ALL MY SONS
SUBJECTS — U.S./1941 – 1991; Drama/U.S.;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Crime; Marriage; Father/Son; Suicide;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Responsibility; Citizenship.
AGE: 13+; No MPAA Rating;
Drama; 1948; 95 minutes; B & W. Available from Amazon.com.
This play is a classic of the American theater. It explores themes that are interesting to teenagers, and it was written to be read as well as performed. TeachWithMovies.org recommends reading the play or seeing it on stage. It does not recommend the 1948 version of the movie. This Guide is designed to assist in preparing a lesson plan for reading the play or watching a performance.
“All My Sons” is not considered Arthur Miller’s best play but it’s a great work of art nonetheless. It captivates the audience and reader alike. It has multiple layers of meaning dealing with universal themes. It provides social perspectives and psychological insights and poses interesting ethical questions.
MOVIE WORKSHEETS & STUDENT HANDOUTS
TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.
Teachers can modify the worksheets to fit the needs of each class.
Additional ideas for lesson plans for this movie can be found at TWM’s guide to Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.
Joe Keller spent his life building his company so that his two sons wouldn’t have to start at the bottom and his family would have a comfortable life. During World War II he obtained lucrative contracts from the Army to build cylinder heads for fighter plane engines, but one batch turned out defective. It was too late to make new ones. He would lose his military contracts and the company if he didn’t deliver the engine parts on time. The play explores the results of his decision about shipping the defective cylinder heads.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Edward G. Robinson, Burt Lancaster, Maidy Christians and Louisa Horton.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
All My Sons illustrates many dramatic and literary devices, including irony, foreshadowing, character development, and the tragic form. Its universal themes explore the ethical dilemmas of cheating and responsibility. It shows the futility and tragedy of suicide as an escape from problems.
The Guide enables students to identify with the ethical dilemmas faced by characters in the film and to reflect on the social consequences of unprincipled action. Through writing assignments at the end of the guide, students can advance their ability to analyze elements of story and compare and contrast the concepts presented in the film with those intended in Miller’s play.
Moderate. Two suicides are referred to but not shown.
Should your child be assigned to read Henry Miller’s play, which is considered one of his finest literary works, be sure he or she does not use this film as a substitute for the required reading. It is substantially different than the play.
In addition to the benefits described above, “All My Sons” illustrates many dramatic and literary devices, including irony, foreshadowing, character development, and the tragic form. Its universal themes are listed at the beginning of the Helpful Background Section. The play allows children to work through the moral issues of cheating and taking responsibility for your actions. It can be used to show the futility and tragedy of suicide as an escape from problems.
USING THE MOVIE IN THE CLASSROOM
Before the class has read or seen the play, give the following introduction:
The three years and eight months of the Second World War were probably the most glorious period in U.S. history. This was December 1941 through August 1945. In that war the U.S. and its allies destroyed German Nazism and Japanese Imperialism. Not only did the U.S. provide millions of soldiers and sailors for the effort but it also became the arsenal of democracy. U.S. business emerged from the doldrums of the Great Depression and produced armaments that overwhelmed the country’s enemies. The generation of Americans that won the Second World War has been called “the Great Generation.”
During the Second World War, millions of men and thousands of women left their jobs and disrupted their lives to join the military. They put themselves in harm’s way for their country. The Second World War was violent and lethal. Death and injury rates were much higher than anything imagined in Vietnam or Iraq. At home, the general population submitted to rationing and did more with less. There was a strong sense of national purpose and national unity. Idealism grew as Americans worked together to win the war. (Our major allies, the British and the Russians, also made great contributions to the war effort. In addition, England had to endure a massive German bombing campaign, and the Russians suffered horribly when much of European Russia was occupied by the Nazis.)
While most of the country pulled together to win the war, “everybody knew that a lot of hanky-panky was going on . . . that a lot of illicit fortunes were being made, a lot of junk was being sold to the armed services, we all knew that. The average person was violating rationing. All the rules were being violated every day but you wanted not to mention it.” Arthur Miller in a 1993 interview reported by Christopher Bigsby in his introduction to All My Sons: A Drama in Three Acts, Penguin Classics. As to the illicit fortunes being made and the junk being sold, the productive capacity of the country had to be focused on the output of arms and munitions. Businesses owned that productive capacity and made sure that they profited from the war. The government was so desperate for increased production that sometimes it built plants and handed them over to businesses for free. Often contracts were “cost plus,” where the government paid for the costs of production plus a guaranteed profit. There were serious problems with the production of shoddy goods but overall, the tremendous output of American factories was a major factor in the Allies winning the war. In this process, many businesses, particularly large corporations, made a lot of money. Small businesses like Joe Keller’s company, profited, too.
