West Side Story (1961, film): The Pain of Youth
Near the halfway point of West Side Story, elderly shopkeeper Doc lectures a gang of juvenile delinquents about their criminal ways, about to whip out the “When I was your age…” cliche. Action, the appropriately named hot-head, cuts him off with a rebuttal. It is a statement that might incite more than an eye roll from most of us above the age of 16, but in this heated exchange of words, strikes as true as it ever can:
“You was never my age, none of ya!”
West Side Story, the 1961 film, is a masterpiece — and in this writer’s opinion the absolute best — of its genre. The original musical featured a luscious score from Leonard Bernstein, lyrical contributions by a young Stephen Sondheim, and the electrifying choreography of Jerome Robbins. For the film, Robbins co-directed alongside Robert Wise, editor of Citizen Kane and the future director of The Sound of Music. Add another ten Academy Awards, and one could almost forget that West Side Story is, at its core, another adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.
Given how largely the shadow of Shakespeare’s tale looms over so much of our culture, it would have been easy to just update Verona to Manhattan, 1500s to 1950s, and retain the drama of our young, star-crossed lovers. The plot is almost a straightforward retelling of that story, with Tony and Maria falling in love while their respective youth gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, wage war over control of the Upper West Side.
But instead of focusing on the romance, as many had before, and many more will, the creators chose to express what it meant to grow up with no one to look up to; to feel like the world has forsaken you. Above all else, West Side Story recognises these “hoodlums”, “hooligans” and “delinquents” as essentially kids. Rascals, but still kids.
The film starts off with the Jets walking through a neighbourhood basketball court, full of arrogance and braggadocious energy. The Jets might or might not return your stray ball, and they can certainly take it if they want, but there’s nothing you can do about it. The wolves toy with the cubs all they want. Even their first fight with the Puerto Rican Sharks in the streets feels like boyish bullying.
Robbins’ kinetic choreography organises the chaotic chases into frantic street ballet, but it also shows what counts for fighting between the gangs. They leap over each other, drop paint cans on their enemies, and toss garbage as counter-attacks. The scene finally ends when Baby John, maybe the most innocent of the Jets, runs back into the basketball court, and the dancing gives way to a true melee, interrupted only by the antagonistic Lieutenant Schrank, the first adult we see.
It reinforces what we think when the term “street kids” comes to mind; they commit crimes while contributing nothing. All they think of is how to have fun, who to fight next, and little else. As the kids explain in the song Gee, Officer Krupke, “Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers all are drunks, golly Moses, naturally we’re punks!” The murders of Bernardo and Riff, the leaders of the Sharks and Jets respectively, are committed impulsively.
There is a scene towards the end where Anita, Maria’s best friend and Bernardo’s girlfriend, runs into the remaining Jets. She has important information for Tony, but they don’t trust her, even when she pleads, “Don’t you understand? I want to help!” The Jets proceed to harass her, ending with her held to the ground, leading to what we can only assume will become a rape. Doc interferes just in time and admonishes them. “When will you kids stop? You make this world lousy.” These kids are idiotic, immoral and evil.
Against everything that we have seen, how could we not agree?
I don’t remember most of my childhood, and I’m grateful for that, or I’d be tormented by embarrassing memories every night. One moment I remember fairly clearly was when I was 14. I had taken to hiding one of our kitchen knives under my bed — it was a depressing time — but of course I would never use it. Until one day, I returned home with my family after a bad afternoon out. My mum and I were screaming at each other in the car, and my dad, on this rare occasion, was furious with me. First thing I did, I reached under my bed for the knife, went out into the living room and placed the blade right next to my wrist.
The moment I realised my parents had seen me, I knew that the situation could never revert to any previous point. There was no apology to save me in that instant, no action I could take to de-escalate the conflict. I was there, trapped by my idiocy, too stunned by my actions to register what my parents were screaming at me. If you are wondering, they were furious instead of scared. I was at once too young to demand respect, and too old to let my feelings take over reason.
I’m not that much older now, but I think I’m still removed enough to properly process and reflect on that. Now I know what I did was the dumbest possible thing, which would get me into the largest possible amount of trouble, and that’s what happens when you’re growing up. But the more I move away from my childhood, I find myself more unwilling to forgive my own actions. I can keep telling myself that the frustration I felt that day was real and justified, it’s not going to make me believe I wasn’t stupid and dumb.
Every kid in West Side Story has a moment where they act impulsively and the plot thickens. They mess up, the music drops out, and the true gravity of the situation is revealed. For all the stylistic flourishes that Wise and Robbins cook up, the set design almost always looks realistic. The Puerto Ricans perform America on the rooftop of an apartment, Tony and Maria meet on a fire escape, and the climactic fight happens underneath a highway. This isn’t a magical musical wonderland. The sets are as real as the death the characters face.
In the rumble scene, just after Bernardo stabs Riff, there is a short moment of realisation from Bernardo. The film cuts away from his face quickly, but the camera holds long enough for us to see his face filled with fear. The de-facto leader of the Sharks, the always smiling, always confident man gives away the game. He’s gone too far, he knows it, but he doesn’t know what to do. Tony acts on his rage and stabs Bernardo in return, and is struck with the same fear later on.
From here on out, the full scope of the tragedy is made clear: Tony, who started working proper jobs and wanted nothing more to do with the Jets, whose innocent love for Maria is an extension of his innocent nature, is a murderer. Maria’s heartbroken, wretched cries of “killer” to Tony acknowledge that. He admits to being impulsive, and somehow, Maria forgives him, even suggesting they run away. It’s not just love that compels Maria. It’s understanding. She is, after all, a kid, just like them.
This is the pain of youth. The Sharks and Jets want to be taken seriously. The Sharks had to be tough in a country that hated them, and the Jets had to survive without good parents or examples. But they are kids, caught between learning to control their feelings and being ridiculed for wanting to be serious. “You was never my age,” and it’s true, because the elderly Doc is too far removed from the Jets. He cannot understand them.
In the finale, after Maria’s searing indictment of the violence they have caused, the Jets struggle to lift Tony’s lifeless body. A few Sharks jump in to help, and they stare down for an instant, eventually deciding to carry Tony off together. Kids setting aside their senseless rivalry, moving on with each other, out of the basketball court. Youth is painful, but we all grow out of it.