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They Might Be Giants (film)

They Might Be Giants
File:They Might Be Giants DVD.jpg
DVD cover
Directed by Anthony Harvey
Produced by John Foreman
Written by James Goldman
Starring George C. Scott
Joanne Woodward
Jack Gilford
Rue McClanahan
Music by John Barry
Cinematography Victor J. Kemper
Edited by Gerald B. Greenberg
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • June 9, 1971 (1971-06-09)
Running time
98 minutes
Country United States
Language English

They Might Be Giants is a 1971 film based on the play of the same name (both written by James Goldman) starring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward. Occasionally cited mistakenly as a Broadway play, it never in fact opened in the USA. It was directed in London by Joan Littlewood in 1961, but Goldman believed he "never got the play right" and forbade further productions or publication of the script. Upon release of the film, however, he did authorize an illustrated paperback tie-in edition of the screenplay, published by Lancer Books.

The movie later lent its name to a popular music group.

Plot summary

File:They Might Be Giants trailer.jpg
Joanne Woodward and George C. Scott

Justin Playfair (Scott) is a millionaire who retreats into fantasy after the death of his wife, imagining himself to be Sherlock Holmes, the legendary fictional detective. Complete with deerstalker hat, pipe and violin, he spends his days in a home-made criminal laboratory, constantly paranoid about plots hatched by his (Holmes') arch-enemy, Professor Moriarty.

When his brother (Lester Rawlins) tries to place Justin under observation in a mental institution so he can get power of attorney, Justin attracts the attention of Dr Mildred Watson (Woodward), a psychiatrist who becomes fascinated by his case. Justin demonstrates a knack for Holmesian deduction, then he walks out of the institution during the ensuing confusion. Watson comes to his home to attempt treatment. Playfair is initially dismissive of Watson's attempts at psychoanalyzing him, but when he hears her name, he enthusiastically incorporates her into his life as Doctor Watson to his Holmes.

The duo then begin an enigmatic quest for Moriarty, with Playfair/Holmes following all manner of bizarre and (to Watson) unintelligible clues, and the two growing closer to each other in the process.

Defining quote

The title is an indirect reference to Don Quixote's famous exploit of tilting at windmills, believing them to be "monstrous giants". Despite the protest of his aide Sancho Panza and being soundly defeated at the hands of the "giants" (that is, being tossed away by a mill's sail after getting his lance caught up in it), Quixote maintains his belief that the mills are not buildings but giants. In reference to this, Playfair argues:

Of course, he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That's insane. But, thinking that they might be... Well, all the best minds used to think the world was flat. But, what if it isn't? It might be round. And bread mould might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what they might be, why, we'd all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.

Critical views

The film opened to mixed reviews. Vincent Canby of The New York Times described it as "a mushy movie with occasional, isolated moments of legitimate comedy."[1] Leonard Maltin was a notable critic to hold it in good esteem.[2]

It has a 78% positive rating from 9 reviews on the movie-review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes.[3]


An intact copy of this film is difficult to find. Most home video releases have been edited. The original release length was 98 minutes. Netflix's streaming version is 91:15. An edited for television version in 1986 was 96:29. The currently-available on-demand DVD runs only slightly over 84 minutes; all the edited versions omit the penultimate scene in the grocery store, though this was extant in the Netflix streaming version.


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