And so there was a disconnect between sacrifice of the soldiers, sailors, fliers and many people on the home front, and violating the rules to escape that sacrifice or to make money on the war. Soldiers coming home from the war felt it more acutely than anyone else. During the war, Arthur Miller had interviewed soldiers who returning home from combat. Their voice is found in Chris Keller. This conflict between the idealism and the grab for wealth, both of which characterized the Second World War, is expressed in “All My Sons.”
Since the Second World War, a “military-industrial” complex has become entrenched in the economy, politics, and government of the United States. The conflict between those who make money from war and the sacrifice of the soldiers who fight is still with us.
Then briefly discuss the American Dream:
The American Dream has three important aspects. One is to live free from government oppression. Another is to improve the financial situation of the family through intelligence and hard work. The third is to give the children in the family a better start in life than the parents had. The American Dream is based on people coming from the old countries of Europe or Asia where they were oppressed and desperately poor. In America they were able to prosper in relative freedom. The American Dream has also applied to poor native-born Americans who were able to improve their situations, provide a better life for their families, and give their children a better start in life.
Finally, pose the following questions to the class. After the class has read or seen the play, these points should be discussed.
- What does this play tell us about the limits of the “American Dream?” (See the Quick Discussion Question.)
- Joe, Chris and Kate each have different flaws in their character. What are they? (See the first Discussion Question under the topic Characters.)
- This play explores the relationship between a father and a child. What happened to that relationship through the course of the play? (See the first Discussion Question under the topic Parent/Child Conflict).
- This play explores the relationship between a husband and a wife. What happened to that relationship through the course of the play? (See the first Discussion Question under the SEL topic Marriage).
After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.
1. How does the concept of the American Dream shown in the film differ from the American Dream you experience in society today?
Answers will depend upon each student’s understanding of the concept. Essentially, most responses will address success measured by wealth, which means home ownership, having a car and other material goods, and being able to support a family. Upward mobility will be a part of most definitions. Some may add the idea of college education as a part of the current American Dream.
2. What do you see as wrong about an individual making a profit at the expense of others or at the expense of society as a whole?
Since this is a values-based question, answers will vary considerably. All responses should be explained. Students should address expense of lives lost due to the flawed equipment Keller sold, the cost borne by taxpayers, and the price paid by the Deevers.
3. Keller’s sons differed in their abilities to accept and support their father in his struggle to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. What may be the reasons the sons responded as they did?
The sons were badly disillusioned by their father’s actions. Joe’s claim that his crimes were committed on their behalf made things worse. For Larry, the father’s refusal to assume responsibility for his actions perpetuated the offense and made forgiving him impossible. Chris’ loyalty blinded him to his father’s flaws, for a long time.
4. How did the idea for the play come to Arthur Miller?
See Factual Sources in the Supplemental Section below.
5. What were the social conditions that gave rise to this play?
See Suggestions for Using This Movie in Class.
6. What are the modern dramatic precursors of the play?
See Dramatic Sources in the Supplemental Section below
See questions under the theme The “full loathsomeness of anti-social action” in the Supplemental Material Section below.
1. What crime did Joe Keller commit?
He defrauded the U.S. government by knowingly selling defective plane engine parts to the Army Air Corps. This turned into second-degree murder or manslaughter when the defects contributed to the deaths of 21 pilots.
2. Was Steve Deever innocent?
No, he was a co-conspirator with Joe. He could have refused to cooperate with Joe’s plan to send out the defective cylinder heads. He could have gone to the authorities and confessed what he and his partner had done. He did neither.
3. If, rather than conceal the defects in the engines, Keller had immediately reported the problem to the government, what would have happened to him and his family? Would this have been the end of his life?
Keller believed that he would have lost his Army contracts and the company would have gone into bankruptcy. The business that he had worked so hard to create would have been lost. His sons would have had to start at the bottom, just like he did. However, Keller would not have lost the love and respect of his sons. Larry would not have committed suicide.
4. Compare the actions of Joe Keller to those of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables? Was Joe Keller justified in selling defective engines to the Army? Was Jean Valjean justified in stealing bread to feed his family? What were the differences, if any?
Jean Valjean’s action in stealing a loaf of bread didn’t kill anyone. In addition, his children were starving and he needed to feed them. His actions in stealing a loaf of bread are understandable. Keller’s family would not have starved, they would just not have been wealthy. Joe Keller had no excuse for doing what he did.
5. One scholar who examined this play described Joe Keller by saying that “there is no vice in him, only littleness and his own form of myopia. He is genuinely unable to visualize the public consequences of what was for him a private act.” Welland, p. 26 Do you agree or disagree?
Misunderstanding your relationship with the world is no excuse for selling defective engine parts to the Army. This is being far too forgiving of Joe Keller. It fails to recognize the “loathsomeness of [his] anti-social conduct”.
