Go to the Learning Guide for this film.
Puerto Rico is a large island in the Caribbean approximately 3,435 square miles in size. It was discovered by Columbus in 1493 and its people are of mixed Spanish and African descent, with the Spanish influence predominating. It was acquired by the United States after the Spanish American War. In 1952 Puerto Rico became a self-governing Commonwealth associated with the United States. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but pay no federal taxes and may not vote in federal elections. Puerto Rico is not wealthy and unemployment is an endemic problem. After the Second World War, many Puerto Ricans emigrated to the U.S., especially to New York, looking for better opportunities.
Additional Discussion Questions:
Continued from the Learning Guide...
4. What personal characteristics may have come into play that could have led to a different outcome for the main characters in the film? Suggested Response: Students may decide that open-mindedness, self confidence, patience and the ability to forgive could have led to a different outcome. Ask students to mention a specific character when they suggest a personality trait that might have forestalled the troubles.
5. What does the absence of positive adult figures in this film say about the society that it portrays? Suggested Response: It tells us that this society is in real trouble. The problem with the parents of the Sharks are described in the song: "Gee, Officer Krupke". There is little information about the parents of the Jets. One assumes that they are off working almost all day. A strong argument can be made that the ultimate source of the dysfunction shown here is in the families the gang members combined with a society that didn't take care of its children or provide opportunities for its young adults.
6. Why were the boys in gangs? They tell you in the lyrics to one of the songs. Which song was it? Suggested Response: The song is "The Jet Song". What they get out of the gang is a sense of belonging to a community that cares about them.
7. What is the difference between the gangs portrayed in the movie and modern gangs? Suggested Response: This is another way of asking question #3 in the Guide. Answers will vary depending upon a student's experience either in his or her personal life or through images from mass media. All well supported suggestions are acceptable. Good answers will mention the lessening of racial prejudice (although it is still a factor), the increase in violence, the effects of drug use, and the advent of drug trafficking as a major source of income for gangs.
8. Why was ascendancy on one or two poverty stricken blocks so important to the gang members? Suggested Response: It was all that they could get. The society would not provide them with opportunity, so they took the block.
9. Why did the girls adopt or at least tolerate the boys' gang affiliations? Suggested Response: We don't think we have a fully satisfactory answer to this question. The girls followed the lead of the boys, although they did appear to have jobs. As for Anita, she had status as the girlfriend of the leader of a gang.
10. What was Tony's attitude toward the gangs? Suggested Response: Tony had a job with Doc and he had found a way out of the morass that kept the boys in the gang.
11. Why couldn't the police talk to either gang? Suggested Response: The police were untrained and prejudiced. The kids were not interested in listening.
12. When Doc seemed to object to the way that the police officer talked to the kids, the officer responded with: "You try keeping hoodlums in line and see what it does to you." What did Doc mean when he said: "It wouldn't give me a mouth like his"? Suggested Response: Doc is referring to the disrespectful and prejudiced attitude of the police officers toward the gang members.
13. Why were the police officers against the Puerto Ricans? Suggested Response: Prejudice.
14. What does the following exchange between Tony and Maria mean?
Tony: I'll be all right. I know it.Suggested Response: This is an accurate description of their situation. They were in love but they were surrounded by a world of hatred.
Maria: It is not us. It is everything around us.
15. What are the similarities and differences between West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet? Suggested Response: There are many similarities. They include: the plot has two lovers who are members of rival groups which hate each other; they try to get away from the evil but fail; the boy lover kills a member of the family of his beloved in an act of impulsive unthinking revenge; they both end in tragedy. Differences include: the time in which the story is set; the fact that Maria survives; the absence of the church as having a role in the story. There are many more and a good discussion will bring them out.
16. How would Tony and Maria's lives have changed if, instead of killing Bernardo, Tony had forgiven him? Tony and Riff were like brothers, and it would have been hard, but didn't Tony ask Maria to forgive him for killing her brother? That was hard, too. Suggested Response: There would have been no tragedy. This clearly would have led to the best result after Riff had been killed. It shows the tremendous power of forgiveness.
See also Standard Questions Suitable for Any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions
1. Assume that Tony could not find it in himself to forgive Bernardo. How would this story have changed if, instead of killing Bernardo, Tony had dealt peacefully with his anger, left the scene of the rumble, and reported Bernardo to the police? Suggested Response: There would probably have been no tragedy. Tony and the other Sharks could have testified against Bernardo who would probably have gone to prison for a long time. Tony would still have a chance to keep Maria's love, but even if this had doomed their relationship, the killing would have stopped.
