“Have we got a vacation for you” | Westworld (1973)

Two men, Peter Martin and John Blane, travel to a high technology theme park named Delos. There they both book into Westworld, a reproduction of 1880s America partially populated by interactive robots. When a computer failure spreads like an infection through the park’s robots, they suddenly turn violently against the guests – and Peter and John are running for their lives.

Westworld is a 1973 science fiction film written and directed by Michael Crichton. At the time it was a modest hit for MGM, inspiring a 1976 sequel and a short-lived television series. In 2016 it was revived for television a second time, produced by J.J. Abrams, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, and quickly became the most watched first season of any series on cable broadcaster HBO. With so much critical acclaim and audience attention focused on the new series – and deservedly so – it seems a highly appropriate time to visit its original source, and to appreciate just what a strong and effective film it is.

Michael Crichton was, of course, a looming monolith in American pop culture. Prior to his death in 2008 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. He was also a screenwriter and director in his own right, directing seven feature films including Westworld, The Great Train Robbery and Coma. Twice he achieved the feat of being responsible for the USA’s most popular film, book and television drama simultaneously: in 1995 with The Lost World, Congo and ER, and again in 1996 with Airframe, Twister and ER.

Crichton’s multi-hyphenate talent, which spanned both literature and the screen arts, made him a formidable presence in pop culture. That presence went double in person, as the six-foot nine-inch Crichton tended to loom over every other person in the room.

‘He was a stone-cold genius,’ said actor/producer Michael Douglas, who collaborated with Crichton on the films Coma and Disclosure. ‘He really was a gentle giant, very shy but intimidating. This guy was off the charts as far as intellect was concerned.’[1]

While the young Crichton had always wanted to be a writer, issues with the Harvard College English department led to him transferring his degree in mid-studies to biological anthropology. He subsequently enrolled in Harvard Medical School, gained his MD in 1969. He never obtained a license to practice medicine, however, having already started a budding career as a pulp novelist.

His first novel was Odds On, a crime novel written under the pseudonym John Lange in 1966. In 1969 his sixth novel The Andromeda Strain became an unexpected commercial hit, propelled his career into a new phase as a best-selling author.

The Andromeda Strain was adapted into a feature film two years later; it was directed by Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still) with a screenplay by Nelson Gidding. Crichton grew interested in film and television himself at this stage, writing three episodes of the television series Insight. In 1972 he wrote and directed the made-for-television film Pursuit, based on his novel Binary.

Crichton was keen to direct a feature film, and in 1972 wrote a screenplay to that end. Titled Westworld, he deliberately developed its story to be produced on a modest budget and thus more likely for a studio to pick it up.

 

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. ‘It was the idea of playing with a situation,’ he said, ‘in which the usual distinctions between person and machine – between a car and the driver of the car – become blurred, and then trying to see if there was something in the situation that would lead to other ways of looking at what’s human and what’s mechanical.’[2]

Westworld tackled what would become a common theme in Crichton’s work. Not, as many have always assumed, fear of technology, but rather human hubris.

Crichton said: ‘Everyone remembers the scene in Westworld where Yul Brynner is a robot that runs amok. But there is a very specific scene where people discuss whether or not to shut down the resort. I think the movie was as much about that decision as anything. They just didn’t think it was really going to happen.’[3]

It is not killer robots that threaten the guests at Westworld but the arrogance of the designers and executives who do a sloppy job in creating them, assuming everything will work perfectly. It is a theme that Crichton returned to time and again, in such works as Jurassic Park, Timeline and even on television in ER where the over-confidence of interns and resident doctors often led to critical errors and high drama.

It is pride, not technology, that seemed to motivate Crichton’s writing, and to a large extent his first real exploration of that theme occurred in Westworld.

The Westworld screenplay was completed in August 1972, at which point Crichton started the process of shopping it around Hollywood’s main studios. He was initially unsuccessful. The studios were unwilling to spend much money on what seemed like a fairly trashy science fiction movie, let alone one directed by a man who had to date made one made-for-television film. In the end the only studio to express any interest at all was MGM, which gave Crichton pause: the studio was, at the time, suffering from a fairly negative reputation for interfering with film projects and second-guessing directors. MGM’s offer was also fairly restrictive: they would only fund the film on a budget of one million dollars, and they would only support a production shoot lasting 30 days.

With no one else wiling to finance the picture, Crichton agreed to their terms.