6. What is the difference between private acts, that are not regulated by the law, and public acts which are can result in criminal penalties if a person does the wrong thing?
The legislature (or Congress at the national level) decides what is public and what is private. Many years ago, it was permitted for men to beat their wives and for parents to beat their children. This was considered a private family matter. Now, hitting a spouse (husband or wife) is a criminal act and every day, hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, go to jail for committing this crime. Even when a beaten spouse does not want to press charges, the district attorney can go forward and try to put the hitter in jail. The crime, even though committed at home in the context of a married relationship is considered a breach of the public peace. Many years ago using contraception in the privacy of your own bedroom was considered a public act, punishable by the law. Now, it is considered to be private activity protected by the constitution.
7. This play explores the relationship between a husband and a wife. What happened to that relationship through the course of the play?
During the course of the play, Mother destroyed Joe as revenge for making her complicit in his crime. See also the Helpful Background Section on Mother.
8. Why was it so important to Mother to refuse to acknowledge that Larry was dead?
Because if Larry had died, she would have to face the fact that her husband’s crime had contributed to her son’s death. She didn’t know if she could forgive her husband for that. See also the section on Mother’s character in the Helpful Background Section.
9. Joe Keller had a responsibility to provide for his family. Did his actions meet that responsibility?
No. The responsibility to provide for a family doesn’t include cheating or stealing, unless it is a matter of life and death, and perhaps not even them.
10. Assume that Joe Keller had served out his time and come home. What should his wife’s attitude toward him have been? Would it make a difference whether or not Joe admitted his guilt and attempted in some way to atone for his crimes?
There is no one right answer to this question. There is a strong argument that his wife should have forgiven him as best she could. Marriage vows do not include a promise to be perfect. However, since Joe Keller’s conduct contributed to Larry’s death, many mothers would not have been able to find it in their hearts to forgive him.
FATHER/SON — Actually, it’s Parent/Child
See questions under the theme Parent/Child Conflict in the Supplemental Material Section below.
See questions 19 and 30 of the Curriculum Related Discussion Questions.
11. Was there a better way for Larry to react to the news of his father’s conviction, rather than to kill himself?
Larry should not have felt guilt for what his father had done. They were separate individuals. But even if Larry had felt some transferred guilt, there are no limits on the resourcefulness of individuals in atoning and finding redemption, except for the limits on their own creativity. For example, Larry could have volunteered for especially dangerous missions. He could have developed a public relations campaign to convince others in the U.S. that betraying your country is also a betrayal of your family, etc. He could have just tried to live as a good man.
12. What was Larry’s state of mind when he committed suicide? What does that tell us about one of the problems with suicide?
Like most people who commit suicide, Larry was probably distraught and emotional. That is not the time to make an important decision. People who are upset often make big mistakes. Suicide is final. If you make a mistake in a decision about committing suicide, and you are successful, there is no opportunity to correct that mistake or to change your mind. You’re dead.
13. Is suicide a way to accept responsibility for your actions or a way to avoid accepting responsibility for your actions?
It’s a way to avoid responsibility for your actions.
14. Was there any way for Joe Keller to redeem himself after causing the death of so many young men or was suicide the only way out?
The limits of the creativity of an individual are the only limits to the possibilities for atonement and redemption. Even Joe Keller, once he had been caught, could have done something to at least partially redeem himself. The first step was acknowledging his wrongdoing, pleading guilty and taking his punishment. Joe Keller could have done many things in prison to redeem himself, at least in part, for his crimes. He could have become a model prisoner and tried to help others while in prison. He could have volunteered to undergo dangerous tests for the benefit of medical research. He could have written an article or a book showing the error of his ways so that others would not do the same thing. He could have sold his company and used the proceeds for the benefit of veterans or compensated the families of the fliers who had died (after making some provisions for his wife). He could then have spent his life working to help veterans as a volunteer or in some other capacity. While this would probably not fully redeem him, it could still have made a contribution and permit him to provide some benefit to society. And he would have lived. After all, there were still people who loved him. Suicide just made more wounds.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
1. Does any character in this play who had committed a great wrong make amends or obtain redemption?
No. Atonement requires an apology and the return of ill-gotten gains and working to make up for the wrong you have done, even if it is impossible to do that entirely. After apologizing and making amends a person can hope for some opportunity to do some great good that will permit redemption. It will probably never happen if the crime is great and it will most assuredly never happen if the person has not already atoned for his crime. Suicide is not atonement and will not lead to redemption. Suicide is usually a cop-out, as it was in the case of Joe Keller.
