Thursday Editor’s Pick: Sometimes A Great Notion (1971)

by on November 3, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Nov 4 & Sun Nov 6 at 3:00, 6:00, 9:00; Sat Nov 5 & Mon Nov 7Thu Nov 10 at 6:50, 9:15 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]


Thursday is the last day of BAM’s one-week revival of Paul Newman’s Ken Kesey adaptation, on the occasion of its 40th Anniversary.

J. Hoberman for The Village Voice:

Set in the pre-grunge Pacific Northwest, Sometimes a Great Notion is a gloriously scenic, blatantly brawny rollicker—a movie of majestic crane shots and outsized star turns. The principals are a pathologically independent, ultra-macho logging clan, aptly named Stamper, headed by tyrannical old Henry Stamper (Henry Fonda), his cocky eldest son and namesake, Hank (Newman), and stolidly oppressed daughter-in-law Viv (Lee Remick). Conflict is provided by a never-entirely-explained strike against a local paper mill that the Stampers are pleased to break, much to the consternation of their unionized neighbors, and the return of the hippified, very angry, younger son Lee (Michael Sarrazin). “He looks like some kind of New York fairy,” Henry snarls, the first of many locals to ask Lee, “Where’d you get that hair?”




Worse than irascible, Fonda’s domineering Henry is transcendently mean, wielding his cast-bound broken arm like a weapon. (His presence alone brings a whiff of Steinbeck to the proceedings.) Newman, too, has no trouble scorning audience sympathy, though his scenes with Fonda are remarkably empathetic as he emotionally shadows the older star. Even the overly sensitive, extremely limited Sarrazin, at the time a fashionable male ingenue, has a bit of the family feel through his marked resemblance to Peter Fonda.


Blustering along to its emotional climax, if not quite its end, the movie features two-and-a-half powerhouse scenes. The most jaw-dropping has Stamper cousin Joe Ben (Richard Jaeckel) pinned beneath a log with the tide coming in and Hank desperately improvising a rescue; it’s followed by Fonda’s magnificent solo, directed at Newman and delivered on his back in a hospital bed. Sadly Remick’s big speech feels truncated and also hampered by being played with the terminally diffident Sarrazin. Taken together, though, these three consecutive show-stoppers represent a day of reckoning so awful that one might almost conclude God hates strikebreakers.



Vincent Canby in the original New York Times review:

“Sometimes a Great Notion” is an extremely interesting, if impure (happily impure, I might add) example of a genre of action film that flourished in the 1930’s in movies about tuna fishermen, bush pilots, high-wire repairmen and just about any physical pursuit you can think of with the possible exception of tolltaking, which (except on some thruways) lacks the necessary element of danger.


As in Howard Hawks’s “Only Angels Have Wings,” these films are, at their best, considerably less simple-minded than they sound—being expressions of lives lived almost entirely in terms of rugged, essentially individualistic professionalism.


Roger Ebert for The Sun-Times:


Newman starts tunneling under the material, coming up with all sorts of things we didn’t quite expect, and along the way he proves himself (as he did with “Rachel, Rachel”) as a director of sympathy and a sort of lyrical restraint. He rarely pushes scenes to their obvious conclusions, he avoids melodrama, and by the end of “Sometimes a Great Notion,” we somehow come to know the Stamper family better than we expected to.


Stephen Garrett for Time Out New York:

This film version of Ken Kesey’s acclaimed Northwest opus is a dazzling oddity: simultaneously melodramatic and stoic, goofy and majestic, rousing and devastating. More than anything, though, this blue-collar-lit melodrama is defiant, which is the most apt way to categorize a movie that doesn’t even agree with its own name (the opening credits trumpet “Never Give an Inch”—the official Stamper family motto). Some hard objects need only a light tap before they shatter, and when this family starts to come apart, the spectacle is breathtaking. Movies are lucky to have one jaw-dropping moment; this one has a string of them, right up until the final go-screw-yourself shot. Actor-director Newman steers the tonally baroque story with the same low-key technique he brought to acting, and the way he captures the lumberjack ethos practically puts calluses on the celluloid. It’s not a classic, in the sense of being perfectly formed. But the craft work is one of a kind.



Justin Stewart for L Magazine:

The potential for zeitgeisty hippie commentary is high, with the young generation, in the form of the scruffy unionized loggers, pitted against Fonda’s old-school codger. But Newman resists it—though Peter Fonda’s father is in it, this is no response to Easy Rider. The Sarrazin character is cynical and difficult, but he readily adapts to the logging lifestyle. Newman allots generous screen time to the nuts and bolts of Northwest American logging. The time and effort it takes to chop down a tree are felt, and the same patience is what makes a late death scene so acutely touching when it could’ve been egregious. Avoiding grand lumbering statements, Newman’s ode to the honest day’s work has an unshowy lyricism that furnishes its own profundity.


And a consumer review on Epionions:

Pros:The film gives the viewer decent glimpse into the life of logging.


Cons:The plot could have been better developed.


The Bottom Line: Some excellent acting by Fonda and Newman.


– Compiled by Tom McCormack

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