Classic movies: West Side Story

After watching this DVD last night, I wasn’t sure I wanted to post any kind of review. The ending is so sad and so bleak, and just thinking about it seemed likely to start the tears flowing again. But after a good night’s sleep I can think about it a bit more objectively.

This had long been on my mental list of classic films I ought to see someday. When I am actually looking for a movie to rent, however, I’m looking for entertainment – usually something a bit more escapist, with comedy and or adventure but not such serious themes as permeate West Side Story.

My older son rented it (if you can call it a “rental” when it’s free, that is – Family Video gives free rentals for A’s on report cards), and as I had never seen it I decided I should watch it. I’ve always liked some of the musical numbers – we played “Maria” and “Tonight” in my high school orchestra, and besides being beautiful music they were easier to play than some other contemporary music, such as by Aaron Copland.

I had a general idea of the story, both from having read it growing up and knowing that it was based on Romeo and Juliet. The ending was hardly a surprise, therefore, but being so affected by it was. I don’t remember how old I was when I read the book (i.e. the script, in book format) – perhaps too young to really understand it. I remember reading Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade and finding it boring, and thinking how foolish the two teenagers were to throw away their lives that way.

Perhaps it is because I have more experience of love and of loss in relationships that I now find it so moving. Perhaps it is the difference between reading words on a page and seeing them brought to life by talented actors. Perhaps it is because West Side Story succeeded so well on so many levels (as evidenced by its numerous Academy Awards).

I have to admit that, knowing it was such a highly regarded classic, I was surprised at the parts I didn’t enjoy (other than the tragic ending). I have read reviews, today, praising the artistic value of the opening sequence, which is music only against a mostly unchanging display of black lines (apparently representing city buildings) against a colored background (the color changes from time to time). Personally I found it merely strange – like a lot of modern art.

I also had not realized just how much dancing there was in the movie. I’m afraid I’ve never had much appreciation of dance, whether classical or modern. I’ve nothing against dance – in principle I think it’s a great form of artistic expression. But personally I seem to be “tone-deaf” to its beauty.

(I am impressed, when I watch my son perform in show choir, by the physical coordination (something I sadly lack) displayed, as well as how so many dancers can synchronize their movements. But I’m not too sure, sometimes, what the movements have to do with what they’re singing. I assume the lack is in me and not their choreography.)

I also was surprised at how unmemorable some of the songs are. The ones I knew – “Maria,” “Tonight,” and “One Hand, One Heart” – are beautiful and unforgettable (they have been taking turns going through my head today). “America” is witty and great fun to watch, though much too fast for me to catch all the words, let alone remember them. I’ve never cared much for “I Feel Pretty,” either the music or the lyrics, but it manages to get in my head as well.

But I can’t imagine finding “Something’s Coming” going around in my head, or “Jet Song” or “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love.” Even from “Somewhere,” the only line that sticks with me is “Hold my hand and we’re halfway there.” I don’t expect every song in a musical to be stunning, but based on reviews I’ve read of this film, many people think just about everything about it is sublime.

Another thing I found somewhat jarring is how the confrontations between the rival gangs are expressed stylistically rather than realistically. Watching it, I figured that must have been how it was done back then (the movie was released the year before I was born), when the kind of realism we’re accustomed to today was either technologically impossible or culturally unacceptable. But today I read that West Side Story broke new ground with its innovative use of music and dance. As another user pointed out at, such stylized expression would make sense on a Broadway stage. But filmed onsite among the tenements of New York City, it seems strangely out of place.

I don’t mean to give the impression I don’t like the movie. It has wonderful music (mostly), it has a very gripping story, and despite the heartbreaking ending, it has moments of great humor (particularly in the musical number “America”). The acting is clearly very good, or I wouldn’t have been so moved by it.

I understand that to remain true to the source material from Romeo and Juliet (although purists will point out that it does not, in the end, because Maria is still alive), it had to end as darkly as it did. I wouldn’t want a “happily ever after” ending where it turns out Tony actually had a bulletproof vest on and he was only stunned, not killed. But when it was over, I couldn’t find anything redemptive in the movie, only bleak despair.

Reading through a variety of viewer comments, I found one who felt, like me, that “There is no uplifting moment at the end of the tragedy.” But another pointed out that while there is despair, there is also hope. I agree that there is hope earlier in the movie, but I didn’t see it at the end. One commenter asserted that there is a positive message at the end because it appears there will now be peace between the gangs. Yes, members of both gangs moved spontaneously to pick up Anton’s body. But I interpreted that as a gesture based on shared guilt, which is a poor basis for ongoing peace.

I find myself wondering if I am evaluating movies in a manner similar to my mother. She hated films full of evil and violence, but surprised me by liking The Hiding Place. She explained that despite the cruelty of the Nazis, the overarching message was that of faith on the part of the ten Boom sisters. I don’t know what she would have thought of West Side Story; I remember her speaking of various movies she had seen, but not that one.

I was also thinking, yesterday, of a movie I saw many years ago about John Hus. July 6 is the anniversary of his death in 1415, and is celebrated as a public holiday in the Czech Republic. (I read that although “most Czechs describe themselves as non-religious, and among Christians more are Roman Catholics than Hussites, nonetheless Jan Hus is a national hero.”

