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One of the Best! This movie is on TWM's short list of the best movies to supplement classes in United States History, High School Level.
SUBJECTS — U.S./1913 - 1929; Biography (FDR); Georgia;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Courage; Disabilities;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility; Caring.
Age: 12+; No MPAA rating but we think it would probably be rated PG; Drama; 2005; 120 minutes; Color; Available from Amazon.com.

Description: This film describes Franklin Delano Roosevelt's struggle against the effects of polio and his leadership in the development of a convalescent community at Warm Springs, Georgia, that provided him with a model for some of the ways that he led the U.S. during the Great Depression.

Rationale for Using the Movie: By focusing on personal elements in a president's life rather than the political history, students can begin to understand the importance of the character of the individual who holds the highest office in the U.S. and gain insight into how character shapes policy.

Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: Students will learn about FDR's leadership skills, his perseverance and empathy, elements of which can be seen in many New Deal policies. Research and writing skills can be practiced through the assignments at the end of the film.

Possible Problems: Minor: There are some (see historical misimpressions that can be easily corrected but for the most part, the film is accurate in its portrayal of Roosevelt's efforts to reduce the effects of the disease and to continue his life in public service.



Rationale and Objectives
Possible Problems
Parenting Points

Using the Movie in Class:
      Enrichment Worksheet
      Discussion Questions


Additional Helpful Background

Historical Accuracy
      Two Historical Misimpressions
      Accuracy of Specific Scenes

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

Curriculum Standards

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 movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM's Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.

The information set out in this worksheet is unlikely to be found in text books used by most students and will prepare them for the film by detailing FDR's experience with disability caused by polio. Enrichment Worksheets are a TWM innovation containing questions designed to get students thinking. Questions are focused on comprehension, application, analysis, syntheses or evaluation. Questions can be answered in class or as homework, as quickwrites, journal entries, formal essays, or research papers. For a version of the Worksheet in word processing format, click here.
Pre-Viewing Enrichment Worksheet for Warm Springs

Franklin Delano Roosevelt served as president of the U.S. from 1933 to 1945, years in which the country struggled domestically with the Great Depression and internationally with the Second World War. The American people understood the value of Roosevelt's leadership, electing him president on four separate occasions, 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944making him the only President to serve more than two terms. He was the only leader of a major nation in all of history who rose to power while suffering from a major disability.

While most people knew that FDR suffered some degree of disability, his family, his aides and primarily Roosevelt himself engaged in what came to be called by author Gregory Gallagher, a "splendid deception." His handicap remained unnoticed if possible and palatable if not. Although unable to walk more than a few paces, Roosevelt projected an image of power and strength that contributed to his reputation as a dynamic leader. Only two of the 35,000 still photographs of FDR contained in his Presidential Library show him seated in a wheelchair. No photographs of Roosevelt in a helpless position were featured in the media of the time. Political cartoons showed him to be a man of action, either running or jumping or otherwise carrying on as an individual with full use of his legs. Some of Roosevelt's opponents tried to undermine him with whispering campaigns and innuendo about his disability. When necessary, these efforts to discredit Roosevelt were met with immediate counterattacks demonstrating his fitness to govern. FDR never lost an election after his legs were paralyzed.
Question 1: With modern technology, it is clear that a handicap such as Roosevelt's could not be kept secret for long. How might media deal with similar disabilities of a presidential candidate in current times and how might the public respond?
In 1921, when Roosevelt was 39 years old, he fell ill with polio, a disease known at the time as infantile paralysis. Polio has been around for several millennia. Egyptian mummies have been found with limbs withered by polio. In societies in which hygiene is poor, children are exposed to polio in infancy, when they are protected by their mother's antibodies, or in early life, when the effects of the infection are mild and can be overcome during development. For example, in Cairo, Egypt, it was found that close to 100% of the children were immune to at least one strain of the polio virus. Polio epidemics are thought to be caused in part by modern public health procedures as improved sanitary conditions prevent children from being exposed to the virus while they are young. As a result, they don't develop immunity to the disease. This would have been especially true for a child like the young FDR who was the pampered only child of a wealthy family and who didn't play with many children in public places.

