Westworld | The race to make one of the most important films of the early 1970s

Westworld starring Yul Brynner.
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A key sci-fi film of the 1970s, Westworld was made in a matter of months and was almost scrapped before it was released.

On the set of Westworld in 1972, Michael Crichton was pictured wearing a T-shirt which read, “Caution: contents under pressure. Do not puncture or incinerate.”

It was likely a reference to the stresses Crichton, then better known as a highly successful novelist, was undergoing as he made his ambitious sci-fi western. Although he’d directed before, Crichton’s last project was a TV drama called Pursuit; Westworld, meanwhile, was a studio film destined for cinemas, requiring complex action sequences, previously untested special effects and the wrangling of some big Hollywood names, not least veteran star Yul Brynner.

Just to add to the pressure, Crichton was making Westworld under MGM (other studios had turned the project down) – a company that, at the time, had a poor reputation among filmmakers. (“There were too many stories of unreasonable pressure, arbitrary script changes, inadequate post-production, and cavalier recutting of the final film,” Crichton later wrote.)

Westworld’s pre-production wasn’t exactly calm, either; the project still hadn’t been cast just 48 hours before filming was set to begin, nor had all the sets been built. MGM was repeatedly demanding changes to the script, and was being particularly tight with the budget; initially, it only offered Crichton $1m, though the director managed to convince the studio to up that number to $1.25m. Even by the standards of the time, this was a tiny amount given what was written in Crichton’s script.

More or less everything about Westworld’s making was brisk. Crichton had written the screenplay, about a futuristic theme park in which its robots start turning against human holidaymakers, in August 1972; Crichton later said that he was fascinated by the idea of a blurred line between humans and machines, and how, between astronauts “being trained to be machines” and increasingly lifelike animated figures at Disneyland, people and technology appeared to be merging.

What emerged from those early thoughts was a story about two friends, the rugged John (James Brolin) and the more unassuming Peter (Richard Benjamin) who visit the high-tech Delos and immerse themselves in the resort’s Western World – a dusty playground in which they can realise all their fantasies of being a hip-shooting cowboy like the ones they’d seen in movies. But when the robots designed to obediently collapse and play dead start to show a will of their own, John and Peter wind up in a very real fight for survival – their most formidable opponent being the murderous Gunslinger played by Brynner.

Crichton had found best-selling success with such novels as The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man (both adapted into films), but the author felt that there was a visual element to the concept that better suited it to a movie. By November 1972 – a matter of weeks after Crichton had written the script – Westworld was in pre-production.

Filming – which took place in locations including Arizona and the Warner Bros backlot – was similarly hurried. Crichton shot the entire film in 30 days, and was open to improvising on the set if he felt a scene needed improvement. One early sequence, intended as a commercial for Delos, the theme park in which the film takes place, “wasn’t working” as scripted, Crichton later told Cinefantastique magazine.

Westworld (1973).

“As we were doing it,” Crichton said, “we didn’t like it, so we just let the actors go, encouraged them to improvise with me saying I liked certain things or I didn’t like others until we pulled something together. We then edited it roughly to make it appear like it was shot live for a television commercial.”

While Crichton was filming, art director Herman Blumenthal was hurriedly designing and building sets, making the most he could out of a tiny budget. In a candid piece about the making of Westworld, written for a paperback version of the screenplay published in 1974 Crichton later outlined just how tight finances were. By the time the production had paid the cast ($250,000 – Brynner did the film for a relative pittance because he was desperate for cash), crew ($400,000) and other costs, Blumenthal had only $75,000 left to spend on building sets.

“For that $75,000, Herman had to build twenty sets covering nearly 200,000 square feet,” Crichton wrote. “In the final film, almost everything was used more than once. We used one mediaeval stairway three times, in different places. We used a single underground corridor nine times with six light changes, then tore out a false wall and used the same corridor, now widened, as the robot-repair area. We used one hotel room twice, changing furniture and camera angles.”

Read more: Michael Crichton’s Airframe | The $10m rights deal that never led to a movie

The production’s tiny budget also had to be stretched to take in some ground-breaking visual effects, including some of the first digitally-processed shots ever seen in a feature film, which showed the action from the perspective of Brynner’s Gunslinger. (Crichton was originally quoted $200,000 for these two minutes of computer-generated footage; he eventually found the pioneering digital animator John Whitney Jr, who created the POV shots for $20,000.)

