Westworld: Yul Brynner’s heroic Gunslinger is reincarnated as a killer android in Michael Crichton’s cult genre mashup

Westworld(1973), written and directed by Michael Crichton, is a seminal Sci-fi thriller that incorporates elements from Westerns and horror movies to tell a chilling tale of robots turning against humans in a futuristic society. The film can be basically summed up as a ‘Western’ themed ‘Jurassic Park’

Steven Spielberg once called his friend and frequent collaborator, Michael Crichton “high priest of high concept”; that’s a high compliment from the master of mainstream Hollywood cinema and the man who practically invented the modern blockbuster with Jaws(1975). In Hollywood, “High Concept” is the bread and butter of blockbusters;  high-concept meaning a movie(or book) that can be explained in one or two sentences or a few words. Say Alien(1979) is “Jaws in space” or Speed(1994) is “Die Hard on Wheels”; or try this: ” Island,  Theme Park,  Dinosaurs.  Adults swallowed whole. Kids in peril,” ring a bell?, yup!, the 1993 film Jurassic Park (or now Jurassic World), which was authored by Michael Crichton and brought to screen by Steven Spielberg. But calling Crichton merely a “High Concept guy” does not do justice to his talents, because along with the concept, he also brings solid scientific backup: history of computers, chaos theory, the workings of a Stegosaurus gizzard, etc.; which explains why, by the time of his death in 2008, Crichton had become an industry onto himself. His influence was felt on every form of media: Films, Publishing, Television, Video games etc. His novels collectively sold more than 200 million copies worldwide, with many of them adapted to cinema: Jurassic Park, Sphere, Timeline, Congo, Rising Sun, and Disclosure, among others. On Television, he created the long running series “E.R.” .But many people do not know that he was also a screenwriter and director in his own right, directing seven feature films including Westworld, The Great Train Robbery and Coma. And it all began in 1973, when he wrote and directed the seminal Sci-fi thriller Westworld. I mentioned the concept of Jurassic park above, replace dinosaurs with android gunslingers and kids with adults, then you’ll get the concept of Westworld. If Jurassic Park was about an amusement park that recreated Jurassic age for the amusement of a futuristic society, then Westworld did the same with the American Old-West. Before Westworld, Crichton had only directed an obscure T.V. movie named, Pursuit, with Ben Gazzara, but Westworld was his first directing job for the movies and his first original script to reach the screen. The initial inspiration for Westworld came from a trip to NASA, where Crichton saw astronauts undergoing rigid training for space missions, and a subsequently vacation to Disneyland, where he became fascinated by an animatronic Abraham Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address. He originally intended Westworld to be a novel, but he felt that it would work better as a film, as he was doing a sort of meta commentary on people’s desires to act out their violent fantasies that are inspired from the movies, especially the ‘Westerns’. Selling the concept was very difficult, and only one studio in Hollywood, MGM, was willing to finance the picture. This was not a good sign, as MGM was considered the worst studio in town. They were notorious for penny pinching, meddling in postproduction and even shutting down productions before shooting can begin. Since Crichton had no choice, he agreed to make the film for a meagre budget of $1 million, and he was helped by the fact that the much of the film takes place in the Westworld for which he could recycle already existing Western sets. Most of the scenes in Westworld itself have been shot in a deliberately old-fashioned manner. It helps to create the sense of the theme park: the robot characters all act out stereotypical situations from old western films, and they do so against an immediately familiar backdrop. The sets are intentionally artificial and cheesy, so are the dialogues spoken by the characters. Suffice to say that this film that arrived at a very critical juncture in movie history, when the Westerns were dying out and Sci-fi was just coming in, turned out be, maybe accidentally, very prescient in predicting the future of cinema as well as mankind.