(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends and country)
2. List each of the subparts of the Trustworthiness Pillar of Character that Joe Keller failed to live up to.
There are many. He didn’t tell the truth about the engine parts, so he was deceptive. He sold bad merchandise, and therefore he cheated and stole. He was not reliable because he didn’t do what he said he would do, i.e., ship only properly made engine parts to the military. He did not have the courage to do the right thing. He totally destroyed his reputation. He was not loyal to his country. While he thought he was being loyal to his family, that didn’t work out very well because his actions led to Larry committing suicide.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
3. Compare how Joe Keller, Chris Keller and Larry Keller dealt with their responsibilities?
Joe did not comply with his responsibilities to make parts that complied with the Army’s specifications. He later avoided responsibility by committing suicide. Chris fulfilled his responsibilities by refusing to accept his father’s choice. Larry evaded all responsibilities by committing suicide.
(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)
4. What was more important, Chris Keller’s duty to his country or his love and his duty to his father?
His duty to his country.
5. Compare how Joe Keller, Chris Keller and Larry Keller dealt with their obligations as citizens?
Joe dishonored his obligations as a citizen by knowingly selling defective plane engine parts to the Army. Chris Keller honored his obligations to his country by fighting in the war and by refusing to accept his father’s choice of family and personal wealth over honesty, responsibility and citizenship. Larry Keller dishonored his obligations as a citizen by crashing his plane and by giving up his life after the government had spent money to train him. He was needed as a pilot in the war but he opted out by committing suicide.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
1. Write an essay on the role compromise plays in living a principled life. Refer to the compromises made by Chris Keller and others in the play to illustrate your point and conclude your essay with a clear statement about what you feel about what may be called the limits of compromise; in other words, at what point does compromise equate to selling out?
2. Assume you are the judge before whom Joe Keller’s crimes are being tried. There is no jury, and you are responsible for any determination of guilt or innocence as well as determining the penalties Keller may face. Using the voice of the judge, write your opinion on the matters before you. Support for your ideas and argue your position.
3. Write an essay in which you compare and contrast characters as presented in the play and in the film. Look closely at how the presentations, revealed through physical appearance, action, dialogue and emotional responses, may shift attitudes toward characters. Be sure to include any omissions or additions. Finish your essay with an opinion about whether the presentation in the play or the film best serves to reveal theme.
For advanced students:
4. All My Sons has several direct links to Greek tragedy. Research the characteristics that define Greek tragedy and then write an essay in which you analyze All My Sons in terms of its adherence to the parameters of the definition you have found. Be sure to site support for your ideas through characterization, action or dialogue in presenting your analysis. You may offer concessions should you find evidence that the play does not adhere to some particulars of the Greek form but nonetheless serves as an example of modern Greek Tragedy.
5. Students can write an essay on what “The American Dream” means to them, and whether it is different for them than for their parents or grandparents.
6. Have students create a collage, cutting out pictures from magazines and gluing them to poster board to represent what “The American Dream” means to them. After each student shares his or her poster board, put these up around the classroom as a representation of their dreams and goals, and as a reminder that the way to achieve most dreams is through education and training. (An alternative is to have the class work together to craft a collage based on students’ suggestions for what “The American Dream” means to the nation.)
See additional Assignments for use with any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
CCSS ANCHOR STANDARDS
CCSS Anchors Here.
BRIDGES TO READING
Bridges to Reading Here.
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
- Tragedy and the Common Man an essay by Arthur Miller;
- All My Sons as Precursor in Arthur Miller’s Dramatic World by Masahiro Oikawa;
- Anti-Essays.com – All My Sons.
- Wikipedia Article on “All My Sons”;
- Wikipedia article on Chekhov’s Gun;
- Excerpts from Arthur Miller’s Introduction to “All My Sons” in Collected Plays, from the notes to a production by the South Coast Repertory Theatre, Costa Mesa, California.
Many of the websites set out in the Links to the Internet Section, and;
- Readings on All My Sons, Christopher J. Smith, Ed., Greenhaven Press, San Diego, CA 2001; (This is a collection of critical essays and an excellent resource; if you are going to consult one book on the play, this should be the one. However, be careful, a few of the essays in the book are ill-considered.)
- Arthur Miller, A Critical Study by Christopher Bigsby;
- Miller: A study of his plays by Dennis Welland, Eyre Methuen Ltd., London, 1979;
- Readings on Arthur Miller, Bruno Leone, Ed., Greehaven Press, San Diego, CA 1997;
- Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1944 – 1961; page references in this Guide are to this edition of the play;
- Arthur Miller (Tony Kushner, Ed.) compilation notes and chronology copyright 2006; Penguin Putnam, Inc.;
- Arthur Miller, New Perspectives Robert A. Martin, Ed., Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1982;
- “Introduction” by Arthur Miller in Arthur Miller’s Collected Plays, 1957, Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., referred to herein as the “1957 Introduction”
Timebends” A Life by Arthur Miller, Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 1987.
This Learning Guide was last updated on July 18, 2011.