PopMatters Film and TV Editor
The image of lanky, boyishly handsome Will Smith sauntering through the misty dark toward the camera is no doubt a lovely one, but it bodes all kinds of ill for director Robert Redford’s new movie. Like his A River Runs Through It and The Milagro Beanfield War, The Legend of Bagger Vance explores the beauties of nature and mysteries of human faith, while smoothing over any potential rough spots with a romantic, pretty-to-think so haze (not unlike that calculated mist that makes Smith look so good on his entrance into the picture). To ensure this transcendent effect, the films tend to remove their protagonists from history except in the most general sense. That is, they live in a fairy tale dressed up as a kind of hopeful social commentary.
In The Legend of Bagger Vance, the cabalistic caddie Bagger (Smith) and golfer Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon) live in an exceedingly pleasant (and exceedingly unreal) version of Depression-era Savannah, Georgia. Here the town is transformed into a prejudice-less paradise, where everyone white and black gets along because everyone loves Savannah and wants to see “her people” thriving. While only one of “her people” actually talks about this shared vision in the film, it does get a lot of visual support, in the form of interracial crowds cheering for, of all things, a golf tournament. Who knew? The folks in Depression-era Savannah just love golf. The film never actually suggests that they can afford to play it, or even that they want to, but their devotion to the game is a practical conceit, premised on and filtered through the narrator’s own devotion to “the greatest game there is.”
The movie opens as Hardy Greaves (Jack Lemmon) is in mid-coronary on a golf course, his voice-over indicates that he’s self-conscious about his obsession with the game: “As my wife used to ask before she passed on, ‘Why do I play a game that seems destined to kill me?’” He then spends some 127 minutes telling you why. As the camera cranes up and out, the shot dissolves from old Hardy clutching his chest on the green grass and re-opens on a scrappy-looking, 10-year-old Hardy (J. Michael Moncrief), sneaking onto a golf course and hitting a ball into a group of paying players, who scatter when he calls out, “Four!” One gets bopped on the head anyway, as Hardy scrambles back through the fence that’s intended to keep him out.
At such moments, the film’s nostalgia gets a bit dicey. It’s clear that young Hardy can’t afford to be a member (his father has lost his business and is now sweeping Savannah’s streets, much to the boy’s embarrassment) and obviously the club doesn’t admit minorities. But the film works hard to present its story as a thrilling, enchanted moment, which only happens to coincide with golf’s long history of exclusivity and intolerance. And so, The Legend of Bagger Vance will show black workers and working-class golf fans, but only as means to make to the game seem “universally” accessible and meaningful, a route to spiritual enlightenment and harmony with all things. The story that Heart-Attacked Hardy tells is a fable structured as his recollections of a momentous exhibition match in Savannah. Enhanced by Michael Ballhous’ ravishing golden-light-filtered cinematography, this match involves three players real-life legends Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch, who looks remarkably like Redford playing Gatsby) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill), and metaphorical zen-of-golf disciple Rannulph. As Hardy has it, Rannulph is something of a tragic figure, having been a prodigious golf talent and well-liked young fellow, who “lost his swing” (as well as his ability to sleep at night) on the frontlines during WWI: in a scene that takes about two minutes, you see him survive a battle that kills everyone else in his company.
Feeling guilty and shell-shocked, Rannulph returns home to Savannah and for some ten years, avoids everyone he knew before, including his glamorous debutante girlfriend Miss Adele (Charlize Theron). But young Hardy, inspired by his daddy’s tales of Rannulph’s former brilliance, keeps track of his idol’s whereabouts namely, playing cards with a bunch of guys, in the old servants’ quarters on his estate (it’s not clear if they work there or not): you may recall a similar scene at the start of Tin Cup, which serves the same purpose, to align its uncommonly talented hero with the common (read: black) folk. When Adele organizes the aforementioned exhibition tournament in an effort to salvage her dead daddy’s dream, the Krewe Island Golf Resort, Hardy pleads with Hardy to represent Savannah against Jones and Hagen. The class hierarchy here becomes particularly interesting, not to say twisted. Jones comes off as the classic Golden Boy, a practicing lawyer and brilliant golfer who makes everything look easy, while Hagen is more worldly, ambitious, and showy, a self-conscious entrepreneur who plays for the money; he smokes cigarettes and arrives at the tournament each day in an expensive car with an exotic, be-turbaned caddy. Which leaves Rannulph to play the sympathetic, (relatively) underfunded underdog, suggested by his wearing long pants instead of fancy knickers like the others.
