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Film / The Wave (1981)

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In April 1967, Ron Jones, a history teacher at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California, found himself struggling to explain to his class how the German people could have fallen behind the Nazis so easily. So he decided to show them personally, creating a student movement called the Third Wave (after the common belief that the third in a series of waves is the last and largest). The movement emphasized conformity and the greater good, treating democracy and individualism as the downfall of civilization. Jones started with things like drilling his class in proper seating and posture, before moving on to discipline, salutes (which conspicuously resembled the Nazi salute), and the transformation of himself into an authoritative figure. In just two days, Jones had turned his class into a model of efficiency, discipline and community, with a marked improvement in academic achievement and motivation, and the Third Wave began to spread beyond his history class. By the end of day three, over two hundred students had been recruited, membership cards were being given out, banners were flying, and Third Wave members were telling Jones when others were violating the rules — all of which Jones hadn't told his students to do, as such incidents were completely unexpected developments.

Realizing that he was losing control of the Third Wave, Jones decided to end it. On day four, he announced that the Third Wave was actually part of a nationwide youth movement, and that tomorrow at noon, an assembly would be held in which the movement's national leader and presidential candidate would be revealed on television. At the assembly, the students were met only with an empty channel. Jones revealed a few minutes later that the entire Third Wave was an experiment in how fascism can so easily claim the hearts and minds of the masses (even those who had sworn "it can't happen here"), and played a film about Nazi Germany.

The Third Wave experiment has since been fictionalized three times. The first was The Wave, a Made-for-TV Movie starring Bruce Davison as the teacher, which aired on ABC in 1981, and later became part of their ABC Afterschool Special series. The same year, a Young Adult novelization of the movie was written by Todd Strasser under the Pen Name Morton Rhue. Finally, in 2008, the German movie The Wave (2008), with Jürgen Vogel as the teacher, took the already-uncomfortable premise and brought it into the very country that birthed Nazism, to show that even a place that had experienced the horror of fascism could see it happen again.

Not to be confused with the Norwegian Disaster Movie from 2015.

Tropes in the TV movie or the book The Wave:

