were important to the nation. The civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the gay rights movement demanded that Americans consider equality for all citizens in the United States.

What was the largest protest against the Vietnam War? ›

The SDS March on Washington to End the War in Vietnam, held on April 17th, 1965, turned out to be the largest peace protest up to that point in American history, drawing between 15,000 and 25,000 college students and others to the nation's capital.

What was the 60's era called? ›

In the United States the Sixties were also called the "cultural decade" while in the United Kingdom (especially London) it was called the Swinging Sixties.

What made the 1960s such a turbulent decade? ›

The 1960s were one of the most tumultuous and divisive decades in world history, marked by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and antiwar protests, political assassinations and the emerging "generation gap."

What was the youth culture of the 1960s? ›

Young people who participated in the counterculture of the 1960s rejected many of the social, economic, and political values of their parents' generation, introduced greater informality into U.S. culture, and advocated changes in sexual norms.

What war started in 1968? ›

On January 30, 1968, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops launched the Tet Offensive against South Vietnamese and United States targets. The Tet Offensive became a major turning point in the Vietnam War.

Who was president in May 1968? ›

The following is a timeline of the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson from January 1, 1968, to January 20, 1969.

Who was assassinated in 1968? ›

Martin Luther King Jr.

How did 1960s change America? ›

The biggest social changes in the 1960s involved the fight for freedom and equality. Women fought for equal rights and equal pay, Black Americans fought against racial disparity, and pacifists rebelled against the Vietnam War.

What was life like in the 1960s? ›

The 1960s was a decade when hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans gave new life to the nation's democratic ideals. African Americans used sit-ins, freedom rides, and protest marches to fight segregation, poverty, and unemployment. Feminists demanded equal job opportunities and an end to sexual discrimination.

What were the 60s and 70s known for? ›

The 1960s and early 1970s represented a period of large scale protest in United States history. Recognizable movements during the period included the anti-Vietnam War campaign, the civil rights movement, women's liberation, the student movement, and last, but not least, the counterculture.

What famous people were against the Vietnam War? ›

Pages in category "American anti–Vietnam War activists"
  • Bernard Ades.
  • Stew Albert.
  • Muhammad Ali.
  • Herbert Aptheker.
  • Dwight Armstrong.

How many US soldiers died in Vietnam? ›

The Vietnam Conflict Extract Data File of the Defense Casualty Analysis System (DCAS) Extract Files contains records of 58,220 U.S. military fatal casualties of the Vietnam War.

Why did so many Americans oppose the Vietnam War? ›

Many Americans opposed the war on moral grounds, appalled by the devastation and violence of the war. Others claimed the conflict was a war against Vietnamese independence, or an intervention in a foreign civil war; others opposed it because they felt it lacked clear objectives and appeared to be unwinnable.


1. The inspiring legacy of May 1968 in France
(Green Left)
2. 'The key legacy of May 68 is the element of surprise'
(FRANCE 24 English)
3. The Legacy of May '68
(Tom Kelly)
4. The fading spirit of Paris May 1968
(Financial Times)
5. Talkin' about a revolution: France mulls legacy of May 68 protests
(FRANCE 24 English)
6. The Revolt of ‘68 | 1968
(Moments of History)

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