Much more Mr Nice Guy: In Hollywood, Nice (as played by Forrest Gump) is wiping the box-office floor with Nasty (starring Natural Born Killers). By Sheila Johnston

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It was, on reflection, never going to be a fair contest. On the side of the devils, the Hollywood bad boys: Oliver Stone (director) and Quentin Tarantino (writer), firing on all cylinders with Natural Born Killers: a film so consumed by carnage that it took five trips to the US ratings board before it was passed for public delectation (and even then it carries a caveat of unprecedented length and detail).

And there, quietly whispering in the other ear of America's collective consciousness, the angelic Forrest Gump, in which Tom Hanks plays a beatific simpleton (IQ: 75) who wouldn't hurt a flea. Stone's film had a blitzkrieg publicity campaign, but last week Natural Born Killers was unseated from the top slot at the American box-office by Gump after only one week in residence. It was the triumph of Nice over Nasty.

But then, like its hero - a polio victim who miraculously sheds his calipers to become a champion runner - Gump seems to have indestructible legs. Again and again in the course of the summer it has seen off the opposition, and bounced back to No 1. It's still there now, in the 11th week of its release. In early August, industry insiders were predicting that this gentle, offbeat comedy might take as much as dollars 165m in America. Now Forrest Gump looks certain to exceed that figure by at least dollars 100m. In a business where much of a movie's box-office is customarily raked in over the opening weekend, its staying power is phenomenal.

And Gump has vaulted from the arts and features sections of the national press on to the editorial pages, where he has inspired column miles of media speculation on his hidden meaning. Gump is O J Simpson] (the Washington Post). Gump is Clinton] (the New York Times). Gump is God] (Time magazine).

On one thing most observers are agreed, however: filmgoers right across the demographic spectrum are returning to Gump again and again because it makes them feel very, very good, deep down inside. Our hero is played by one of Hollywood's most popular actors: watch out for Hanks (again) in next year's Oscar nominations. He won't leave anyone feeling intellectually challenged (America loves idiots savants: remember Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man?).

Yet he has his own small place in history: thanks to artful special effects which insert Hanks into period newsreels, not only can he be seen alongside George Wallace and Malcolm X, Elvis and John Lennon, and three different US presidents, but also talks to them and accidentally influences them in significant ways (he gives Lennon the seed idea for Imagine, for instance).

And the story holds out the promise of personal redemption, of escaping the shackles of the past. Gump's distant ancestor founded the Ku Klux Klan, but he's a gentle man who has never heard of racial bigotry. Gump becomes a millionaire and a national hero without even trying. Gump drifts serenely through Vietnam, Watergate and the whole counter-cultural thing, and emerges almost unscathed. He even coins the slogan 'Shit happens,' the apercu that launched a thousand bumper stickers. 'I imagined Norman Rockwell painting the baby-boomers,' claims the director, Robert Zemeckis: his is a sunny vision of two of the most troubled decades in American history.

So Nice reigns again in Hollywood and Nasty (at least until Tarantino's Pulp Fiction arrives later this autumn) has been held at bay. Vindication, one might think, for Michael Medved, the US pundit who last year published a polemic - Hollywood vs America - arguing that the film industry was a hotbed of degeneracy, hopelessly out of touch with Middle America. But that book was taken much more seriously in Britain than in its own country. It's more likely that Gump is turned on to vibrations on a broader plane.

With the Clinton honeymoon long gone, there's a new mood abroad in America. The former vice-president Dan Quayle, for instance, locked horns with what he suspiciously called Hollywood's 'cultural elite' during the 1992 election campaign. Now, with the recent publication of his memoirs, he's been making back-to-basics noises again. And, as the Independent's Washington correspondent noted, 'those Quayle views on 'family values' which once aroused such mirth are now the coinage of the realm'.

Gump is thoroughly at home with the new morality. For a start, he has cleaned up his act from Winston Groom's original novel, where he was quite a stud - the film's writer, Eric Roth, has transformed the character into a beaming virgin who comes over all 'dizzy' at the very mention of sex. But nice has its price, and Gump is not nearly as sweet as he seems at first blush. He survives the Sixties by simply ignoring them - but that decade brought many boons, civil liberties notably, along with its follies. The character who throws herself into its maelstrom - Jenny (Robin Wright), the woman Gump loves - who tries to rise to its challenges and to change herself, is destroyed by it. The end of the film has the cheek to propose yet another of those threadbare father-son relationships that are obsessing Hollywood (Jenny having handily been pushed out of the picture).

Viewed that way, Gump presents a revisionist and highly selective account of social history - if you remember the Sixties, it says, you must be mistaken because they actually didn't have any serious impact at all. The film is, wrote the political analyst Michael Lerner in The Washington Post, a sop to America's Radical Right, 'an opportunity to misremember and salve our beaten selves in the nostalgia that puts us to moral sleep'.

There's a deal of interest in what the rest of the world will make of this odd American hero (and not a little trepidation). We British baby- boomers, for example, grew up when our country wasn't yet swamped by Americana: we have some, but not all the hot buttons that Gump pushes so cleverly for US filmgoers, and many political and cultural allusions will pass us by (remember the feel-good baseball picture Field of Dreams, which scored home runs on its native turf but struck out everywhere else?). But there are juicy compensations elsewhere, in the film's soundtrack and its dazzling special effects.

And it must be also remembered that, in Britain right now, Nice is just the ticket. Pulp Fiction has, slightly to everyone's surprise, been passed by the British Board of Film Classification with an '18' rating for cinema release, but no one should hold their breath for the video (after over a year, Tarantino's first film, Reservoir Dogs, still awaits a small-screen rating). Forrest Gump's commercial progress here may be slightly bumpy, but one thing is certain: in our own nervous climate, where a multitude of social ills are being laid at Nasty's door, there's nothing in him to give a moment's concern to our guardians of public morality.

'Forrest Gump' opens on 7 Oct. 'Pulp Fiction' opens on 21 Oct. 'Natural Born Killers' opens later this year

(Photograph omitted)