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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.com recommends reading the play or seeing it on stage. It does not recommend the 1948 version of the movie. See sidebar comment. 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 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.

Description: 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.

Rationale for Using 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.

Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: 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.

Possible Problems: Moderate. Two suicides are referred to but not shown.


Arthur Miller: Collected Plays
1944-1961 (Library of America)


Rationale and Objectives
Possible Problems
Parenting Points

Using the Movie in Class:
      Introduction to the Movie
      Discussion Questions


Helpful Background
      Universal Themes
      A Social Drama
      A Modern Tragedy
      Literary & Dramatic Devices

Additional Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Subjects (Theme Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Additional Assignments

Other Sections:
      Bridges to Reading
      Links to the Internet
      Selected Awards & Cast

MOVIE WORKSHEETS: 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.


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 in the sidebar.)
  • 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).


    Discussion Questions:

    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? Suggested Response: 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? Suggested Response: 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? Suggested Response: 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.

    For additional discussion questions, click here.


    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.

    For additional assignments, click here.


Click here for TWM's lesson plans to introduce cinematic and theatrical technique.

Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

Are you concerned that time will be wasted if you are absent from class? Worry no more  .  .  .   Check out TeachWithMovies' Set-Up-the-Sub.

Parenting Points: 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.

Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.

Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.

BUILDING VOCABULARY: "On the rise", "blood in his eye" Drummer, Guernica, D.A.R., cavalier, Don Amici, loathsome, anti-social, peevishness, trigger finger, settee, haberdashing, chivalric, aspersions, roue, patsy. solicitude.

MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS: The Crucible is also based on a play written by Arthur Miller.

Last updated July 18, 2011.

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