As for the film’s plot, well! Something is rotten in the state of ‘Delos’; something most foul, strange and unnatural. Things are not going as naturally programmed. Robots (or androids), who were specifically designed to serve and cater to every whim of the humans, have been acting out of late and refusing to follow their programmed routine. For the uninitiated, ‘Delos’ is a’ perfect vacation resort’ set in the middle of nowhere in the (then)future (of 1983); a ‘Disneyland for adults’ surrounded only by rocky mountains, and just as Disneyland is made up of its several theme parks, like the Adventure Land, Frontier Land, Fantasy Land etc. Delos is a triptych of three separately themed worlds: RomanWorld, MedievalWorld and Westworld; where rich and respectable denizens of the world take a vacation, not just from their worldly duties, but also from their civilized moral codes, and, for a price of $1000 a day, can indulge themselves in their most wanton sexual and violent fantasies. Delos is populated by androids, who look and behave exactly like humans, and are programmed to serve the humans (arriving as guests in the facility) in every way they wish. The only way to tell the difference between a real human and these fake ones is by looking at their hands. The RomanWorld is a reproduction of the Roman pleasure paradise of Pompeii at the zenith of its decadence; In MedievalWorld, the patrons can dress up as medieval knights, battle the black Knight and win the hands of ladies fair. Westworld is the main attraction of Delos; it’s a reproduction of 1880s American West, where patrons can play out their fantasies of being cowboys and gunslingers and give and take a dose of frontier justice. The main attraction of Westworld is in indulging in a classic Western showdown with the omnipotent ‘Gunslinger in Black’ (played by Yul Brynner); The Gunslinger is programmed to instigate the guests to a duel, and in the ensuing duel, the guests always win. The firearms issued to the park guests have temperature sensors that prevent them from shooting anything with a high body temperature, such as humans, but allow them to “kill” the cold-blooded androids. The Gunslinger’s programming allows guests to draw their guns and kill it, with the android always returning the next day for another duel. Additional features include saloons filled with robotic whores for the sexual gratification of the patrons. By night crews arrive in vehicles to load up the robot corpses from the street and drive them back to a central facility. Technicians repair the robots overnight, so that they are ready to be shot, variously abused and had sex with all over again.

Delos is one of the hottest tourist attractions in the world. The patrons are ported from the mainland to Delos in corporation owned hovercrafts. The ads to promote the resort, taglined “Boy, have we got a vacation for you!“, has guests boasting about the number of people they have killed; well!, they are not people , they are robots who look like people, but killing them grants them the same amount of vicarious pleasure as killing real human beings. But one fine day, without any rhyme or reason, everything starts going wrong in the amusement park: The women are resisting the attempts of the guests to get them into bed; the black Knight in the Medieval world, who is programmed to loose to the guests in a swordfight starts winning and killing the guests. The slaves in RomanWorld revolts and goes on a killing spree of the ‘noble’ humans. The most dangerous transformation is happening to the ‘Gunslinger in Black’ in the Westworld. He has suddenly become a killing machine, as he starts to stalk the guests who had previously shot and ‘killed’ him. This was not what John Blane(James Brolin) had bargained for when he dragged his friend, Peter Martin(Richard Benjamin), a recently divorced lawyer, with him to Westworld in Delos. Blane has already ‘broken his cherry’ with regards to the ‘Westworld’ experience, while Martin is still a ‘virgin’. Martin is undergoing a painful and unwanted break-up, and the entire Westworld trip is essentially Blane’s way of taking Martin’s mind off his troubles. It’s like a typical masculine response to a crisis in life: get drunk, hit the road, have sex with as many women as you can, indulge in some stupid and wild macho adventures, and you start feeling good about yourselves; and what could be a better place for such an excursion than Delos. You could see here that, even before we get into Westworld, Crichton has already begun his cultural commentary, and this would become meta-thematic, as they get into Westworld, with the film within a film device in operation. Blane promised Martin a ride of a lifetime, and he gets one alright, even though by the end, he would wish he hadn’t.

Starting with their hovercraft journey to the faraway pleasure-paradise, Martin is jittery, while Blane remains cool, assuring him that everything will go fine. It’s for nothing that his name rhymes with ‘John Wayne’. Blane and Martin are not just two types of men, but two types of Western movie archetypes: the cool, macho, done-it-all hombre and the nervous, geeky, new-kid-in-town; think of John Wayne and James Stewart in John Ford’s “The Man who shot Liberty Valance”. And like “Liberty Valance,” they will have to contend with one evil, maniacal gunfighter antagonist. Blane already knows the ways of the West(world), and takes great pride in showing off his knowledge. Once they reach Westworld, they start living out every clichéd fantasy from a traditional Hollywood Western. The are provided with 1880s style costumes and accommodations; they sleep with robotic whores, even as a bank robbery is taking place in the neighborhood- they are forced to choose between the two: sex or bank robbery. Blaine insists that they choose the former, and it makes one hell of a metaphorical movie moment: Martin having sex with the female android with sound of gunshots in the background, made even more weird when the android’s eyes eerily lights up at the end of intercourse. Then the two go out into the saloons and get into gunfights; Martin is particularly thrilled with his first duel with the gunslinger and his ‘first kill’; he gets a chance to kill the gunslinger again the next day, when the gunslinger barges into Blane’s room when the latter is unarmed; Martin bursts in like a hero and blows the gunslinger to pieces. For this ‘murder’, he’s arrested by Sherriff and put in prison. Not to worry, next western cliché coming up: the rescue of his partner by the cool cowboy; Blane breaks Martin out by dynamiting the prison, and the two head out of town, into the desert wilderness. So far so good, the vacation is going exactly as Blane promised, but, things starts getting a bit odd once they are out in the desert: a robotic rattlesnake bites Blane against its programming. This has never happened before; while Blane and Martin tries to reconcile with this odd event, things starts going wrong in other parts of Delos. First, a female android refuses a guest’s sexual advances in Medieval World, but that’s just the beginning. Things starts turning more dangerous for the guests, when Medieval World’s Black Knight android kills a guest in a sword fight. 