2. In the fight, did Riff expect Bernardo to be behind the group of boys with a knife pointed at him? Did Bernardo expect Tony to grab a knife and attack him? What do these incidents tell us about fighting? Suggested Response: The answer to each of the first two parts of the question is "No". The two killings show that you can never tell what is going to happen in a fight. Fights are inherently dangerous and unpredictable.
3. Why didn't the fact that Bernardo had killed Riff justify Tony's action in killing Bernardo? Suggested Response: In modern society, punishment for killing someone or for committing any crime is the province of the justice system. Tony should have called the police. The fact that Tony's judgment was blinded by his grief and rage when he killed Bernardo might be an argument that his crime was second degree murder rather than first degree murder or that he should get a lighter sentence, but he should still have let the justice system take its course.
4. Did the fact that Tony had killed Bernardo justify Chino's action in killing Tony? Suggested Response: No. In our society, punishment for killing someone or committing any crime is the province of the justice system. Chino should have called the police. In addition, unlike Tony, Chino was not acting in the heat of passion. He had time to think and plan. This makes Chino's killing of Tony first degree murder. Moreover, Tony's killing of Bernardo was understandable because Bernardo had drawn the knife first, because of Tony's close friendship with Riff, and because it was done in the heat of passion. All of these considerations make it less justifiable for Chino to take justice into his own hands. It is only in the direst of circumstances on rare occasions, when all alternatives have been tried and have failed and only when acting is necessary to serve a greater good than mere revenge, that taking the law into your own hands would be justified. In almost every other case, if recourse to the law does not get justice for the victims, acceptance and forgiveness are the best and only ethical course of action. See Learning Guide to Hamlet.
(Additional questions on this topic are set out in the "Respect" section below.)
5. Was Tony right to kill Bernardo to avenge Bernardo's killing of Tony's lifelong friend? Suggested Response: No. See response to Question #3 under Fighting.
6. Was Chino right to avenge the killing of Bernardo by killing Tony? Suggested Response: No. See response to Question #4 under Fighting.
7. Compare what Tony did to the actions of Romeo in "Romeo and Juliet" and to the actions of Laertes in "Hamlet". What were the similarities and what were the differences? Suggested Response: Romeo and Tony committed simple, unthinking revenge. However, Laertes had time to think about his actions. For that reasons his actions were more unethical.
8. Compare the action of Chino in hunting Tony down and killing him to the actions of Romeo in "Romeo and Juliet" and to the actions of Laertes in "Hamlet". What were the similarities and what were the differences? Suggested Response: See response to the preceding question.
9. State the law of unintended consequences and give at least two reasons why it applies with particular force to acts of revenge. Suggested Response: The law of unintended consequences holds that whether or not what you do has the effect you intend, it will have consequences that you don't expect. As Tony (and also Romeo, Laertes and Hamlet) discovered, unintended consequences can be very unpleasant. There are three reasons that the law of unintended consequences applies with particular force to acts of revenge: (1) Actions that are new or that we have seldom taken before often lead to unexpected consequences. Experience is an excellent teacher. If we have little experience with an action, our anticipation of the consequences will be less accurate than for an action which we have taken frequently in the past. (2) Revenge usually affects a number of people, either directly or indirectly. Everyone is different and when other people are affected by our actions, there is an increased risk that we won't accurately predict how they'll react. (3) When we act in a rage or a fit of passion our actions are not well considered and the risk that we'll fail to anticipate some of the consequences is increased.
(Additional questions on this topic are set out in the "Respect" and "Caring" sections below.)
10. Was Maria right to love Tony despite the fact that he had killed her brother? Suggested Response: There is no one correct response to this question. Any good response should deal with the positive value of forgiveness and the practical thoughts of how Maria and Tony would go about constructing a life together.
11. In one of the songs, Maria and Anita sing that, "When love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong ...." Do you agree with this? Suggested Response: There is no one correct response to this question. Everyone loves in a different way. The overpowering feelings of love sometimes felt by young teenagers, which is the type of love that Maria and Anita are singing about, is very dangerous because it blinds the young lover to a full appreciation of the consequences of what they are going to do.
12. Was Maria devoid of family feeling if she could love and go away with a man who had killed her brother? Did Maria bear any of the blame for Tony killing her brother? Suggested Response: There is no one correct response to this question. Any good response should reject the idea that family always comes before love and then go on to deal with the positive value of forgiveness and the practical thoughts of how Maria and Tony could have constructed a life together after he had killed her brother.
13. What role did Tony's bad associations play in this tragedy? Suggested Response: Tony tried to separate himself from the Sharks but couldn't. He should have seen Riff for what he was, a boy/man that Tony loved, but who was seriously misguided. Had he done this, perhaps he would not have killed Bernardo but instead he could have forgiven Bernardo or gone to the police.