In the 1920's, almost everyone with disabilities, such as those experienced by FDR and the many thousands of other victims of polio, retired from active participation in society. Disability was thought to be a mark of shame and people avoided the disabled, reacting to fears that they may become paralyzed themselves. Disabilities were the subject of jokes and teasing. There were few rehabilitation hospitals and those that existed employed rigid therapies that often caused additional physical injury and psychological harm. With polio, a disease rare now in the U.S., there was fear that infection could be passed from one person to another.

Roosevelt refused to be defeated by these attitudes and insisted on living life to its fullest. Initially the effects of polio made Roosevelt's arm and back muscles very weak. He couldn't use his thumbs and he couldn't sit up. However, FDR soon recovered the use of his hands, arms and back. Eventually, his arms and shoulders became extremely powerful. Still, he had no use of his legs. In the years after he recovered from the acute stages of the illness, he worked hard to learn to walk again. When it became obvious that this was impossible, he focused on appearing to walk short distances and standing in his metal braces long enough to give a major speech. FDR wanted to project the image of a dynamic leader and thus was reluctant to use crutches in public, which would send a message of weakness and arouse fear or pity. This was a risky decision as he could well have fallen and would have needed help standing again. Clearly, a fall in public would have severely damaged his career.
Question 2: Where in mass media, or in your own personal experience, have you seen disabled persons held up to ridicule or used to inspire fear?
Prior to contracting polio, FDR had been elected to the state senate in New York, winning in a traditionally Republican district despite the fact that Roosevelt ran as a Democrat. He prevailed in that election not only due to the magic of his name (President Theodore Roosevelt was a distant cousin and had also served as governor of New York), but also because he campaigned tirelessly. While in the state senate, FDR earned a reputation as a reformer, frequently battling city-based machine bosses (Tammany Hall). Before being paralyzed, Roosevelt had served as the second ranking civilian in charge of the U.S. Navy for seven years. His tenure included the entire First World War. FDR's work in that office was generally well regarded. While Roosevelt had run unsuccessfully as the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1920, he acquitted himself well in the campaign and won the respect of millions of Americans.

After recovering from the acute stages of polio, Roosevelt embarked on a tireless struggle to regain the ability to walk. Before coming to Warm Springs, he had corresponded with people all over the country looking for a cure and sharing what he knew. He had tried the best remedies the medical profession had to offer but there had been very little progress toward his goal of walking again unassisted. When he first visited Warm Springs in 1924, treatment was sketchy, funds were low, and the facilities had not yet been adapted to the needs of the "polios," as they were called. By this time Roosevelt had become an expert in polio treatment and at Warm Springs he served as an innovator in polio rehabilitation. FDR helped to create therapies and established a regimen of muscle tests to evaluate progress. He designed a treatment table (shown in the film) 12 inches below the surface of the water. This invention greatly expanded the range of exercises that could be aided by the warm water of the springs. It is now standard equipment for water therapy.

One of the most important differences between Warm Springs and the few other rehabilitation centers operating at the time was psychological. At Warm Springs polios were encouraged to be as independent as possible. No longer were they locked away and no longer was their primary attribute in life the fact that they were disabled. Polios that had skills or could develop them were recruited for the staff. The therapy delivered by the center focused on maximizing what the polios could do with the muscles that remained of use. Most importantly, the atmosphere was happy and encouraged humor and high spirits. It was intended that life be as normal as possible: the food was good, served at formal settings with china and linen napkins; bridge tournaments, picnics, poker games, movies, and amateur theatricals passed the time and lifted spirits. Roosevelt himself was the laughing optimistic center of the community.

At Warm Springs, FDR was among people who shared the experience of being unable to care for themselves and who had to be lifted in and out of chairs, cars and pools. Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, describing the effect of polio on FDR, summed it up by saying, "The man emerged completely warm hearted, with new humility of spirit and a firmer understanding of profound philosophical concepts." Many assert that the situation in Warm Springs primed FDR for his future tasks as president. In fact, there are striking parallels between FDR's leadership at Warm Springs and his performance as president.

During the Great Depression, the United States economy was devastated and the country despaired of its future. Important factors in Roosevelt's New Deal were the transmission of optimism and self-confidence, extending a helping hand to those in need, including those suffering from physical infirmity and the elderly. Financial independence was an important element of the program.