  • Absurdly Divided School: "The Wave" encourages discipline and a definite us/them mentality, which at first produces positive results but quickly degenerates into an elitist environment where people are getting ostracized for not joining the movement. The teacher quickly announces the movement's leader will make a televized broadcast... and shows a picture of Hitler.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Laurie gets a lot of flak for opposing the Wave after it starts. David actually hits her for it at one point, causing him to have a Heel Realization.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: As Mr. Ross gives his students a "The Reason You Suck" Speech. He notes that they could have walked away at any time from The Wave. So why didn't they do it?
  • Based on a True Story: As detailed above, the "Third Wave" experiment actually happened. However, a few elements are changed from the real thing, including names.
  • Day of the Jackboot: Downplayed, since it was only a few classrooms. But the "Third Wave" mentality spreads over those classrooms to other places in the school.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: A gang of ideologically-motivated but otherwise ordinary youths take over a school and start threatening those who aren't part of their movement? Nah, that can't happen here.
  • Downer Ending: Mr. Ross shows who the leader of The Wave is at the school assembly: Adolf Hitler. Ross also reveals that the entire thing was a social experiment to prove that fascism could rise anywhere, and it was almost absurdly easy to convince the students to join in on such an ideology. The students are left utterly horrified by the thought that they went along with Nazi dogma, and the entire school tries to pretend like nothing happened. But it's clear that it's deeply affected everyone.
  • Faction Motto: The Wave adopts the slogan "Strength Through Discipline! Strength Through Community! Strength Through Action!".note 
  • Fascist, but Inefficient: Double Subverted. Though there is marked improvement in other areas of school life, even after adopting the ethos of the Wave, the football team continues to lose games. Things go downhill, starting when the Nazi parallel goes too far and a Jewish boy is beaten up by two members of the movement.
  • Foreign Remake: The Wave (2008), by the Germans.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Mr. Ross wanted to create a social experiment to prove how "it can't happen here" is a naïve idea. He succeeded better than he could have ever imagined. However, he did it by traumatizing everyone at the school (albeit entirely by accident), which he acknowledgess during his final speech.
  • History Repeats: Invoked by Mr. Ross, who showed that the idea that the Nazis (or something like them) could never rise again was hopelessly naïve. With the Third Wave, he proved how absurdly easy it was for such an ideology to come about.
  • Hitler Ate Sugar: Unity and discipline are, apparently, just steps on the road to fascism. Admittedly, Ross was trying to invoke this, but it went way further than he'd hoped for.
  • Holier Than Thou: The Wave's expansion resulted in its members believing that they were superior to those who aren't a part of the organization, to the point that they bully non-Wave members into joining.
  • Internal Reveal: The idea that Hitler is the leader of the Third Wave. The audience has been told that the whole thing is an experiment by Mr. Ross; the students remain blissfully unaware until the assembly.
  • Irony: The Wave's emphasizes community and equality, but the results of its philosophy end up having the opposite effect.
    • The movement changes Robert Billings and allows him to move out of the shadow of his older brother and become his own person. The Wave's disbandment upsets him, as his newfound status social means nothing without the movement to uphold it.
    • The Gordon High football team (which David is a part of) loses to Clarkstown as the former's sense of community fails to make up for a lack of real training and preparation.
  • Jerk Jock: Deconstructed. The football players are all so obsessed with making themselves look good (often at their teammates' expense) that they barely function together, and have gone through several losing seasons. Even when they adopt the unity and purpose of the Wave, they continue to struggle, as they had never really trained as a team before then.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • David is shocked by his own actions after he hits Laurie for opposing the Wave, and quickly consoles her.
    • Mr. Ross also has this when he realizes that the experiment is beginning to spiral out of control and that people are starting to get hurt as a result of his actions.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The Wave, of course. It was modeled after Nazi Germany and its "effeciency", with students regularly falling in like with it. The entire thing was started as an experiment by Mr. Ross to show how fascism could spread easily, with Adolf Hitler being the "true" leader of the Third Wave.
  • Only Sane Man: David and Laurie are the only ones willing to stand up to The Wave. This also happened in real life as several students refused to join (or left) the movement. Some of them also created banners against the Third Wave or tried directly to convince other students to leave.
  • Punny Headlines: In the film, Laurie's article denouncing the Wave has the headline, "The Wave Drowns Gordon High."
  • Politically Motivated Teacher: Mr. Ross initially conducts The Wave as a simple social experiment to demonstrate how people can become easily seduced by the appeal of fascism. It goes beyond a one-off event and evolves into a school-wide movement that he has minimal control over.
  • Putting on the Reich: The Wave salute is fairly obviously (and deliberately) modeled after the Nazi one, and armbands are used as a sign of membership. Even the original name for it, the Third Wave, is deliberately evocative of the Third Reich.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Mr. Ross delivers one to all the members of the Wave once he reveals that the Wave was nothing more than an experiment. It transitions into a Heel Realization speech for everyone, and they don't take it too well.
    "You thought you were so special! Better than everyone outside this room. You traded your freedom for what you said was equality. But you turned your equality into superiority over non-Wave members. You accepted the group's will over your own convictions, no matter who you had to hurt to do it. Oh, some of you thought you were just going along for the ride, that you could walk away at any moment. But did you? Did any of you try it?
    "Yes, you all would have made good Nazis. You would have put on the uniforms, turned your heads, and allowed your friends and neighbors to be persecuted and destroyed. You say it could never happen again, but look how close you came. Threatening those who wouldn't join you, preventing non-Wave members from sitting with you at football games. Fascism isn't something those other people did, it is right here, in all of us. You ask how could the German people do nothing as millions of innocent human beings were murdered? How could they claim they weren't involved? What causes people to deny their own histories?
    "If history repeats itself, you will all want to deny what happened to you in The Wave. But, if our experiment has been successful—and I think you can see that it has—you will have learned that we are all responsible for our own actions, and that you must always question what you do rather than blindly follow a leader, and that for the rest of your lives, you will never, ever allow a group's will to usurp your individual rights.
    "Now listen to me, please. I owe you an apology. I know this has been painful to you. But in a way it could be argued that none of you are as at fault as I am for leading you to this. I meant The Wave to be a great lesson for you and perhaps I succeeded too well. I certainly became more of a leader than I intended to be. And I hope you will believe me when I say that it has been a painful lesson for me too. All I can add is, I hope this is a lesson we'll all share for the rest of our lives. If we're smart, we won't dare forget it."
  • School Newspaper Newshound: Laurie is focused more on getting the truth out than being concerned with high school popularity. This eventually makes her one of the few dissenting voices against the Third Wave in school as she reports on what's happening. Laurie's boyfriend David and her friend Amy accuse her of being responsible for much of the competitive atmosphere at school because of her reporting.
  • Team Title: The Wave.
  • Unlucky Everydude: Robert Billings is known for being the loser of his class who dwells in the shadow of his older brother, Jeff Billings. After Mr. Ross conducts the Wave experiment, Robert improves himself considerably in character, and becomes upset after the Wave disbands, without it to uphold his social status.
  • Undying Loyalty: Robert is devoted to The Wave since its inception to the point that he incorporates it as part of his being. It also extends to him voluntarily offering to be the personal bodyguard of Mr. Ross so he is not put in harm's way.
  • Wham Line: The scene where Mr. Ross reveals that Adolf Hitler was the "leader" of the Wave — if not for the readers and viewers (who should know what's coming), then for the students.