As I understand it, golf is the most popular participant sport in the world. Yet there have never been any truly great movies about it. Sorry, "Caddy Shack" doesn't count; and Kevin Costner's "Tin Cup," though admirable, doesn't quite make the cut, either. I suppose, then, that Disney's 2005 release "The Greatest Game Ever Played" fills the niche, and while it might not be the greatest movie ever made, it's pleasant entertainment and will nicely suffice until something better comes along.
As the preface tells us, "This is a true story." It recounts the legendary meeting between six-time British Open golf champion Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane), the greatest English player of all time, and the untested young amateur Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf) at the 1913 U.S. Open championship. That single tournament would help reshape the face of golf for the next century.
The fact is, it's not as easy as it may sound to make a movie where the audience knows the outcome well ahead of time, no matter how exciting or uplifting that outcome. Yet it's been done any number of times, not only with inspirational sports movies but with true-life war stories, murder mysteries, and political intrigues. Think of "All the President's Men" as a perfect example. Everybody knew the Watergate story, but it didn't stop the movie from being entirely gripping. Such is the case with "The Greatest Game."
Things begin on the Isle of Jersey in 1879, the tiny Vardon cottage, where the home is about to be replaced by a golf links. It would change Harry's life forever, sending him into a world of professional golfing that was in its infancy. Then we move forward to 1900, the year Vardon would win the U.S. Open, and a young Francis Ouimet was caddying at a posh country club across from his working-class family's home.
Golf becomes a passion for Francis growing up, and Vardon is Harry's hero, both of them coming from lower middle-class roots at a time when people considered golf a gentleman's game for the upper classes, and those at the top even looked down on professional golfers for taking money. "Caddies don't play in the amateurs. It's not for your kind," says one of the board members of an amateur tournament to Francis. Even Francis's father, Arthur Ouimet (Elias Koteas), is unhappy with his son's desire to play golf. "A man knows his place," he instructs Francis.
So, the movie is as much about class struggles as it is about golf. Moreover, it is as much a story of sportsmanship as it is about the sport. Young Francis must learn humility as well as skill at his game. Then, there is a little romance thrown in with the appearance of a wealthy young woman, Sarah Wallis (Peyton List), although the story does little to develop this relationship beyond the purely perfunctory.
Add to this some additional drama supplied by a brash American champion, John J. McDermott (Michael Weaver), and Vardon's friend and fellow golfer, Ted Ray (Stephen Marcus), plus some humor from the most colorful and loveable character in the movie, Francis's ten-year-old caddy, Eddie Lowery (Josh Flitter), and you get a reasonably well filled out story line.
But more important than the story, the movie is a terrific period piece, with any number of eye-opening golf shots. The purely cinematic effects may be a trifle overdone (point-of-view takes, slow-motion, fades, dissolves), but they quicken the pace of the movie and provide a needed sense of urgency. A few times I found myself ducking a golf ball, which was actually kind of fun. Then, too, there is an appropriately uplifting musical score that elevates much of the proceedings beyond their sometimes mundane origins, maybe too overwrought at times but contributing to the film's all-round exhilaration.
Bill Paxton directed the film; although he is better known as an actor, he has the movie "Frailty" to his credit. Mark Frost wrote the screenplay, the man who also wrote the book. He based his ideas on the true-life experiences of Vardon and Ouimet, and they were more than enough to fill up the space. It's a remarkably sweet film, with no real villains (except maybe the rich and aristocratic class, easy targets) and almost everyone a hero.
Francis gets a lucky break when the president of the U.S. Open asks him to fill out the field of amateurs in 1913. Unlike most inspirational sports stories where the big game is played in the last fifteen minutes of the movie, in "Greatest Game" the U.S. Open tournament is played throughout the last half of the film. Yes, it does drag on a bit long, but it contains enough dramatic moments to carry it along. Hint: Francis plays his best game in the rain.
The final half hour of the movie is pretty intense and compels one to keep watching. The tournament comes down to a final-round, three-way play-off with Vardon, Ray, and young Mr. Ouimet, two seasoned professionals and one rank amateur. The newspapers describe the round as "the greatest game ever played," and I wouldn't doubt it to this day.
Of course, it also comes down to the final hole, so that much is still in the tradition of great sports movies. But "The Greatest Game Every Played" achieves its purpose. You darned well want to stand and cheer at the end. What more could you ask of it.
The film's original 1.85:1 ratio nicely fills out a 16x9 television in anamorphic widescreen. In many shots, the colors have the odd look of old-time hand-tinted photographs, but the filmmakers never overuse the effect. Still, such touches give the picture a feeling for times gone by. The overall image is fairly dark, with a somewhat soft focus, the darker scenes revealing a trace of grain.
There is a fairly good stereo spread in the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound reproduction, and there is the expected activity in the surrounds to add realism to the events. We hear the usual rain, the occasional golf stroke, some crowd noise, and musical ambience. It's a useful and effective soundtrack, with a strong dynamic punch that helps increase our enjoyment of the movie and the golf.
It's not always the quantity of the extras that impress me on a disc but the entertainment, enlightenment, or interest value of the items. There are only a few bonuses on this disc, but they kept my attention. First up are two separate audio commentaries, one with director Bill Paxton and the other with author/screenwriter Mark Frost. Both men have pleasant speaking voices, Paxton's more assertive, perhaps because of his acting experience, and both men have something to say beyond the obvious chatter we sometimes get in these things.
Then, there are three featurettes. The first of these is "A View from the Gallery: On the Set of The Greatest Game Ever Played," a fifteen-minute behind-the-scenes affair covering the movie's themes, actors, sets, costumes, and such. Next is "Two Legends and the Greatest Game," a seven-minute segment on Ouimet and Vardon, providing a historical perspective on the famous golfers and on the game of golf itself. The third featurette is a vintage, 1963 documentary, "From Caddy to Champion: Francis Ouimet," twenty-five minutes long, with footage and interviews of the real Ouimet.
The extras conclude with twelve scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at six other Disney titles; English and French spoken languages; and French subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
As far as inspirational sports movies go, "The Greatest Game Ever Played" is pretty much formulaic. Because it's a true story, we know in advance exactly what's going to happen and who's going to win. But, surely, it's not for the outcome that we might watch this movie but for the unfolding of the story. Here, the film is so well made, the acting so good, the period so well captured, and the photography so captivating that it's hard not to like it. At the risk of sounding corny, the film is clearly above par.