Summertree (1970) dir, Anthony Newley
Starring: Michael Douglas, Jack Warden, Barbara Bel Geddes, Brenda Vaccaro
By Alan Bacchus
Summertree, this hippie-era drama based on a play by Ron Cowen, tells the tender and thoughtful story of a typical young man in the 60's, resentful of his father’s expectations, determined to go his own way in life but road blocked by his draft into the military. Produced by Kirk Douglas in 1970, it served as a way of getting Douglas a lead role in a film, thus and jump start his career.
Douglas, attractive, handsome and amiable as ever has the charm of a movie star right out of the blocks. His character Jerry embodies the zeitgeist sentiment of many 20 year olds of the day. His sociology studies in college doesn't jive with his ambitions to live free of the constraints which plagues his insurance-salesman old man (Jack Warden). When he returns home during spring break, he lets it out that he's going to quit and pursue an education and career in music. Naturally his conservative father is disappointed, but such is the folly of youth. In an effort to make a difference in life, Jerry even signs up to be a 'Big Brother' to a young urban child named Marvis (a plot thread which is curiously discarded somewhere in the second half). Jerry falls in love with a nurse who harbours a secret of a past relationship. When Jerry is drafted into the military his vicarious life comes crashing to a halt quickly, thus finding himself faced with two options - leave for Canada or fight in a war he doesn't believe in.
Director Newley never really challenges Jerry enough for his actions and decisions. When he is rejected from the musical conservatory, thus rendering him eligible for the military, the news and ramifications never really set it dramatically. In 1970, even though the horrors of the Vietnam, were well known the film refuses to put the fear of god into Jerry. He takes it all in stride, and continues to skulk around waffling. Other than going to war his only other option is going to Canada, which he doesn’t actively consider until late into the film. And the gravitas of leaving his parents, his girlfriend and his country only gets a glance of pause.
As a product of counter culture 60's the film's disrespect for the country and the government which drafts Jerry is treated as a given. While in today’s cinema, if a filmmaker were to tell this story, in the light to today’s over the top patriotism, there would be an outrage of Dixie Chicks-sized proportion.
The final shot is a curious inclusion. Just as Jerry is about to leave he witness's his father's last ditch attempt to stonewall his son's flight to Canada. Jerry breaks down and gives in to his father's will and stays (and presumable goes to Vietnam), which essentially ends Jerry's emotional arc, and thus, the film. But just before the final credits Newley cuts to a shot of Jerry’s lifeless body being hauled across a TV news story reporting the latest Vietnam casualties. It’s a throwaway shot, a hasty denouement, which curiously ends the film. A note of arbitrary but sad irony which muddies even further the point of the film.
A message of Peace? Of protest? It accomplishes neither and renders almost everything before it inconsequential, by nullifying Jerry’s reunification with his father. Jerry loses everything, a victim of oppression from his country, the educational system and his own family. What a downer.
No wonder this film stayed in the Sony/Columbia vaults for so long, and resurrected under this catch-all compendium called ‘Martini Movies’. “Summertree” feels like tepid nihilist propaganda in a world of raw raw Hollywood patriotism - a tone without much of a demand in today's market.
"Summertree" is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment