Although author Ken Kesey famously distanced himself from the 1975 movie version of his book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he apparently enjoyed the 1970 adaptation of his book Sometimes a Great Notion, even though nearly everyone else regards the film of Cuckoo’s Nest as a classic and the film of Notion as a minor work. Given Kesey’s proclivity for stories about people who resist authority at great personal cost, however, it follows that he wouldn’t line up with popular opinion. Setting the author’s stamp of approval aside, Sometimes a Great Notion, which stars and was directed by Paul Newman, is sometimes a great movie.
Telling the story of the iconoclastic Stamper clan, a family of independent Pacific Northwest loggers who alienate their neighbors by refusing to support a labor strike, the picture has moments of great insight and sensitivity, plus a climactic scene that’s horrific and memorable. Yet the movie is diffuse and overlong, as if it can’t decide whether it’s primarily about ornery patriarch Henry Stamper (Henry Fonda); his heir-apparent son, Hank (Newman); his estranged child, Leeland (Michael Sarrazin); or the whole family. The movie’s indecisiveness about whose story is being told gets exacerbated by sloppy storytelling at the beginning of the movie, because it takes a while to grasp that the labor strike is the main plot device.
Even with these frustrating problems, Sometimes a Great Notion is watchable and often touching. Fonda is a powerhouse as a self-made man who refuses to accept that he can’t live by his own idiosyncratic rules: There’s a reason Henry coined “Never Give a Inch” as the family’s motto. The movie expertly depicts how the deficiencies of Henry’s parenting have infected his kids, because Hank has managed to drain the life from his marriage to Viv (Lee Remick), and Leeland is a lost soul who can’t abide his family tradition of psychological abuse. In this fraught environment, only Henry’s simple-minded middle son, Joe Ben (Richard Jaeckel), really thrives, so it’s not a surprise when the narrative punishes Joe Ben for his unquestioning acceptance of God’s will (and Henry’s will).
The film benefits greatly from vivid location photography, even if Newman lets montages of logging chores drag on a bit too long, and it’s fascinating to watch diehard lefty Newman tell the story of a character who disdains the idea of organized labor. Plus, as noted earlier, the film’s climax—a horrible on-the-job accident that shakes the whole Stamper family—results in an extraordinary sequence that consumes nearly the entire last half-hour of the picture. From the moment the accident happens to the instant the movie ends with a final gesture of defiance from the Stampers, Sometimes a Great Notion is riveting. (Available as part of the Universal Vault Series on Amazon.com)
Sometimes a Great Notion: FUNKY