Echoes Through Time: 45 Years of ‘Westworld’

Westworld Anniversary

Two men ride in on a train, dressed in casual clothes. They’re headed for a vacation, but we’re not sure where. Judging from the landscape passing out the locomotive’s windows, it’s easy to guess the American heartland. But that assumption would indicate that their destination is of natural creation – a product of God’s Design, crafted in a manner we’re still attempting to comprehend. No, entry to where these two well-off individuals are going includes a rather sky-high ticket price, as the arena was manufactured merely to provide them the greatest “violent delights”.

Welcome to Westworld. Leave your suit jacket by the door, as your “host” will see that you’re fitted for either cowboy boots, a Roman Toga, or a suit of armor, so that the adventure you’ve paid good money for can begin as soon as you march out into this artificial realm.

Westworld was born 45 years ago and it is, somehow, still alive and kicking and breaking minds today.

westworld movie

The Unusual Cinematic Career of Michael Crichton

Like many filmmakers from the New Hollywood era, Michael Crichton credited Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (’69) as being his inspiration for wanting to get behind a camera. By ’69, Crichton had published four novels; pulpy diversions penned under pseudonyms “John Lange” and “Jeffrey Hudson” (both of which were clever nods to his towering, six-foot-nine frame) while studying medicine at Harvard. Speaking with Vogue Magazine ‘73, Crichton said, “I was lucky because at the point I decided I wanted to direct films, Easy Rider had convinced studio executives to look for new talent, and it seemed as if anybody who could speak in declarative sentences – and a lot of people who couldn’t – were going to get to make films.”

Crichton’s first directing gig came in ’72, three years after his viral thriller The Andromeda Strain made him a household name, and was subsequently adapted into a feature film by West Side Story (‘61) co-director Robert Wise. Based on his book Binary, Crichton only agreed to sell the rights if he could helm the ABC TV movie starring Ben Gazzara and Martin Sheen. The network agreed, and the author put down his pen and started studying lenses, cutting his teeth on the small screen iteration of his own tale.

Westworld (’73) was already in the works by the time Pursuit aired as a Movie of the Week, as Crichton had the screenplay written and out to studios for consideration. Like another one of his famous stories (which involved dinosaurs), Westworld was an allegorical sci-fi yarn where an elaborate theme park is built to satiate the rich’s need to escape into another age. There are several periods to choose from – Medievalworld, Romanworld, and the titular dusty realm of gunslingers and prostitutes. The robot “hosts” are programmed to fulfill the guests’ every desire, and safeguards are put into place so that the human participants can never be harmed. But if Crichton’s science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that when mankind attempts to play God, they find their creations bucking against control, as the robots turn on the tourists and begin murdering them with swords and revolvers, causing a mass panic both in the park and behind the scenes, where operators diligently man omnipotent computers.

There’s a jangly untested quality to Crichton’s debut that both signals his unsteadiness behind the camera, as well as MGM’s uncertainty regarding the material (they were the only studio Crichton wasn’t rejected from outright, and had an industry reputation for producer meddling/re-cutting).  James Brolin and Richard Benjamin’s businessman characters are our guides to this otherworldly dream of history, where those with the deepest pockets get to play cowboy to their heart’s content. Crichton – along with cinematographer Gene Polito (Colossus: The Forbin Project (‘70) – approach the affair with attention to both the dusty alleys of the town, and the beeping, bleeping back rooms of the park’s inner sanctum, where technicians comb through data and ensure that their synthetic entertainers behave themselves in every thought and action. It’s as if we’re witnessing God and His Kingdom, all at once, and creation is purely present for pleasure.

Thank goodness for Yul Brynner, who essentially reprises his iconic role from The Magnificent Seven (’60) as the black clad deadliest gun in this artificial Old West. He brings stoic, intimidating menace to a movie that would otherwise feel too jokey and contained for its own good; a true testament to the King & I (’56) star’s unmistakable screen presence. Suddenly, a picture from an unsure rookie and his equally insecure financial backers transcends its meager $1 million budget, and mints its own towering iconography. Through familiarity, Westworld became unique, twisting the gunslinger archetype into an unnatural marauder from the future, viewing us through infrared vision like a precursor to the alien hunter in Predator (’87) with metal gears that grind behind his bald, fleshy dome.

Westworld opened to fantastic reviews and became MGM’s highest grossing title of ’73. While the author continued to churn out pulpy texts, he also helmed five more features (including this writer’s personal favorite, Looker (‘81). Crichton’s vision of the future was not only spun off into two other installments in the Westworld universe, but also influenced generations of genre filmmakers to come. Just look at James Cameron’s masterpiece The Terminator (’84) for the premier example. Do you think it’s coincidence that Cameron’s own killer robot sees through similar eyes as Crichton’s death dealing quick draw? In an ‘85 chat with Film Comment, the King of the World discussed the two films’ likenesses, dissing the cowboy’s dearth of a shiny and chrome endoskeleton as being “not visually satisfying.” Cool story James, but it’s pretty clear Harlan Ellison wasn’t the only source of inspiration you borrowed from.

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