By KJ Hamilton
West Side Story – dir. Robert Wise – 1961 Theatrical Trailer
I have a confession to make: I really don’t like love stories. Why? Well, they usually end up one of two ways: Happily Ever After (which is the stuff of fairy tales) or one or both of the lovers die (and I wonder what the point was). West Side Story is the latter, although there are many different levels to this film that I wonder about. For example, although this story takes place in the 1950’s, it is still relevant today. There are still turf wars, and people are still dying for the sake of trying to carve out a niche. That may be an over -simplification, but the fact of the matter remains that it’s beyond unfortunate that rivalry like this still exists. This story has always been a commentary on the social aspects of a society that doesn’t understand its own place in the grand scheme of things.Second: although this love story is hundreds of years old, it’s still poignant, and it doesn’t have to relate to race, it could be wealth, social standing, background, etc. This story has been done and redone; why do people still find it so fascinating? Why is the idea of the rich socialite falling in love with the delinquent biker rebel, for example, so intriguing that it’s retold again and again? Perhaps it speaks to the core of who we are as people and as a society.
I truly enjoy movie musicals, and I’d seen this film as a teenager in conjunction with English class. Our teacher wanted us to experience Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet from different points of view. In this version of the timeless story, two gangs fight over territory rights to a small neighborhood on the West Side of New York City. The Montagues become the Jets, a Caucasian gang whose tags can be seen all over the walls on the community basketball court. The Capulets are transformed into a Puerto Rican gang called the Sharks. The racial undertones of this story help to escalate the violence between the two gangs. The Sharks believed that they had to fight to try to get ahead because they were immigrants. The Jets believed that they were there first and they had the right to mark their territory.
The Jets were founded by Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and his best friend Tony (Richard Beymer). However, Tony grew tired of leading the gang around and he left to get a job in Doc’s Candy Shop. Bernardo (George Chakiris) was the leader of the Sharks, and he was determined to carve out a niche in a country that he believed didn’t want him. For those of us who know Shakespeare’s classic tale, we know that Romeo attended a ball in disguise and saw Juliet; their eyes met, they exchanged a few precious words, and they realized that they were meant for each other. In this version, the Jets and the Sharks meet at a neutral dance hall in the neighborhood, Tony shows up mostly because he had a feeling that something special would happen. There he sees Maria (Natalie Wood), who just happens to be Bernardo’s sister. Their kiss adds fuel to the already red hot fire and the viewer knows that a fight is inevitable. The lovers meet by the light of the moon. Instead of appearing on a balcony as her predecessor, Maria appears on a fire escape. Tony climbs up, and they declare their love. However, in the meantime both gangs have agreed to meet and agree to have a showdown to determine once and for all who owns the streets. Maria begs Tony to stop the fight, but when he tries the fight escalates from fists to switchblades and Riff is killed. In anger, Tony picks up Riff’s blade and plunges it into Bernardo.
Full of angst and self-loathing, Tony pleads for Maria’s forgiveness (which she gives a bit too easily), and they plan to run away together. Meanwhile, Bernardo’s number two man, Chino (Jose De Vega) goes on the hunt for revenge, a pistol in his hand. The Jets find Tony and hide him in order to try to save his life. Vengeful miscommunication forces Tony out of hiding, believing that his love has been murdered by Chino. Maria appears and just as she runs into Tony’s arms, a shot is fired. Tony slumps forward. Rather than share her lover’s fate, as our Juliet did, Maria points the gun at the gangs. “How many bullets are left, Chino?” she asks. “Enough for…all of you? We all killed him, and my brother, and Riff. I can kill now because I hate now…How many can I kill, Chino…and still have one bullet left for me?”. The film ends with the Jets and the Sharks carrying Tony’s lifeless body out of the basketball court. Maria follows in silence.
I was utterly sad at the end of this film, but didn’t understand why until I sat down to write this review. Although love is blind, people aren’t. It might be true that we cannot help who we fall in love with, but those who use love as a venue for hate never prosper. And, that’s what these gangs did. They didn’t fight for bragging rights or control of the streets. No, they fought for something far less great than anything else: hate. Hate of what was different, hate of change, hate of love; hate and intolerance. Doc (Ned Glass) was right when he asked, “Why do you live like there’s a war on? Why do you kill?”
This is why such a familiar tale can remain relevant: still, no one knows the answer.