‘I’m sort of semi‐virgin,’ he admitted to the New York Times. ‘I directed Pursuit, with Ben Gazzara, last December for ABC‐TV, but Westworld will be my first directing job for the movies and my first original script to reach the screen.’[4]

Pre-production on Westworld started in November, with MGM immediately interfering over costs, casting and other production elements. It soon became clear that a million dollar budget was going to be insufficient, leading MGM to reluctantly contribute a further $250,000.

Studio-mandated script changes continued right up to the commencement of shooting. Casting was delayed by so much that the film was only fully cast two days before the shoot. Michael Crichton had no control over casting whatsoever, with the studio alone mandating who would appear.

In the lead role of Peter Martin, a reluctant and somewhat nervous Chicago businessman, MGM cast Richard Benjamin – who eagerly accepted the offer. ‘Well,’ Benjamin later explained, ‘it probably was the only way I was ever going to get into a western, and certainly into a science-fiction western.’[5]

Benjamin had previously starred in the films Goodbye Columbus (1969), Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Catch-22 (1970). Westworld marked a significant change from the usual roles Benjamin played, and presented him with the chance to show an entirely new side to his acting skills.

Benjamin would later enthuse on his enjoyment working for Michael Crichton. ‘Michael was one of those people, when he came into a room, you knew someone smarter than you is in the room. He was so nice, but brilliant, completely brilliant. It brings your game up, just being around him.’[6]

In 1982 Benjamin directed his first feature film, My Favourite Year, opening up a second career that was much more successful than his first. Benjamin has subsequently directed a number of moderately successful films including Little Nikita (1988), Mermaids (1990), Milk Money (1994), and Mrs Winterbourne (1996).

James Brolin was cast as the ruggedly handsome and confident John Blane. At the time he was best known for his role as Dr Steven Kiley in the popular TV drama Marcus Welby M.D. Westworld represented Brolin’s first hit film, and helped to raise his profile considerably with audiences.

The first choice to play the relentless robot cowboy, referred to in the screenplay as the Gunslinger, was Russian-born actor Yul Brynner. Best known for playing King Mongkut of Siam in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, Brynner had also made an indelible impression as mercenary Chris Adams in the 1960 western The Magnificent Seven. It was his performance as Adams that attracted Michael Crichton to using Brynner, since he would cut such a familiar western figure.

Brynner enjoyed the themes of Westworld’s screenplay, particularly its warnings about allowing technology to run away with proper control or supervision. Crichton’s offer hit Brynner at a time when he was both looking for money and not seeing any offers from anybody else. Somewhat reluctantly Brynner signed on for $75,000 – far less than his usual performance fee. Despite the lower pay, Brynner still insisted to be chauffeured from his home at a Beverly Hills hotel to the MGM back lot. Since the production’s budget could not extend to such a service, producer Paul Lazarus III had his secretary pick Brynner up in her own car.

Despite working for a lower fee than normal, the actor gave his full enthusiasm to the film. James Brolin recalled: ‘Yul Brynner’s presence on Westworld was like having an old master there, but he would show up in patent red boots and patent red belt, and he’d always wear a black outfit.’[7]

Richard Benjamin concurred: ‘He was a pretty amazing person, kind of legendary. You’d say, “I don’t believe some of this,” and then it turns out it’s true. So he was a larger-than-life person.’[8]

Following Westworld, Brynner only made three more films. He undertook a brief cameo in 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 near-continual tours of The King and I on stage. In 1983 he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and died from the disease in October 1985.

Despite the truncated 30-day shoot, Crichton kept the film running along on time and on budget. ‘He knew exactly what he was doing,’ said Richard Benjamin. ‘It went very smoothly and easily, and he was, you know, this quiet presence, but in total command.’[9]

Crichton encouraged his cast to undertake as many of their own stunts as possible, feeling that it ruined an action scene if an audience could notice a stunt artist had been used. This suited Brynner perfectly, since he expected to do as many as he was allowed already. For James Brolin it took some convincing: the actor had previously broken his leg undertaking an on-screen stunt and was in no hurry to repeat the experience.

Crichton’s intention was to open the film on a massive luxury hovercraft gliding over the desert towards the Delos resort. An establishing model shot of the hovercraft was produced but was felt to be unconvincing; it was excised during post-production. To save costs only one side of the cabin set was built. For reverse shots, Crichton used the one side and then flipped the image in post-production.

