Weird Westerns: Westworld (1973)


Michael Crichton's amoral fable about a Western-themed amusement park populated with gun-slinging robots, which managed to inspire both Crichton's later "Jurrasic Park" and James Cameron's "The Terminator."

By Max Sparber

In 1969, author Michael Crichton wrote what I think is genuinely a masterpiece of hard science fiction, "The Andromeda Strain," telling of an isolated group of scientists attempting to understand a deadly microorganism from space that has depopulated a small Arizona town and looks like it might kill a significant portion of the US population. The book was adapted into a genuinely superb film in 1971; in it, director Robert Wise achieved the seemingly impossible task of making repetitive laboratory experiments into compelling drama.

The success of both gave Crichton the opportunity to write and direct his own film, on the cheap, at MGM, which had a very poor reputation at the time. Under these constraints, he produced a shallow, amoral, and very entertaining little fable about a futuristic amusement park that goes haywire and kills its guests. He would later recycle the essential plot for "Jurassic Park," and this film would be recycled into a considerably more complex television show, but the original "Westworld" has its pleasures.

It's a cheap-looking film, but Crichton wisely makes that cheapness satiric. His setting, Delos, offers three fantasies for its guests, one ancient Roman, one Medieval, and one based on the Old West, where we spend most of our time. Delos is referred to as an amusement park throughout the film, but it quickly becomes clear that this is not the right term. It's a hedonist playground, where guests can act out fantasies of murder and sexual abandon without repercussions in a world filled with extremely realistic robot servants.

The film follows two guests, played by Richard Benjamin and James Brolin, who arrive, get into costume, and then mosey on over to the Westworld part of town, where they simultaneously praise its authenticity while mostly participating in safe gunfights and sleeping with robot prostitutes.

There is, of course, nothing authentic about it. It is filmed on a Western backlot and the costumes come directly from a studio's wardrobe department. It looks like a set; worse, it looks like a cheap set, and our heroes engage in cheap theatrics borrowed from, and filmed like, cliched B-Westerns. Crichton reportedly didn't have any say over the film casting, but Benjamin and Brolin are just right.

Brolin was, of course, exactly the sort of person who would get cast in a crappy Western shot on a backlot — he was always a blandly handsome actor with an appealingly carefree quality, and probably the only reason he didn't appear in dozens of cheap Westerns is because they were already in decline when "Westworld" was made.

Benjamin, in the meanwhile, has said in interview that this was the only time he was likely to appear in a Western, because he was typecast as a neurotic big-city Jew, and he's in this film specifically to look out of place, the sort of person you would never actually see in a Western. This seems a little unfair, as Westerns could be surprisingly democratic about who wound up in their casts — Western character actor Richard Boone had Russian Jewish heritage, as an example, although he was also related the actual Daniel Boone.

But Benjamin plays up his awkwardness, and isn't alone; there is a relatively brief appearance by a heavily bespectacled Dick Van Patten as another guest, looking like an insurance salesman in a cowboy hat. Both actors have fun with the roles, playing up their discovery of how marvelous it must be to act out cowboy fantasies, even awful ones.

But the film frequently cuts away to the behind-the-scenes, which is like the control room of a live television broadcast, with a quietly professional staff watching monitors and cueing up robots — there is an unstated implication that these staffers see everything, including the guest's intimate moments.

There is also an enormous repair staff, as Delos rather madly uses real weapons and live ammunition in its park, albeit with safety controls, so guests can readily destroy robots who cannot effectively defend themselves. At night, white-coated staffers sneak onto the sets, pile the damaged robots onto conveyor belts, and set about repairing them — a task that is becoming increasingly difficult, as the robots seems to be breaking down in unexpected ways.

As mentioned, it all goes quite badly, for barely explained reasons. The robots just abandon their safety protocols and engage in a mass slaughter of the guests, presumably just because the guests have been so creepy.

Somehow Benjamin survives this, and he spends the rest of the movie running through Delos, past the bodies of his fellow guests, as he is stalked by a robot gunfighter. The gunfighter is played by Yul Brynner, recreating his character from "The Magnificent Seven."

Reportedly, Brynner only made the film for the paycheck, but, if so, he was professional enough to turn in a terrific performance anyway. He pitches his performance at the exact spot where he is not human enough, the uncanny valley. Watching Brynner, it genuinely does feel like we are seeing a computer intelligence at work, and one that really, really wants to kill Richard Benjamin.

Arnold Schwarzenegger references this film in his autobiography, saying that James Cameron used it as an example of how it is possible to turn in a memorable performance with almost no dialogue while playing a robot; it was one of the things that convinced Schwarzenegger to star in "Terminator."

Crichton wasn't the filmmaker Cameron is, with neither his flair for action scenes nor his skill at suspense, so once "Westworld" moves away from its satiric premise into a chase, it deflates a little. It is, however, briefly perked up by the appearance of Steve Franken, an endearingly eccentric actor playing a harried technician. He sees Benjamin coming and informs him, curly and in no uncertain terms, that he doesn't stand a chance and will be killed by the robots.

And then, as if to prove his point, he is shot to death by Brynner.


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