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Labor Update: A Forgotten Movie About Father And Son Scabs

sometimes a great notionLabor Mondays’ Movie Review

Sometimes a Great Notion – Directed by Paul Newman. Filmed 1970. It was released to widespread dismissal in 1971, stars Paul Newman and Henry Fonda and Lee Remick.

In a supremely ironic film, those two great bastions of Hollywood liberalism – Paul Newman and Henry Fonda – star as father and son scabs. Their rugged individualism, community-destroying strike defiance and overall bravado are the Alpha of America.

Paul Newman’s handsome misogyny is as disarming as Henry Fonda’s loveable curmudgeon. They chop down centuries old forests, rise before the sun, drink beer, hunt, alternately fuck or ignore their beautiful servile wives. Henry and Hank Stamper – their characters in the film – live by their family creed, “never give a inch.”

The film is based on a story by Ken Kesey, of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest fame. I was written a year after Congress passed the Equal Pay Act mandating equal pay for women.  It was filmed two years after the 1968 French General strike, a student-led protest against austerity measures that swelled into a strike of over 4 million workers, and the same year US Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, mandating safety regulations for workers.

The film doesn’t convey the depth of character to the union members or women in the film – covered in more depth in the original novel’s 650 pages. It is essentially a male-heirarchy tale, and the film remains faithful critic to their hierarchy. The Stamper clan cling to their molehill as vigilantly as they uproot its trees.  Cynically – because that is the essence of Our Masculine Myth of American Exceptionalism – at the end of the film, our heroes Henry and Hank win. Deperately, glorifyingly. Their indomitable man-conquers-man, man-conquers-nature, man-conquers-society spirit lifts them, and we who sympathized with them, to a state of hollow despair.  You are left to feel like the centuries-old forests torn apart by Henry, Hank, and even the workers when they are not on strike: ravaged. Because their ethos is pathological.

Kesey considered it his best novel, better than his notorious earlier work, One Flew Over the Cookoos nest. But the film and book remain little known to most Paul Newman, Henry Fonda or Cokoos nest fans.

It’s live streaming online on Netflix, possibly on hulu or other free sites.

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