Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Westworld (1973)

The science fiction thriller WESTWORLD (1973) has a lot of interesting things going for it.  First, it's directed by one of the most popular fiction authors of the 20th Century, Michael Crichton.  Crichton  had written two novels already - THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN and THE TERMINAL MAN and both were made into films.  Whereas most novelists would move on to their next book, Crichton chose to write and direct what is in essence a hybrid sci-fi western B film.  I would put WESTWORLD on my list of guilty pleasures to view.  It's such a simple idea. A theme park for adults that offers three choices: Medieval World, Roman World, and Westworld. Visitors pay a thousand dollars a day to live out their fantasies whether it be robbing a bank in the 1880's or jousting with the Black Knight or living it up in decadent Rome with human like robots playing most of the roles for the guests to interact with.

I first saw WESTWORLD on television probably in the 1980's.  I don't recall seeing the whole film but I remember Richard Benjamin sleeping with the girl robot and the robots turning on the guests, killing them.  And I remember Yul Brynner as the unstoppable Gunslinger but more about him in a moment.

In the film WESTWORLD, the company that runs this adult amusement park is called Delos.  Their slogan is THE VACATION OF THE FUTURE - TODAY.  Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin), a recently divorced Chicago lawyer, is going to Westworld for the first time with his buddy John Blane (James Brolin), a repeat visitor. Blane's hope is to get Martin some fun and adventure after Martin's bitter divorce.  Westworld is the answer.  If a guest wants a gunfight, they have a gunfight.  If the guest wants to be in a barroom brawl, a barroom brawl it is.  There are even robot western prostitutes to entertain the guests.  Besides Blane and Martin, the film also follows the exploits of a meek banker (Dick Van Patten) who wants to be Westworld's next sheriff and another guest (Norman Bartold) who's fantasy is to woo a medieval queen.

Behind the scenes at  Delos, technicians and programmers in white coats run the park, direct and coordinate the events, and fix the robots each night after their daily gunfights, bank robberies, and jousts.  But the theme park is not running as smoothly as it seems. Delos's Chief Technician (Alan Oppenheimer) is noticing more and more malfunctions from the robots.  He notes that it began in Roman World and like a virus or disease, has worked its way over to the other theme parks.

Crichton builds the suspense nicely, never rushing it. He shows the tourists interacting with the robots and the danger that is possible. Subtle little incidents hint that all is not well in Delos. A robot rattlesnake bites Blane. A medieval wench slaps a guest when she should accept his advances. It's only a matter of time before the black shirted Gunslinger that Peter keeps shooting will have his revenge. When it does happen, the payoff is perfect.  When the technicians try to cut off the robots power and disarm them, that action fails and their control room loses power and oxygen, bringing about their doom as well.

As the robots revolt, all hell breaks loose. As Peter flees the Gunslinger and crosses over from Westworld to Roman World, there's a great shot of a faux Roman bust of some emperor lying in a river bed. Just as Rome fell for its excesses, so too will Delos's theme parks as the robots rebel against their creators.

WESTWORLD touches on a theme that Crichton will explore again and again.  Science gone astray.  In THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971), a military satellite bring back a deadly virus. In JURASSIC PARK (1993), dinosaurs cloned from DNA wreak havoc on an island that was planned to be a theme park.  And in WESTWORLD, it's robots that turn on the tourists they are meant to entertain.

Even though WESTWORLD is a  B movie, the directing, editing, photography, and acting is all first rate.  Benjamin and Brolin are likable and Brolin especially has fun playing an Eastwood/Leone like cowboy on his vacation.  I never understood why Brolin never quite made it big in films.  He had the looks and the charisma.  The casting of Yul Brynner as the Gunslinger is probably what makes WESTWORLD so memorable.  Brynner pays homage to his cowboy character in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) and with his perfectly bald dome and clean shaven face, Brynner looks like he could be a robot.

The Gunslinger is an early incarnation of the unstoppable machine that director James Cameron will create in THE TERMINATOR films.  The machine that just keeps coming and coming even after having acid and fire thrown at it. And the theme park Westworld Crichton will revisit later in his novel and the subsequent film JURASSIC PARK which is to be a theme park until the dinosaurs destroy the place.

The story moves briskly, maybe too much so.  We never get to see what happens to the Dick Van Patten sheriff character and Roman World is hardly shown at all which could have been a budgetary limitation.  But Crichton has a lot of fun with WESTWORLD as well.  In a sublime piece of irony, as Peter flees the pursuing Gunslinger, he comes across a white coated technician repairing his golf car out in the desert.  The technician brags about the robot model and how he's unstoppable.  Peter rides on and the technician is shot and killed by his creation - the Gunslinger.

Michael Crichton would direct only a few more films after WESTWORLD including THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1979), COMA (1978), and LOOKER (1981) and he would go on to write many more best-selling novels that mostly involved some kind of science fiction theme.  But I do think one of his best stories he ever told was not a novel but a film and screen play called WESTWORLD.


  1. What was the name of the technician who Peter comes across in the desert repairing his golf cart, who brags about the robot model and how he's unstoppable. Then is killed by the robot gunslinger?

  2. The technician's name was Steve Franken, a familiar character actor. IMDB says one of his best known roles was as a drunken waiter in Blake Edwards THE PARTY (1968) starring Peter Sellers.