I’m not sure what the great notion is in Paul Newman’s 1970 film “Sometimes a Great Notion,” but the movie offers a gritty portrait of a stubborn and determined family business battling labor strife. Newman plays Hank Stamper, the devoted son of small-town lumberman Henry Stamper (Henry Fonda). The lumber crew also includes half-brother Joe Ben Stamper (Richard Jaeckel) and a couple of Stamper cousins. Because of the strike, only the immediate Stamper family and relatives offer any help to the grueling and dangerous process of logging in Oregon.
One day, Hank’s college educated other half-brother arrives, a long-haired outsider named Leland Stamper (Michael Sarrazin). He holds many secrets from the past and wants to get re-acquainted with his family in the wake of his mother’s suicide. The gruff and irascible Henry, sporting a heavy plaster cast (because of a fall) that keeps his arm elevated, demands that Leland help with the lumbering. Henry wants to fulfill a contract with the lumber marketeers and he needs all the workers he can get.
Henry’s refusal to join the strike pits his family against the union and everyone in town. The movie balances the strike tension with Stamper family squabbles and effective scenes of the Stampers harvesting trees. Newman puts the camera directly into the chaotic action of cutting down trees, chain dragging them up steep hills and loading them precariously onto lumber trucks. The workers must coordinate all their activities or risk serious injuries. I came away from this film wondering why anyone would want to work as a lumberjack. The filming involved quite a bit of stunt work, with Newman actually climbing an extremely tall pine tree to trim off heavy branches with a chainsaw.
At home, Hank’s long-suffering wife Viv (Lee Remick) spends the first part of the film not speaking much while the film sets up the dynamic between Henry and the Stamper boys. We only get to know her when Lee takes in interest in her, and he even complains that the women hardly talk at all. When Viv finally comes forward in the film, she emotes a sense of resignation when anger and frustration would seem more appropriate. Strike breaking against the union and the town’s wishes seems pointless and proves to be dangerous, but the Stamper men maintain their blind loyalty to patriarch Henry.
Fonda plays Henry as a crude and nasty man with few redeeming qualities except that he’s completely unflappable. It would have been better if Henry did at least one nice thing in the film, but I didn’t expect redemption for him. I also expected Leland, with all his non-confrontational ideas, would have an effect on Hank. That doesn’t happen either, but the movie is commendable for its portrait of men who make a decision and never change their stance no matter what the consequences.