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As “Sometimes a Great Notion” Turns 50, It’s Worth Looking Back at the Stampers and Oregon’s Role in the Film

The Paul Newman-directed drama unravels the pathological grit of the Stamper clan, a family of loggers in the fictional coastal enclave of Wakonda, Oregon.

While Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion is regarded as perhaps the quintessential Oregon novel, its 1971 film adaptation is more like a forgotten little brother.

With One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (based on another Kesey novel, of course) ranking among the state’s most famous film productions, only devotees of Oregon film history or ‘70s cinema likely recall much about Notion the movie. That, or maybe Paul Newman bought your uncle a beer in Newport during the summer of 1970, per the myriad boozy stories surrounding the film shoot.

Fifty years old this month, this Paul Newman-directed drama unravels the pathological grit of the Stamper clan, a family of loggers in the fictional coastal enclave of Wakonda, Oregon. The Stampers have turned scab in the face of a timber strike, and one need only consult the family motto—”never give a inch”—to understand why they’ll keep on cutting, dammit.

The film opens as though washed landward by the Pacific, an aerial shot combing the Central Oregon coastline while country music groundbreaker Charley Pride croons the gospel sentiments of “All His Children.” As establishing shots go, they seldom get more stunning, but we immediately see the movie veer in its own tonal direction. In Kesey’s opus, both the setting and style are torrential. In the space of one page, the reader might plunge through three timelines of genealogy and perspective with unfilmable fluidity. Meanwhile, Kesey bestows Oregon nature with an almost alien power to inspire and madden the Stampers.

By comparison, much of the film’s ambience is almost jaunty, as though the production couldn’t help but be impressed with its own riches of talent, source material and location. Nature is conventionally majestic. The Stamper house, built by Universal Studios on the Siletz River near Kernville, is more attractive than the novel’s half-drowned monument to stubbornness. Composer Henry Mancini’s bluegrass score practically frolics, while Newman’s irrepressible charms endow Hank Stamper with righteous irascibility, as he chainsaws union desks in half and essentially leaves Wakonda to rot while on strike. What’s more, one can sense from the classical, painterly filmmaking why Notion eluded lasting fame relative to other 1971 films, which saw The French Connection, Klute, Shaft and A Clockwork Orange help shape New Hollywood aesthetics with hip, provocative urban settings. (Granted, this didn’t stop Notion from being the first film ever shown on HBO in 1972.)

Where Sometimes a Great Notion unequivocally thrives, though, is in enlivening Stamper family dynamics, drenched in Olympia lager and 4:30 am maple syrup. In a body cast that holds his busted arm 90 degrees off his body, Henry Fonda leers and jeers unforgettably as the influential family patriarch, Henry. Then, in an Oscar-nominated turn as cousin and family cheerleader Joe Ben, Richard Jaeckel’s sunny disposition perfectly masks the film’s shocking conclusion. Michael Sarrazin excels as black-sheep hippie brother Leland reentering his estranged family’s orbit. And Lee Remick as Viv is stunningly wistful as Hank’s wife realizing she is the crew’s actual outsider.

Through five stellar lead performances, Oregonian survivalism feels as spiritual as it does illogical. As Kesey’s novel puts it, these are the descendants of men with “itchy feet,” who migrated further and further into the Western wilderness, chasing a pasture some imperceptible shade greener. Even if the film portrays their antisocial tendencies more as a wellspring than a curse, the logging scenes testify to their work as a terrifying religion. We see trees the length of school buses felled by hand and yanked up mountainsides, and Quentin Tarantino has called the film’s climactic logging accident one of the best single movie scenes of the early ‘70s. Just beforehand, a pulsating montage of clear-cutting shows the Stampers partaking in an Olympic feat of tradition, defiance and gluttony.

No matter how handsome Paul Newman makes any of it look, one need only remember the origins of the book and film title—Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene”—to recall the suicidal streak that deepens and damns every glorious sight the movie can muster.

“Sometimes I live in the country/Sometimes I live in the town/Sometimes I get a great notion/to jump in the river…and drown.”

SEE IT: Sometimes a Great Notion streams on Amazon Prime and YouTube. You can also rent it at Movie Madness, 4320 SE Belmont St., 503-234-4363, moviemadness.org.