Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.
The American people once upon a time had a fascination with the game of baseball. Some of that remains, but a lot has faded in the last few decades. There’s still a relationship there, though unlike that with any other sport. This is due to baseball’s history, which is much longer as a consecutive thing than other sports (barring lockouts and strikes) and in part because of baseball’s pastoral nature. Even in this day of steroid abuse and multi-multi million dollar contracts, there’s a connection between baseball today and the game of nearly a century ago.
Because of this unique relationship between America and baseball, it’s no surprise that the game frequently takes on a mythic significance in film. And thus it’s no surprise that a film like The Natural ascribes a mythic significance to the game using story that borrows lightly from the story of Percival in the Arthurian tradition and heavily from The Odyssey. In the world of the film, baseball is writ large. A hit is not merely a hit, but a stroke of power. A home run is an achievement of legend. If this makes it sound like The Natural is a bit overblown and takes itself a bit seriously, well, that’s exactly the case. Those truly immersed in the game, who take hot stove time seriously and count days to spring training will not find this odd. Everyone else may be put out by the film’s need to blow the impact of a simple game completely out of proportion.
Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) has made it to the big leagues after 16 years. We learn that his path there wasn’t through the minors but an interesting school of hard knocks. He leaves his boyhood girlfriend Iris (Glenn Close) on his way to the majors as a kid and manages to wow a crowd by striking out a big-time player known as The Whammer (Joe Don Baker). For this feat, he is targeted by a woman named Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey), who has taken it upon herself to gun down as many up and coming athletes. And so she shoots him, and we jump ahead 16 years to Roy’s present.
So Roy, with his homemade bat called Wonderboy finally make it to the majors. The bat, incidentally, carved with its name and a lightning bolt, was crafted from a tree struck down by lightning on Roy’s home farm, the tree under which his father died (see, mythic). He’s sent to the New York Knights, where coach Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) is struggling. Fisher has been forced to sell off part of his share of the team to a man known to us only as The Judge (Robert Prosky). However, if the Knights can win a pennant, Pop can get his shares back. This, then, is why Roy has come to the bigs—The Judge is loading up his team with unknowns to insure that they won’t win.
This effort is aided by a few other people. First is Gus (an uncredited Darren McGavin), a bookie who likes making money off knowing that the Knights will be perpetual losers. Additionally, player Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen) is the alleged star of the team but has been bought off, in part by a relationship with Memo Paris (Kim Basinger), the some-time lover of Gus and the niece of Pop Fisher. When Bump dies in an on-field accident, Roy Hobbs gets the starting spot and immediately starts tearing things up, including a base hit in his first at-bat that literally tears the cover off the ball.
The rest of the film concerns the back and forth between the various forces that affect Roy and his quest to be the best that ever was on the diamond. Looking to get the same sort of deal with him as they had with Bump, The Judge and Gus attempt to buy him off and essentially force Memo into a relationship with him, which leads to a long slump and the trailing fortunes of the team. When he finally hooks back up with Iris in Chicago, things change back. The last hour concerns the nefarious goings-on trying to keep Roy Hobbs off the diamond and his own attempt to prove himself.
I see in all this I managed to overlook a mention of Max Mercy (Robert Duvall), a sports reporter/artist who seems to be present in all of the important moments in Roy’s career. It’s not obvious at any point through most of the film if Max is one of the good guys or one the bad guys until we get closer to the end, when Max’s loyalties become evident.
The Natural is all about the myth, about making the game of baseball more than just a game played on afternoons in the summer, but something for which the world stands on end and for which the country holds its collective breath. That may have once been true, and very well may have been true in the era that the film takes place. But while the players were certainly larger than life at the time and people lived and died with their teams, was it ever really of this significance? Were baseball players of the same caliber as characters from myth?
I suppose they were, but it rings a lot of false notes here. The Natural attempts to strike the same sort of mood as a film like Field of Dreams, but Field of Dreams, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, is able to capture that feeling better and more believably. The myth there comes not from the players as they are playing, but the actual myths and fables, and the ghosts of the past. Here, we’re led to believe in Hobbs’s legend as it is being made—titanic home runs the like of which are rarely seen and epic performances that would write their own legends should they truly happen.
It’s also difficult at times to buy Redford as a 35-year-old ballplayer. By 1984, Redford still had the hints of his movie idol good looks, but they had faded, as might be expected in a guy approaching 50 when the film was made. Even more difficult is buy him as a dewy-faced 19-year-old. It would have been a much smarter move to hire someone that looked enough like him to pull it off. I could buy him at 35 at times and 40 most of the time, but a teen? Nah.
And it drags on too long. The version I watched is the Director’s Cut, which adds 10 minutes to the original running time, and while director Levinson claims in the short introduction that the opening is tighter, the ten additional minutes just serve to drag things out. The closing one-game playoff game is almost a sixth of the total running time. A bigger sin is that frequently the baseball scenes don’t feel real. Swings are lackluster, pitches seem slow and soft.
It’s difficult to fault The Natural for what it is, but it’s easy to fault it for taking itself far too seriously. Ultimately, baseball is just a game, no more mythic than any other sport, and The Natural is no more mythic than any other film, regardless of baseballs smashing into scoreboards, legendary hitters striking out, or showers of sparks from lights hit by titanic home runs.
Why to watch The Natural: Because it’s baseball, and spring is coming.
Why not to watch: It’s roughly as plausible as a rainbow-farting unicorn.