Shout! Factory // 1970 // 114 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // December 6th, 2012
"Never give an inch!"
The Stamper family is not one to rest on their laurels, something the local Northwest logging unions are not happy about. During a timber strike, Henry Stamper (Henry Fonda, One Golden Pond), his son Harry (Paul Newman, Nobody's Fool), and cousin Joe Ben (Richard Jaeckel, Starman), find themselves at odds with a local paper mill (for reasons unexplained) and keep on trucking instead of striking like their peers. Things get even more complicated when young Leeland (the late Michael Sarrazin, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?) swaggers back into town with a head of long hair and angry glances from his father. The Stamper family feud with not only the outer forces of their town but also the inner ones; Henry is an angry old man who wields an arm cast like a weapon while Harry tries to sort things out with his distant wife (Lee Remick, The Omen) and brother. Hang on to your hard hats, it's going to be a bumpy ride.
Sometimes a Great Notion, based on the novel by acclaimed writer Ken Kesey (One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest), was Paul Newman's second directorial effort, the follow up to 1968's Rachel, Rachel. The film's production was fraught with difficulty; Newman broke his ankle on the set, forcing the production to shut down. Director Richard Colla (Olly Olly Oxen Free) was originally slated to direct but dropped out over 'artistic differences' as well as a throat operation. When filming resumed, Newman attempted to get oft-collaborator George Roy Hill (Funny Farm) to step into the director's chair, but Hill declined leaving Newman to pick up the reigns. What Newman created is a fascinating but flawed movie about problematic people pushed to the breaking point.
Sometimes a Great Notion delves into the lives of a family working in the logging industry, a career that is hardly ever explored in motion pictures (unless you count the wood chipper scene at the end of Fargo, which I don't). The production has a rough-hewn quality to it, the kind of story where every guy wears flannel shirts and talks on CB radios. The Stamper family is a real piece of work. They are stubborn, gruff, arrogant, and often alienating to each another and anyone else within earshot. This is a group of dysfunctional individuals from the inside out, starting with the family's patriarch (played wonderfully by a growling Fonda) to the wives who stand patiently by watching their spouse's practically self destruct. Harry Stamper may not be as iconic as Newman's other anti-heroes (Hud, "Cool Hand" Luke, Fast Eddie Felson) but he's just as interesting and complicated. Stamper is torn between keeping his family's business alive and dealing with townsfolk who see the Stamper family as traitors to their way of life for not supporting the strikers. Newman had a good way of finding characters he could inhabit that were nice guys with fallible tendencies.
The supporting cast in Sometimes a Great Notion is equally as powerful. Henry Fonda's Henry Stamper is a man with deep roots that won't let him budge even if it's the right thing to do; Fonda finds the right tone for such a complicated elder. Michael Sarrazin as the younger Stamper family member is intensely good in a role that could have easily been clichéd; Leeland Stamper is a counterculture wanderer who also happens to have a deep understanding of human nature. The rest of the supporting cast -- from Lee Remick's frustrated Viv to Richard Jaeckel's fateful Joe Ben -- all give the film a richness that makes it more character driven than a linear, plot based drama.
I wouldn't dare spoil one of the film's final sequences, but it's as heartbreaking a scene as you're apt to see in the movies. I was taken by surprise at how impactful it made the film; those who don't tear up a bit must have hearts made of stone (or hard pine). The most interesting aspect of the film is the logging scenes. Giant machines pull the trees from the ground while workers scale the heights to cut down the branches. The film's storyline almost feels secondary to the wonderful photography and documentation logging in the great state of Oregon. If I have a real complaint about the film it's that the logging scenes -- as fascinating as they are -- tend to meander a bit and could have easily been edited down to make the film feel tighter and more compact. However, that is a small quibble; as a character study about self-destructive people who don't like change, Sometimes a Great Notion is well worth seeing.
Sometimes a Great Notion is presented in 2.35:1/1080p high definition. I have to admit to being disappointed in this film's transfer. It does not retain as much detail as anticipated and the print itself is in only decent shape (there are a lot of defects and imperfections in the picture). I'm not sure how this film looked on DVD, but I can't imagine this Blu-ray version is much of an upgrade. While I'm glad that Shout Factory brought this Universal title to Blu-ray, it feels like a half hearted effort.
The soundtrack is presented in DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio in English. The audio mix, much like the video presentation, is passable but nothing special. This is a very front heavy mix that doesn't feature anything in the way of directional effects or surround sounds (and to be fair, none are really needed). The dialogue, effects, and Henry Mancini's (Days of Wine and Roses, The Pink Panther) great film score are all easily distinguishable. Also included on this disc are English subtitles.
No extra features are included on this disc.
Sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic, and sometimes heartbreaking. 1970s fans
are urged to give this overlooked drama a spin.
Review content copyright © 2012 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Rated PG