It is in this hovercraft that we first encounter Martin and Blane. The early scenes establish them in an efficient and effective manner. Delos costs $1,000 a day to visit, so we know both men have money to throw around. We also learn quite quickly that Martin is undergoing a painful and unwanted break-up, and that the entire Westworld trip is essentially Blane’s way of taking Martin’s mind off his troubles. It is a near-stereotypical macho response to a failed relationship: go on a road trip, get drunk, go out shooting, and having sex with random women. It is important that this is established early and firmly, because the stereotypes collapse as the film goes on.

The western town exteriors were all shot at the Old Tucson studios in Arizona. The same town sets had been used for Red River (1948), The Violent Men (1955), 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and The Magnificent Seven (1960) – not to mention the television dramas Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rifleman and Maverick. It looks for all the world like every other movie western town ever seen, and in Westworld that it of course exactly the point.

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.

In a critical early encounter of this type, Martin is intimidated by the Gunslinger in a saloon bar. Blane eggs Martin on to respond, and so Martin shoots the Gunslinger dead. It is, shot for shot, a typical bar room showdown. Notably the Gunslinger is dressed identically to Brynner’s character in The Magnificent Seven.

To give the robots a slightly eerie, unnatural look, actors were fitted with 80 per cent reflective contact lenses. These enabled the cast to still see clearly, but allowed for the lenses to shine with an unsettling and unnatural light when a spotlight was shone into them from beside the camera.

Two weeks into the shoot an accident during a gunfight scene saw a tiny piece of wadding from a gun blank hit Yul Brynner in the eye. While his injury was comparatively minor – a scratch to his cornea – it rendered him unable to wear the silvery contact lenses without his eye immediately watering. The production schedule was hastily rearranged to move most of his scenes to the tail-end of the shoot, so that his eye had time to heal.

After the fun of killing the Gunslinger, and some dinner, Blane drags Martin to the local ‘whorehouse’ to have sex with two of the robots there. Martin is visibly uncomfortable, but soon settles into the idea. The brothel owner Miss Carrie was played by Majel Barrett, then best known for her recurring role as Nurse Christine Chapel in the television series Star Trek.

So it goes for quite a while: Martin and Blane experience all of the stereotypes of the genre. The Gunslinger returns the following morning, only for Martin to shoot him even more heroically. Martin gets arrested for the murder and locked up in the town gaol. Blane uses dynamite to blow the wall and rescue him, with both men galloping off into the wilderness on horses.

While their adventures proceed, Crichton offers glimpses of a few other characters. A nervous, overweight man in glasses takes over as town sheriff, while over the Medievalworld a middle-aged player tries his hand at seducing the maid and laughing off the threats of a Black Knight demanding a duel.

By day the players all indulge their various whims. 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. Viewers of the 2016 TV remake will know how that version emphasised the inhumanity and the brutality of the guest’s behaviour by gradually making the robots self-aware. To an extent Crichton achieves the same technique: they look human, and they act human, and so the callous and throwaway manner in which the guests treat them is instinctively unpleasant.

In a cost-cutting measure, the robot repair room was the same set as all of Delos’ underground corridors – simply with the walls pushed wider apart.

The robots are beginning to malfunction. Out in the Badlands, Blane is bitten by a robot rattlesnake. In Medievalworld the guest is stabbed to death by the Black Knight. The park’s management panics, 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. The robots – for the time being at least – run on battery power.

The shot of the rattlesnake striking Blane in the arm was shot with a real rattlesnake whose venom had been milked. The shot was recorded in reverse, with the snake being pulled off James Brolin’s arm by an animal handler out of shot. During the take, despite extensive padding underneath Brolin’s costume, the snake’s lower fangs managed to pierce the actor’s skin. Thankfully the injury was superficial and no venom was injected.

The progressive breakdown of control is described in a particularly forward-thinking manner for 1973. ‘We aren’t dealing with ordinary machines here,’ admits the chief technician. ‘These are highly complicated pieces of equipment, almost as complicated as living organisms. In some cases, they’ve been designed by other computers. We don’t know exactly how they work.’

The unexplained spread of malfunctions across the robot population is compared to a virus. This is one of the earliest on-screen references to computer viruses; it may even be the first-ever such reference.

Unaware of the encroaching breakdown, Blane and Martin have returned to town and collapsed in drunk stupors at the end of a violent bar room brawl. When they wake the next morning, chaos reigns and the Gunslinger has returned to torment them for a third time. Neither man is aware of any malfunction, so Blane is quite confident in shooting the Gunslinger again. When he is out-drawn and fatally shot in the chest, his reaction is not fear or upset but rather simple confusion. Blane is the stereotypical ‘tough guy’ and alpha male. The stereotypical logic with which the film has traded to this point dictates that Blane should be some kind of heroic paragon. Instead he lies literally face-down in the dirt. There isn’t even anything typically Hollywood about the way he dies. He does not simply fall dead. He does not get a noble speech. He simply gets shot, dies, and falls on his face.