As it so happens, the robotic inhabitants of Delos are made up of highly complicated pieces of equipment, almost as complicated as living organisms, that’ve been designed by computers. The technicians running Delos does not have a clear idea how they work. So, as this ‘robotic infection’ spreads, the park’s management panics. They respond by shutting down power to the park in the hope of preventing the robots from running amok. All they manage to do is seal themselves inside an air-tight control room, and suffocate to death. What they failed to take into account is that the robots run on battery power, so they will stay ‘alive’ for a certain period of time, and would allow them to run amok; and run amok they do, the guests in all three worlds are slaughtered at random by the violent robots. Blane and Martin are unaware of these extreme developments, as they had passed-out drunk in a ‘brothel’ after getting into a stereotypical Western barroom-brawl. So the next morning, when the gunslinger approaches them for another duel, they don’t suspect anything wrong. This time Blane wants to take a crack at the gunslinger, but surprise!, the android gunslinger outdraws and shoots, killing him. Martin is at once confused and scared, and runs for his life, with the android in hot pursuit. Right there, Crichton subverts the Western trope of the cool cowboy killing the bad guy and protecting the geek. The cool guy is dead, and the geek is on the run, and it will be him who will take down the super-villain. The ‘gunslinger in Black’ seems possessed by some kind of an other-worldly obsession as he stalks Martin through all three worlds relentlessly. It would take some supreme human ingenuity on Martin’s part, to stay alive and defeat this unstoppable mechanical force. And the fact that the gunslinger is played by Yul Brynner attired as the iconic gunfighter, Chris Adams, from “The Magnificent Seven(1960)” gives it added dramatic and metaphorical weight. The heroic gunslinger of the ‘Western’ turned into a violent killing machine in the real world alludes to the influence that these iconic Western characters have on the audiences watching and cheering them on. The killing of Blane by the gunslinger, which marks the end of their ‘Westworld’ experience and draws them back to reality, also corresponds to the end of Western clichés in the film. Now both the film and the characters are in real world, and the film becomes a stalker\survival thriller with horror movie tones. The last half hour of this 88 minutes long film is pretty much a silent movie, with Martin on the run and gunslinger relentlessly stalking him.

The film features the first know usage of CGI in movies, and it is used to show the android’s POV. The gunslinger sees the world as a collection of giant pixels, and it is this aspect of the gunslinger’s vision that Martin uses to his advantage. It helps him to blend in with natural elements like earth and fire, which makes it hard for the android to distinguish him from his background. It’s again a metaphor for the difference between humans and machines; humans are blessed with the ability to think for themselves and act based upon that, while machines, even if malfunctioning, still poses this ability only in a limited capacity, and their blurred vision is a metaphor for that. In the end, it is these very basic human qualities that allows Martin to defeat the machine. The CGI used or android’s vision seems rather crude by today’s standards, but it remains a watershed moment for cinema. It’s also interesting to note that it was the film adaptation of Crichton’s  Jurassic Park in 1993 that ushered in the digital age in movies by digitally creating a fully living, breathing, moving creature on screen for the first time. After that, CGI became the hottest tool in filmmaking world over. Guess, that’s one more thread that ties these two movies together . When the shooting of the film was complete, Crichton was able to show the shot footage and extract an addition 300k from the tight-fisted studio to shoot a prologue. The prologue features the television commercial that opens the film and it fully rounds out the satirical, ironic tone of the film. In the very final moments of the film, we find  Martin sitting on the dungeon steps of the MedievalWorld in a state of near-exhaustion and shock- he’s the only human alive on Delos now, as Delos’ slogan “Boy, have we got a vacation for you!” reverberates on the soundtrack, the irony is chilling!

