Sometimes a Great Notion—the second of five films directed by Paul Newman in his career and based on a novel by Ken Kesey—is both impressive and exasperating. It’s Impressive, because cinematographer Richard Moore (The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Annie) so adeptly captures the beauty and rawness of the logging industry. In one scene, a very tall tree falls toward a camera shooting from the ground—you get a real sense of what it would be like to have a falling tree be the last thing you see in this world. Few films capture an area as well as the Northwest and its town life is here. Sometimes a Great Notion is equally as exasperating because we are forced to watch a family so stubborn that they’re willing to lose everything, for nothing.
The Stamper family is a fiercely independent clan. Guided by tough minded patriarch Henry Stamper (Henry Fonda), the family motto, “never give an inch,” isn’t just a mantra; it’s a way of life. Stamper, his son Hank (Paul Newman) and nephew Joe Ben (Richard Jaeckel) are ‘gyppo loggers’, independents that cut and sell wood by volume rather than work for a logging company for a wage. Hank and Joe Ben are married to Viv and Jan (Lee Remick and Linda Lawson) respectively, who are expected to stay quiet and offer no opinions. When the local lumber union goes on strike, they refuse to join in. They want to maintain their independence and fulfill the contract they have with the big lumber company. Though the Stamper’s employees are on strike, Henry keeps working, in the belief that he isn’t responsible for the jobs of those in the community.
In the midst of all this, Leeland Stamper (Michael Sarrazin) appears after several years away. His mother (Henry’s second wife), had fled the family years before. Leeland’s arrival changes the entire dynamic within the family. His mother committed suicide and Leeland is definitely less than pleased with how his father (and perhaps the rest of the family), responded to the tragedy. His talks with Viv—who had been largely silent prior to his arrival—get her thinking about just how happy she really is, being a passive wife to Hank. An unexpected, subtle conflict develops between Hank and Leeland. Leeland got an education in large part because of the money that was sent from home. However, that money didn’t come from his father, but half-brother Hank.
Henry Fonda’s Henry Stamper is a stubborn man with deep convictions. In his mind, even if he has nothing else, he still has his pride. In the end, it’s his pride that won’t allow him to join the union, even if it’s the right thing to do. At one point Viv asks what it’s all for. Henry says “We work, sleep, eat, screw, drink and keep on going, and that’s all there is.” The price for total independence is a high one, but it’s the only road Henry knew how to travel. Because he had dominated his Hank and Joe Ben for so long, they knew nothing else but to follow him, no matter the cost.
I won’t spoil one of the film’s final sequences, but it’s as heartbreaking as anything you’ll likely see in movies. If you don’t tear up just a little bit, you might want to check your pulse. The logging scenes in this film are simply amazing. Watching these big machines pull huge logs from the earth is something. At times, as interesting as the story is, it almost feels secondary to the outstanding photography. Sometimes a great Notion is well worth viewing, particularly if you’re a Paul Newman or Henry Fonda fan.
Presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Shout Factory’s 1080p transfer doesn’t show as much detail as I might have liked. Granted, this is likely in part because the print itself shows some issues—scratches, haziness, and an instance or two of haloing. Since I’m not sure how this film ever looked on DVD, I can’t say whether the Blu-ray is much of an upgrade.
The DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio is nothing particularly special. This is a front heavy mix, with no real directional effects or surrounds (though it should be said that this film doesn’t really require either). Dialogue, effects and Henry Mancini’s score are all perfectly distinguishable.
English subtitles are available.
No special features are included.