Most importantly for this effect, Rannulph is attended by Bagger Vance, always dressed in the same well-worn jacket and hat to mark his down-homie goodness. Bagger shows up just in time to inspire Rannulph to play he just happens to be out strolling on Rannulph’s property on that fateful misty evening, at the precise moment the golfer is despairing over his lost swing. Charismatic, slow-talking, and not a little beguiling, Bagger sets himself on his raggedy suitcase, watches poor Rannulph hit the ball badly, then delivers the first of several sermons on the philosophy of golf: “The rhythm of the game is just like the rhythm of life.” Hallelujah and amen. The rest of the film essentially comprises a series of similar scenes wherein Bagger is advising Rannulph over two long days of play 36 holes a day and oh yeah, carrying Rannulph’s bag.
For all the magic Smith works and he is a tremendously charming and increasingly skilled performer at this point the film drops right off the okay-scale, into that “What were they thinking?” void. First, the tournament that supposedly rallies Savannah’s out-of-work community to cheer on the sidelines is really a scheme to recoup the rich white woman’s fortune and induce her happy marriage to the recovered Rannulph (call it the American Dream and to think, it’s only 70 or so years after this film’s period that Tiger Woods is able to claim a piece of that Dream for himself). Second, The Legend of Bagger Vance is a little too much like The Green Mile revisited, that is, the saga of a white man whose emotional and moral struggle is aided by a miraculously-appearing black man who’s infinitely patient and wise, more angelic than human (apparently, the only way to conceive a non-threatening black man these days is as a spirit: see also Bedazzled, where a black angel arrives at the 11th hour to save Brendan Fraser’s soul). How fortunate it is that, in these desperate times, Bagger like John Coffy in The Green Mile has nothing better to do than help the white folks, so clearly in need of guidance and uplifting. Rannulph’s worthiness is indicated by his ability to absorb Bagger’s advice and get into that sports-movie zone, where the crowd noise fades out, the motion goes slow, and when this “being in the zone” is most ecstatic the other characters literally disappear off the screen and all that lies before our hero is “the field.”
Or better, The Legend of Bagger Vance is The Green Mile meets The Natural, another inspirational sports film starring young Robert Redford as a supernaturally talented baseball player. Here Damon plays the Natural and Smith plays Wonder Boy (that would be the bat). I remember once hearing Randy Newman talking about writing the score for The Natural, and how difficult it was to come up variations on the basic theme for Redford’s repeated runs around the bases, after hitting numerous home runs. This movie has the same inclination to repeat its primary images and soaring musical accompaniment (scored by Rachel Portman) elegant swings, soaring balls which is, to an extent, understandable, because once Rannulph accepts Bagger as his personal savior, there’s really only one way for it all to turn out.
This predetermined (fated?) plot means that the bulk of the movie (and the tournament takes over an hour to unfold), is about displaying the landscaped perfection of the golf course (showcased at pretty orange sunrises and sunsets, and in-between), slight shifts in weather (sunny to windy to nighttime), and the crowd’s reaction shots, all approximating what Bagger calls “the rhythm of the game.” This rhythm, of course, has a very specific trajectory: Rannulph’s deliverance into self-love and the love of his good woman, enabled by the love of his uncanny caddy. Of course, the fact that he’s so torn up over a calamity that wasn’t even his fault means that Rannulph is just a good man waiting to happen. Bagger’s sage commentary “You can’t make that ball go anywhere, you got to let it,” “You got to find your one true authentic swing,” and (my favorite) “Don’t think about it, feel it” is only supportive, not instructive per se. At night, when Rannulph heads into the clubhouse for drinks, Bagger… well, who knows where he goes. During the days, Bagger mostly stays out the way, smiling and nodding at the white folks’ competitive and romantic antics, until he sees that Rannulph needs a little provocation, whereupon he suggests that Rannulph “lay down [his] burden” and “play the game.”
But while Bagger keeps reminding Rannulph that it is, after all, just a game, you do have to wonder exactly how he (Bagger) might be comprehending the racial dynamics the film can’t help but show but also can’t afford to address. Granted, it’s not fair to bring a 21st-century sensibility to reading a historical situation, but this historical situation is considerably cleaned up, no matter how you look at it. Bagger, well, he just keeps on advising and observing, with his mere presence marking Rannulph’s specialness, his moral righteousness. With Bagger by his side, Rannulph passes as a “working man’s” golfer, except if you remember that amazing spread of property he’s got or the fact that he’s been living for ten years without a job. But I’m nitpicking. Legends serve broad cultural functions: revising the past, they make the present look less ominous. The Legend of Bagger Vance does just that as long as you don’t think about it.