The western fantasy dies at that moment. Martin does what absolutely any sane human being would do in his place: he turns and runs for his life.

The climax of Westworld is a wonderful tight, fast-paced chase scene. Martin runs for his life. The Gunslinger follows; not a fast as Martin at his fastest, but relentless and purposeful. Martin briefly meets a cowering technician, who reveals that the entire park has gone haywire with robots killing the guests all over the place. Seconds later the Gunslinger shoots the technician dead, and Martin is forced to run again.

Crichton desperately wanted the robot’s point of view to represent something genuinely inhuman and mechanical, and hit upon the idea of giving it a computerised and ‘pixelated’ look. Writing on his own website, Crichton would later explain: ‘to show the point of view of a machine, use a machine. I wanted to film the scenes and then manipulate the film with a computer.’[10]

The problem was that no one had ever turned film footage into a pixelated image before. He first approached Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who informed him that two minutes of robot-vision would take nine months and cost approximately two hundred thousand dollars. This was far too expensive in terms of both time and money, leading Crichton to approach abstract filmmaker John Whitney Sr instead. Whitney quoted Crichton four months and twenty thousand, both of which fit more comfortably within Crichton’s budget.

Whitney’s process started with research. He partnered with Information International in Los Angeles to begin transferring a short test reel into a computer, and then adjusted it via computer on a trial-and-error basis. To ensure the images on-screen would remain intelligible to audiences, Whitney learned that an actor appearing would have to be dressed in a primary colour from head to toe to better separate their image from the background once in the computer. In most scenes that meant clothing Richard Benjamin entirely in white, including white face-paint. On horseback scenes a stunt artist was clothed totally in red to stand out better from the sky.

Once in the computer each 10 second sequence took approximately eight hours to render into useable footage. To create a colour image, MGM’s optical department had to separate each shot into three separate reels for each primary colour before they were transferred to computer. It was ultimately such a time-consuming process that Westworld’s release date was almost delayed over fears the footage would not be ready in time.

The robot-vision seems rather quaint when viewed today, but it was and remains a watershed moment for cinema. It was the first time in history that a feature film had incorporated computer-generated imagery (CGI). In 1976 the sequel Futureworld featured a 3D computer-generated hand and head on a computer display. 20 years after Westworld, Crichton’s own novel Jurassic Park was adapted with well-publicised computer-generated dinosaurs (despite only appearing in four minutes in the whole film) and CGI rapidly became a commonplace tool in Hollywood filmmaking.

That Westworld initiated CGI in Hollywood is a rarely known fact, but in all seriousness it likely deserves to be remembered as a similarly significant film as The Jazz Singer (which introduced synchronised sound in 1927).

Martin enters Romanworld – now a ghost town of dead bodies – and climbs down into the underground facility where the various park attractions are built, constructed and repaired. The Romanworld scenes were shot on location on a country estate formerly owned by silent film star Harold Lloyd.

Martin hides in the repair room, before leaping out and partially blinding the Gunslinger with a container of acid. To create the effect of acid burning the Gunslinger’s face, Yul Brynner’s face was coated with a combination of oil-based make-up and crushed Alka-Seltzer pills. Upon contact with water, the Alka-Seltzer immediately began to fizz. When combined with the release of tiny smoke cannisters attached to Brynner’s head, the illusion of boiling acid was successfully achieved. The scene took two takes to achieve, with Brynner intent on performing without overly reacting to the smoke in his face.

The Gunslinger, now critically impaired, follows Martin into Medievalworld. There Martin sets the robot on fire before finally collapsing to the ground, exhausted. The robots appear to have all stopped. Everybody else is dead.

Crichton’s originally intended climax was truncated during production. He had originally envisaged a prolonged physical struggle between the charred Gunslinger and Martin, culminating in the Gunslinger getting attached to a medieval rack and pulled into pieces. When the time came to shoot the scene, it was felt that the proposed action was too unrealistic and silly. Instead the disintegrating Gunslinger simply reaches helplessly for Martin before crashing to the floor.