Most Protestants know something of Luther’s role in the Reformation, and some are familiar with John Wycliffe, who translated the Bible into English and advocated reform back in the 14th century. But I have very rarely heard of Hus except for that one movie (which I think was produced by Bob Jones University, and shown primarily in churches). I don’t know whether Hus sounded as much like modern evangelicals as the movie made it sound, but he certainly stood for principles which were given a wide hearing in the Protestant Reformation – and he died for those principles.

I remember little else of that movie, but I remember watching him being burned at the stake for his “heresy,” and singing a hymn to God as he died. I can imagine myself being willing to be killed for my faith (though, as our small group at church agreed last Sunday, none of us can say until put in that place what we would actually do) by some quick death such as being shot. I have always feared fire, however, and the idea that someone could stand in the midst of the searing flames singing – I felt horrified by his suffering but deeply moved by his faith.

That movie affected me deeply but pointed to faith and hope rather than despair. I don’t expect a movie like West Side Story to have that kind of message, but a true portrayal of human life will include some sense of what allows people to transcend the horrible situations that others put them in. The hope and faith that Tony and Maria showed previously in the movie seems to be naïve, based on wishful thinking more than anything else. For me, the message at the end seemed to be that hard reality burst the balloon of such empty faith.

Whatever you think of the movie, a great resource about it is the official West Side Story website. It has lyrics for all the songs (both stage and movie versions), and some very interesting information about the inspiration for and making of the movie. For instance, in 1957 Leonard Bernstein jotted down his thoughts about how the postponing of further work on West Side Story would be good, as it would give more time for a problematical work to “season”:

Chief problem: to tread the fine line between opera and Broadway, between realism and poetry, ballet and “just dancing,” abstract and representational. Avoid being “messagy.” The line is there, but it’s very fine, and sometimes takes a lot of peering around to discern it.

I think sometimes the movie strayed from that fine line to one side or the other. But considering the challenges facing Bernstein and the other creative minds behind the production, they succeeded remarkably well.


5 Responses to Classic movies: West Side Story

  1. Karen O says:

    West Side Story is a favorite of my daughters (especially Emily) & I. I enjoy the dancing very much, but I agree that some of the songs are not that great.

    Another depressing musical is Carousel. Have you seen it? I love the songs, but I don’t like the ending.

    Or how about The King & I? Another sad ending.

  2. Peter L says:

    I have always loved W.S.S. We used to listen to the soundtrack at least once a week when I was little. When I got older, I realized that had my family stayed in NYC, we would have been rooting for the Sharks, being from Puerto Rico. And it was filmed not far from where my grandparents lived in NYC.

    I still enjoy the movie, though, as you say, some of it drags along. To me, the funniest song is “Sargent Krupke”. I think “One Hand, One Heart” would be a great song at a wedding.

    I showed this film to an 8th grade Spanish class (it was a quarter class that got them interested in high school elective offerings). I believed the message of getting along with people not like you would be good for them, as there were Central Americans moving into the town of 99% white, rural/factory residents. (To say prejudiced would be putting it nicely.) The students (the boys anyway) thought the dancing was (their words) “gay”. I must admit, I cannot imagine street-toughened gang members dancing around New York that way. At the end, I asked them to imagine what came after the movie. One girl said something I never would have thought of: Maria is pregnant with Tony’s baby. Leave it to an 8th grader from a single parent household to think of that!

  3. Pauline says:

    I found myself feeling much more sympathetic to the Sharks, and I wasn’t sure if it was because of having studied Spanish and lived in Spain, or if the moviemakers deliberately made them more appealing than the Jets. My husband thinks the latter, that Hollywood is always more sympathetic to the victims of prejudice.

    I found it very interesting to learn the ethnic makeup of the cast, when you consider the intolerance based on ethnic background in the movie. Both Bernardo and Maria were played by immigrants, but neither was Hispanic – Maria was Russian, and Bernardo was Greek. (And the same actor who played Bernardo had been Riff in the stage version!) Plus the actress who played Riff’s girlfriend – her brother was also in the cast, playing a Shark.

    I have to admit that as a child I did not have a high opinion of Puerto Ricans. There were a lot in Hartford, CT also. There was one girl who came to our church (I assume with her family but I only remember the girl because she was in the first grade Sunday School class with me.) We were taught not to be prejudiced (that’s a big thing in the UCC), but I found it hard, in light of the girl’s behavior. She cheated at games, talked when she wasn’t supposed to, and generally was the worst-behaved kid in the class. That didn’t mean she was representative of Puerto Ricans in general, but she was the only one I knew.

  4. Peter L says:

    One reason the cast had few, if any, Hispanics, was because in the 50s and 60s there were not that many in acting. Rita Moreno (Anita) was one of the few. I remember the big stink made in LA when a Puerto Rican (Freddie Prinz) played a Mexican-American in “Chico and the Man”.

    Your experience in Connecticut is interesting. Our family had problems when it left NYC for upstate NY, so much so that when neighbors discovered the ethnicity, they threw rocks at my older sister (who was six at the time). Mostly due to this incident, our parents did not teach us Spanish, as we lived in a white neighborhood in Tucson, AZ.

  5. Margaret Packard says:

    Pauline, Mr. and Mrs. Benton used to bring a number of Puerto Rican kids to church (several from the same family). I’m not sure which girl was in your class; I remember the ones in my class as being well-behaved. I do know that I thought of Spanish-speaking people as being almost synonymous with Puerto Rican, until I moved to Chicago and met people from many other countries.

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