Since this was Crichton’s first film, his lack of experience led to the film almost getting derailed. He had shot a much bigger film, which he himself dismissed as long and boring, with some of the special effects scenes being way too tacky. This important thing is that a rank newcomer like Crichton actually got an opportunity to make an off-beat film like this. Something like this can happen only in the early 1970s, when youngsters with zero experience where allowed by the studios to turn full-fledged filmmakers. Though the film plays out as a cautionary tale of humans’ excessive dependence and abuse of machines, Crichton meant it as a tale of human hubris, though that theme does not fully come through n the final edit. That’s one of the many issues i found with the film, apart from several other scientific and logical loopholes in the plot. It helps that Crichton keeps it open ended; no explanation is given for the reasons that lead to the robot-revolt, so a lot of stuff that happens after that really doesn’t need logical explanations. The filmmaking is also uneven; some of it, like the initial portions, is not very good; maybe, Crichton was just getting a hang of things. The film is also bogged down by a limited budget (and perhaps also a limited schedule of just 30 days); the lack of money in realizing some big scenes is evident throughout the film. The filmmaking gets better as the film goes on, and the final half hour features some of his best filmmaking; though, i wish he had concentrated fully on Westworld and completely eliminated the other two worlds. We hardly get to see much action from those two worlds anyway.

There are two main elements that makes this film work to such a great extend. First is Fred Karlin’s terrific score that mixes lush symphonic orchestrations with an eerie electronic score. It’s very reminiscent of his brilliant score for another chilling stalker-Western, The Stalking Moon(1968) (reviewed here). The score goes a long way in setting the mood in the traditional ‘Western’ portions, but most importantly in the final moments, when the gunslinger stalks Martin. The other main element is Yul Brynner’s (presence and) performance as the android gunslinger. He’s basically doing a send-up of his iconic character, but he’s playing it very straight, which makes his performance all the more chilling. With the exception of Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man with no name”, it would have been impossible for Crichton to create the same effect with any other star in the role. The filmmakers got Brynner for a pittance, just 75K. Brynner, by the time, was an out of work film actor; his glory days of “The King & I” and “The Ten commandments” way behind him. Following Westworld, Brynner only made three more films. He undertook a brief cameo in the inferior Westworld sequel, Futureworld (1976), and acted in the science fiction film The Ultimate Warrior and the Italian crime film Death Rage. After that he focused his efforts on playing The King and I on stage. In 1983 he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and died from the disease in 1985.

Despite its production and post-production problems, the film finally came together when Crichton cut it down to a crisp 88 minutes. The film turned out to be a sizeable success, earning almost ten times its investment, though its legacy and influence goes way beyond box office considerations. One only need to check out the list of great filmmakers who have been inspired from this film to assess its influence: Apart from usual suspects like Steven Spielberg, Director, John Carpenter, has cited Brynner’s relentless Gunslinger as a key influence on the character of Michael Myers in his 1978 horror film “Halloween”. Likewise, James Cameron’s Terminator characters seem purposefully inspired by the Gunslinger. Actually, there was an attempt to remake this film with Arnold Schwarzenegger reprising Yul Brynner’s role in early 2000s, but the project was abandoned after Arnold became governor of California. Other influences can be found in the design of replicants in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), as well as that of the “Predator” in John McTierman’s eponymous 1987 film. The Westworld phenomenon has now come full circle with the highly regarded HBO series- developed from the film by J. J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan- now going into its fourth season. But for me, the most stunning achievement of this film, which mixes Western, Science fiction and Horror genres, is in predicting the future of mainstream American cinema. Till this point in American film history, “Westerns” were the most popular and durable film genre. But by the 1970s, Westerns were a dying genre, and the great Western filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah were making their ‘End of the West” Western tragedies. Within 4 years of the release of this film, George Lucas’ “Star Wars” will be released, and Sci-fi action adventure films will forever replace the “Western” as the most popular film genre. “Star Wars” was actually a ‘Western set in space’; and you could see that the horse operas were giving way to space operas, with films like “Outland” and “Battle beyond the stars” also following the same pattern. We would also see horror movies being reinvented through Sci-fi with the “Alien” series and its derivatives. In that regard, the final moments in this film, where the ‘Gunslinger in Black’ from the ‘Western’ transforms into a stalking-monster from a horror film, and then is finally destroyed in a Sci-fi setting, can be considered the ultimate metaphor for the transformation that took place in American movies during the 1970s.


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