With shooting complete, Crichton set about editing the film – as well as fighting to convince MGM that Westworld was a commercially viable prospect for a wide release. When executives viewed a rough cut of the film, they agreed to fund a brief reshoot to give the film a new introduction. This prologue, styled like a television infomercial promoting the theme park, better established the setting and satirical tone of the film. By applying dialogue from the infomercial to the film’s final shot, Crichton better framed the film overall and gave the conclusion a much more cynical and ironic note.

The studio also took the opportunity to cut out close to 10 minutes of violent action from the film, over concerns it would prevent the film from gaining an audience-friendly PG rating. Sadly this additional footage has since been lost, denying audiences the chance to see Westworld as Crichton had initially conceived it.

To assess Westworld’s commercial potential, MGM conducted a single test screening with an audience of regular movie-goers. The response in post-screening surveys was tremendously positive, with 95 per cent of the audience expressing satisfaction with the film.

Westworld was released in American cinemas on 21 November 1973. In its domestic theatrical run it grossed roughly $10 million, more than enough to ensure it was a modest hit. For MGM, which was struggling financially, it was a much-needed boost of revenue. A month before Westworld’s release, MGM leased its entire library for distribution to United Artists on a 10-year contract. By 1981 the two studios had merged.

Following the film’s release, Crichton found himself too exhausted to consider diving immediately into a second directorial feature. ‘I was intensely fatigued by Westworld,” he told the Los Angeles Times. ‘I was pleased but intimidated by the audience reaction. The laughs are in the wrong places. There was extreme tension where I hadn’t planned it. I felt the reaction, and maybe the picture, was out of control.’[11]

For his next project Crichton wrote a screenplay titled Code Blue, which depicted 24 hours in the life of a hospital emergency room. The lengthy script was abandoned until 1993 when, with Crichton then riding high on the success of his novel Jurassic Park, NBC re-developed it into an ongoing series: ER. That series ran for 15 years and was for a time the most popular television drama in America.

Crichton’s influence over pop culture continues today. Not only is Westworld in production on its second season for HBO, a previously unpublished novel Dragon’s Teeth is being adapted as a six-part miniseries for the National Geographic Channel. A fifth Jurassic Park film is due in cinemas in 2018, and NBC is tentatively considering a revival of ER.

As for Westworld itself, its influence extends right across genre film and television, in ways not immediately recognised. John Carpenter has cited Brynner’s relentless Gunslinger as a key influence on the character Michael Myers in his 1978 horror film Halloween. Likewise James Cameron’s Terminator characters seem purposefully inspired by the Gunslinger. The eerie reflective eyes of Westworld’s robots are echoed in the replicants of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Even The Simpsons dedicated one of its most famous episodes – “Itchy and Scratchy Land” – to parodying Westworld, as well as a key sequence in another (“The Boy Who Knew Too Much”).

The film also seems prescient of 21st century culture. The interactive theme park appears to foreshadow violent sandbox videogames such as Grand Theft Auto, in which players can indulge in all manner of anti-social and violent activities in complete safety. ‘I shot six people!’ explains one happy customer during the film’s prologue, before hurriedly adding ‘Well, they weren’t real people.’

Westworld points to a dark corner that could lie within anyone, and punishes it.

[1] Sam Kashner, “When Michael Crichton reigned over pop culture, from ER to Jurassic Park”, Vanity Fair, February 2017.

[2] Quoted in “Behind the scenes on Westworld”, American Cinematographer, November 1973.

[3] Michael Crichton, “Reflections of a new designer”, Compute, February 1985.

[4] A.H. Weiler, “What’s up, Doc?”, New York Times, 11 February 1973.

[5] Nathan Rabian, “Richard Benjamin on Peter O’Toole, celebrity treasure hunts, and Woody Allen”, AV Club, 15 November 2012.

[6] Nathan Rabian, “Richard Benjamin on Peter O’Toole, celebrity treasure hunts, and Woody Allen”, AV Club, 15 November 2012.

[7] Will Harris, “James Brolin on Life in Pieces, Capricorn One, and kind of getting Community”, AV Club, 20 October 2015.

[8] Nathan Rabian, “Richard Benjamin on Peter O’Toole, celebrity treasure hunts, and Woody Allen”, AV Club, 15 November 2012.

[9] Sam Kashner, “When Michael Crichton reigned over pop culture, from ER to Jurassic Park”, Vanity Fair, February 2017.

[10] Michael Crichton, “Westworld: In his own words”, http://www.michaelcrichton.com.

[11] Joseph Gelmis, “Author of Terminal Man building non-terminal career”, Los Angeles Times, 4 January 1974.

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