Westworld (1973).
One of John Whitney Jr’s ground-breaking POV shots. Each took days to generate. Credit: MGM.

Other effects were achieved using more lo-fi methods; a scene in which the Gunslinger’s face appears to melt after being splashed with acid was pulled off using a mix of makeup and Alka-Seltzer, which “fizzed and bubbled when water touched it.”

In order to save time and money, Crichton kept filming to a minimum, shooting only the angles he thought he’d need – a process which would also complicate any attempts by the studio to take the film away and re-cut it at a later date. Crichton “shot without options,” as he put it at the time.

“Given the reputation of MGM,” he told Cinefantastique, “I edited in the camera, shot tightly and didn’t cover. The decisions I made were irrevocable. There was no way to change them later. I was lucky. I got away with a lot.”

When Crichton saw an early assembly cut, however, it initially looked as though his minimal approach to filming had backfired; “It was horrible,” he wrote. “It was boring, contrived, self-indulgent and slack. I left the projection room in silent depression. All of our energy and enthusiasm had been wasted on a piece of silly garbage.”

Editor Dave Bretherto nevertheless worked to tighten sequences up and improve the pace, but there was still a question mark over whether the film would work with audiences; Crichton recalled that a screening with MGM executives had ended with some positive comments but “the general feeling was that it was a disaster.”

Westworld (1973).
Yul Brynner is sublime casting as the implacable robot Gunslinger. Credit: MGM.

MGM’s lack of faith in the movie was such that Westworld was never screened for critics; instead, the studio invited members of the public to come to a private test screening where they’d be invited to share their reactions afterwards. “If the reaction was good,” Crichton wrote, “MGM would release the film carefully; if the reaction was unfavourable, they’d dump it.”

To Crichton’s relief, the audience reaction was ecstatic, and 95 percent of the cards handed in by audience members had the words ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ written on them.

Made on time and under budget, Westworld came out in August 1973, meaning that the whole project moved from Crichton’s typewriter to cinemas in just one year – an extraordinarily quick turnaround, even by the standards of some independent movies. Westworld was also a huge hit for MGM, recouping its production costs within two weeks and ultimately bringing in $10m on its initial cinema run.

After that fateful test screening, an exhausted Crichton went out, got drunk, and took a lengthy break from filmmaking – he eventually made the medical thriller Coma in 1978 and The First Great Train Robbery that same year. MGM went ahead and made the Westworld sequel Futureworld (1976) without Crichton’s involvement.

Viewed a shade over 40 years later, Westworld stands on the threshold between old and new Hollywood – its plot, consciously riffing on the themes and cliches of classic westerns, Errol Flynn swashbucklers and sword-and-sandal epics, was fused with the high-concept sci-fi that would explode in popularity later in the 1970s thanks to Star Wars. Its casting as Brynner as a robotic Gunman – clad in almost identical garb to the outfit he wore in The Magnificent Seven – is also a strikingly post-modern touch, while the use of digital imagery to simulate his point of view famously anticipated James Cameron’s The Terminator by well over a decade.

Westworld (1973).
Westworld contains what might be the earliest allusion to computer viruses in film. “There’s a clear pattern here that suggests an analogy to an infectious disease process,” a scientist says in one scene. Credit: MGM.

Just as famously, Westworld provided the foundation for Crichton’s later novel, Jurassic Park, in which he replaced the malfunctioning robots with revived dinosaurs to blockbusting success. In fact, while Westworld and Jurassic Park are both still huge properties in the 21st century – the former a hit HBO TV series, the latter still a film franchise – they’re also widely misunderstood all these years later.

With their stories of scientific breakthroughs gone awry, it’s often said that Crichton’s work is anti-progress; even a 2023 retrospective published by The Guardian, for example, described Westworld as “fundamentally about the threat of artificial intelligence.” Crichton, however, refuted this, arguing that Westworld wasn’t against the advent of robots or AI, but was instead a critique of the corporate greed and human failings that cause technology to go wrong.

“I don’t see technology as being out there, doing bad things to us people,” Crichton said in a 1985 interview with Compute magazine. “We’re making the technology and it is a manifestation of how we think. To the extent that we think egotistically and irrationally and paranoically and foolishly, then we have technology that will give us nuclear winters or cars that won’t brake. But that’s because people didn’t design them right.”

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