Alice’s Restaurant (1969): Reel Vs. Real (Deviations from Facts)

The real Alice Brock, who declined an offer to portray herself in the film. makes several cameo appearances. When Ray and friends install insulation, she is wearing brown turtleneck top with hair pulled into a ponytail. In the Thanksgiving scene, she is wearing a bright pink blouse. In the wedding scene, she is wearing Western-style dress.

Stockbridge police chief William Obanhein (“Officer Obie”) plays himself in the film, claiming that making himself look like a fool was preferable to having somebody else make him look like a fool.

Judge James E. Hannon, who presided over the littering trial, also appears as himself.

Many of Guthrie’s real-life associates in Stockbridge appeared as extras, and Penn, who had home in Stockbridge, lived among them for a while in order to grasp their lifestyle.

Guthrie and the extras were housed at the same hotel during the shoot, but Guthrie received star treatment, including a limousine, which strained the relations between him and friends for years.

The film also features the first credited appearance of character actor M. Emmet Walsh, playing the Group W sergeant. (Walsh had previously appeared as an uncredited extra in Midnight Cowboy) The film also features cameo appearances by American folksingers/songwriters Lee Hays (playing a reverend at evangelical meeting) and Pete Seeger (playing himself).

The original song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” that formed the basis for the film was a true story. However, most of the film’s other events and characters were fictional creations of the writers. According to Guthrie, the film used the names of real people but took numerous liberties with actual events.

Richard Robbins, Guthrie’s co-defendant in real-life, was replaced by the fictional Roger Crowther for the film; he later described the additions to the story as “all fiction” and “complete bull.”

The subplots involving the Shelly character were fictional. His character’s motorcycle club was loosely based on the Trinity Motorcycle Club, a real-life group of motorcyclists that associated with the Brocks; they were alluded to in another Guthrie song, the “Motorcycle Song.” The film also has Guthrie being forced to leave a Montana town after “creating a disturbance”–town residents object to Guthrie’s long hair and gang up to throw him through a plate glass window. This never happened, and Guthrie expresses regret that Montana got a “bad rap” in the film. In fact, during the time of the littering incident and trial, Guthrie was still enrolled in Montana college, and was only in Stockbridge for the long Thanksgiving weekend; he would drop out of college at the end of the semester.

Alice Brock has spoken negatively of the film’s portrayal of her in a 2014 interview “That wasn’t me. That was someone else’s idea of me.”

Brock took particular offense at the implication that she had slept with Guthrie, noting that she had never associated with heroin users. The film brought unwanted publicity: “It just really impinged on your privacy. It’s just amazing how brazen people can be when you’re a supposed public figure (…) We sold the church at that point.”

When interviewed in 1971, director Penn, said: “What I tried to deal with is the US’s silence and how we can best respond to that silence. … I wanted to show that the US is a country paralyzed by fear, that people were afraid of losing all they hold dear to them. It’s the new generation that’s trying to save everything”.

As for the lack of violence in the film, Penn said: “Alice’s Restaurant is a film of potential transition because the characters know, in some way, what they are looking for. It’s important to remember that the characters are middle-class whites. They aren’t poor or hungry or working class. They are not in the same boat as African Americans. But they’re not militants either. In this respect the church dwellers are not particularly threatening. They find it easy to live there, even if most people can’t afford such a luxury. From this point of view, the film depicts a very specific social class; it’s a bourgeois film”.