14. Tony told Riff that he was no longer interested in the gang. Why couldn't Tony completely extricate himself from the gang situation? Suggested Response: Loyalty to his friend. This story shows the risks of loyalty to friends.
Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
(TeachWithMovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner"
and uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be honest; Don't deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable -- do what you say you'll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal -- stand by your family, friends and country)
1. Anita lied to the Jets about Chino killing Maria. What role did she play in Tony's death? Do you blame her for Tony's death? Suggested Response: Anita's lie sent Tony to the streets in despair. It prevented Maria and Tony from successfully escaping the whole sick situation. Anita's actions were another act of revenge, and all acts of revenge involve breaking one or another moral/ethical principle. Most acts of revenge violate the Pillar of Respect and involve violence. Anita's act of revenge involved lying. Anita bears some responsibility for Tony's death.
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don't threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults and disagreements)
2. What role did prejudice play in this tragedy? Suggested Response: It may have provided the boys with the initial reason to separate into gangs, but the basis of gangs is in economic, social and psychological deprivation and the exclusion of young men and women from economic opportunity. After the gangs were formed, the prejudice against Puerto Ricans provided a ready made excuse.
3. What benefit could the boys in the gangs have derived from the wise counsel of elders who they trusted? Suggested Response: Doc, the owner of the store where the gangs met, was the only adult that the kids in the gangs seemed to trust. Had they listened to him, they would not have fought and there would have been no killings.
4. After the killings, when Anita visited Doc's store, the Jets were probably just teasing her, albeit roughly. What was the unintended consequence of their action? Suggested Response: Tony didn't get the message that might have saved his life. In fact, he got the wrong message that contributed to his death.
(Additional questions on this topic are set out in the "Fighting" and "Revenge" section above.)
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
- See question # 16 in the Subject Matter questions and questions 1, 3, 4, 10 & 12 in the Social Emotional Learning Questions.
(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)
5. The police in this film are presented as persons not being worthy of respect. Did this justify the gangs in flouting the law? Explain your answer. Suggested Response: No. The police would have prosecuted Bernardo and they would have prosecuted Tony. To repeat: It is only in the direst of circumstances on rare occasions, when all alternatives have been tried and have failed and only when acting is necessary to serve a greater good than mere revenge, that taking the law into your own hands would be justified. In almost every other case that the law doesn't work, acceptance and forgiveness are the best and only ethical course of action. In this case, since Riff had been killed in a fight that he had helped to organize and since Tony had acted in the heat of passion, there was no reason for any side to take the law into their own hands.
Continued from the Learning Guide...
See additional Assignments for use with any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
If your child is musically inclined, get them the score from the local library or music store and let them play some of the music. If someone can play the piano, get the family together and sing some of the songs.
Links to the Internet:
Lyrics for the songs and other information is at The Official West Side Story Site.
(Anchor Standards only)
Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: "Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.") CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.
Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 - 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.
Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 - 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.
Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.
Selected Awards: 1961 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Score, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actor (Chakiris), Best Supporting Actress (Moreno), Best Director (Wise & Robbins), Best Art Direction/Set Decoration (Color), Best Color Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing; 1962 Directors Guild of America awards: Outstanding Directorial Achievement (Wise & Robbins); 1961 New York Film Critics Awards: Best Film; 1962 Golden Globe Awards: Best Musical; Best Supporting Actress (Moreno); Best Supporting Actor (Chakiris); 1961 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay. This film is listed in the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress as a "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" film. This film is ranked #41 on the American Film Institute's List of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time (2006). It is ranked #2 on the American Film Institute's List of the 25 Greatest Movie Musicals.
Featured Actors: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Simon Oakland, Ned Glass.
Director: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.
Choreography: Jerome Robbins.
Music: Leonard Bernstein.
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim.
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“West Side Story” is a beautifully-mounted, impressive, emotion-ridden and violent musical which, in its stark approach to a raging social problem and realism of unfoldment, may set a pattern for future musical presentations. Screen takes on a new dimension in this powerful and sometimes fascinating translation of the Broadway musical to the greater scope of motion pictures. The Robert Wise production, said to cost $6,000,000, should pile up handsome returns, first on a roadshow basis and later in general runs.
The Romeo and Juliet theme, propounded against the seething background of rival and bitterly-hating youthful Puerto Rican and American gangs (repping the Montagues and the Capulets) on the upper West Side of Manhattan, makes for both a savage and tender admixture of romance and war-to-the-death. Technically, it is superb; use of color is dazzling, camera work often is thrilling, editing fast with dramatic punch, production design catches mood as well as action itself.