Roosevelt's demeanor during the Depression was optimistic. The smiling upturned head, often sporting a cigarette holder held at a jaunty angle, epitomized this attitude, one that also dominated his tenure at Warm Springs. Innovative New Deal projects, such as the Works Projects Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, were designed to give workers jobs or training that the private economy no longer provided. Social Security was implemented to allow the elderly, a population which had many characteristics in common with the disabled, to maintain financial independence and therefore dignity. These attributes of the New Deal were amplifications of ideas that had worked at Warm Springs.
Question 3: Of the many connections between Roosevelt's experience at Warm Springs and his tenure as president, which do think was the most significant?
Although the basic theme of the film is that Franklin Roosevelt's character was forged through his long and painful fight with polio, the pre-polio Roosevelt was not the rich, shallow, spoiled political opportunist his detractors asserted. When Mrs. Roosevelt was asked, "Do you think your husband's illness has affected his mentality?" she responded, "Yes. Anyone who has gone through great suffering is bound to have a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind." There were aspects of FDR's personality that were superficial before he contracted polio but he was also a successful politician committed to progressive reform; he had been a hard working and effective civil servant; and he had chosen Eleanor Roosevelt, a truly remarkable woman who would become the greatest First Lady ever to grace the White House, to be his wife; all before he contracted polio.

Eventually Roosevelt purchased Warm Springs, using more than two thirds of his personal fortune. He transferred the rehabilitation center to a non-profit foundation and solicited funds to support it. The fees charged patients at Warm Springs were about one third of the cost of hospital care at the time.


Discussion Questions:

After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.

1.  What shared values can you find in Roosevelt's time in Warm Springs and his efforts to raise the country out of depression? Suggested Response: There are many answers possible. Most students will note Roosevelt's compassion, generosity and sense of fair play associated with both his rehabilitation and his presidency. Also important was the insistence on a positive attitude, not only in the depths of fighting a terrible illness, but also in the depths of the Great Depression.

2.  Although the film briefly raises Roosevelt's personal problems with family and women, how do these touchy issues seem to affect his experience at Warm Springs? Suggested Response: Answers will vary. All well reasoned suggestions are acceptable.

3.  How might a presidential candidate fair today should he or she be afflicted with what is generally understood to be a disability? Suggested Response: All well supported responses are acceptable. More sophisticated students may note that being black or Hispanic or being a woman were once considered to be disqualifiers among people seeking public office. That is no longer true, as shown by Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

For additional discussion questions, click here.


Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:

1.  Research the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and develop a power point presentation which includes a time line of attitudes and legislation that covers the period during which FDR served in public office and continues to the present.

2.  Research information about Eleanor Roosevelt and her influence on FDR. Write an opinion essay in which you take a position about whether or not most of the President's progressive ideas were inspired by Eleanor.

3.  Write a proposal for reform of a school such as the one you attend, which would make use of some of the philosophical elements that led to the success of Warm Springs, of FDR's New Deal, and of his political life as a whole.


For a comprehension test suitable to be distributed to a class, click here. For an answer key to the comprehension test, click here.

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: Describe for your child the information in paragraphs 1-3, and 9 of the Helpful Background section. Go through the issues outlined in the Benefits section. Then ask and help your child to answer some of the Discussion Questions. Stress that FDR was the greatest U.S. President of the 20th century.

Another fascinating point is the way in which FDR patterned his leadership on that of his cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt. See Helpful Background paragraph on Theodore Roosevelt.

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: a polio (meaning a person who has had polio); tripod, "state of the art", nominate.

MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS: Sunrise at Campobello is a fictional treatment of FDR's illness and early attempts at recovery. The movie is quite long and the acting a little mannered. However, it's a real treat for history buffs or people who revere the memory of FDR. Much of it is taken from real life, such as the scene in which Roosevelt is spirited out of the house in Campobello and onto a railroad car bound for New York. Gallagher 18.

PHOTOGRAPHS, DIAGRAMS AND OTHER VISUALS:   See The Online Photos section of the FDR Library website.

Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

Last updated October 16, 2012.

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