Even more notable, however, is the music of Leonard Bernstein and most of all the breathtaking choreography of Jerome Robbins, who in film is not limited by space restrictions of the stage. His dancing numbers probably are the most spectacular ever devised and lensed, blending into story and carrying on action that is electrifying to spectator and setting a pace which communicates to viewer. Bernstein’s score, with Stephen Sondheim’s expressive lyrics, accentuates the tenseness that constantly builds.
Ernest Lehman’s screenplay, based upon Arthur Laurents’ solid and compelling book in Robert E. Griffith and Harold S. Prince’ Broadway production, is a faithful adaptation in which he reflects the brutality of the juve gangs which vent upon each other the hatred they feel against the world. Here is juvenile delinquency in its worst and most dangerous sense, and Wise, as producer and co-director with Jerome Robbins, catches the spirit in devastating fashion.
It is a preachment against j.d. even more potent than though it were a “message picture” and in a sense may lack popular appeal, but in the final analysis the overall structure is so superior that it should deliver mass impact. In his direction, Wise utilizes both the stage and screen technique; i.e., long holds on individual scenes and bits of action which suddenly switches to dynamic movement. Effect is stimulating.
Plottage focuses on the romance of a young Puerto Rican girl with a mainland boy which fans the enmity between the two gangs and ultimately leads to the “rumble” which leaves both gang leaders dead of knife wounds and climaxing in the murder of the American swain by girl’s Puerto Rican protector. Characters are excellently delineated, and members of the two gangs, recruited from various “Story” troupes, both Broadway and national, satisfactorily combine their menace with terrific dancing.
Natalie Wood offers an entrancing performance as the Puerto Rican who falls in love with Richard Beymer, forbidden by strict neighborhood ban against group intermingling, and latter impresses with his singing. Most colorful performance, perhaps, is offered by George Chakiris, leader of the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, and brother of femme lead, who appeared in London company in same role portrayed here by Russ Tamblyn, leader of the white Jets gang. Tamblyn socks over his portrayal and scores particularly with his acrobatic terping. Rita Moreno, in love with Chakiris, presents a fiery characterization and also scores hugely.
In rugged support, Tony Mordente stands out as a Jets member who wants action; Tucker Smith, another white gangster; Simon Oakland and William Bramley, police officers; Ned Glass as owner of the candy store where the two gangs hold their war council.
Musical numbers are topped by “America,” lyrics pitting virtues of U.S. against those of Puerto Ricans’ homeland and providing one of the most sensational production dances of entire pic. “Cool,” by Tucker Smith, is background for another terrific dance routine, as is “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Another spirited dance is the two gangs terping on neutral ground in the neighborhood gymnasium, fast and furious, and opening “Jet Song,” led by Tamblyn, gives audience an impression of what is to come.
Half a dozen straight song numbers also lend melody and charm, including “Maria,” sung by Beymer; two other singles by Beymer, “Something Comin'” and “Somewhere”; “I Feel Pretty,” led by Miss Wood; “Tonight,” duet by Beymer and femme; “I Have a Love,” Wood; “A Boy Like That,” Rita Moreno; “One Hand, One Heart,” Beymer-Wood. Singer Marni Nixon dubs Wood’s voice and so perfect is the effect that audience isn’t aware it isn’t actress’ own voice.
Film, opening with a three-minute orchestral overture, has been expertly filmed by Daniel L. Fapp, whose aerial prolog, looking straight down upon Gotham as camera flies from the Battery uptown and swings to West Side, provides impressive views. Johnny Green conducts music score, which runs 51 1/2 minutes; Thomas Stanford’s tight editing maintains a generally rapid pace; Boris Leven scores as production designer; and Saul Bass is responsible for novel presentation of titles and credits. Irene Sharaff, who designed costumes for Broadway, repeats here.
1961: Actor in a Supporting Role — George Chakiris (“Bernardo”), Actress in a Supporting Role — Rita Moreno (“Anita”), Art Direction (Color) — Art Direction: Boris Leven; Set Decoration: Victor A. Gangelin, Cinematography (Color) — Daniel L. Fapp, Costume Design (Color) — Irene Sharaff, Directing — Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins, Film Editing — Thomas Stanford, Music (Scoring of a Musical Picture) — Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Sid Ramin, Irwin Kostal, Best Motion Picture — Robert Wise, Producer, Sound — Todd-AO Sound Department, Fred Hynes, Sound Director; and Samuel Goldwyn Studio Sound Department, Gordon E. Sawyer, Sound Director
Nominations: Writing (Screenplay–based on material from another medium) — Ernest Lehman