Well, it's spring, and that means baseball . . . and baseball films. Two classic movies are so universal that they appeal to non-fans as well, and, perhaps it's no coincidence that both of them incorporate elements of what's been called "magical realism." Kevin Costner made that Iowa cornfield come alive with the ghosts of Chicago "Black Sox" in "Field of Dreams" (1989), and Robert Redford had a special bat that seemed to work magic for the game's oldest rookie in "The Natural" (1984). Forget steroids and corked bats. This guy could hit . . . but only with Wonderboy, a bat he fashioned from a lightning-split oak tree when he was just a boy. Can you think of a better way to bring the magic of childhood into an adult world?
In an earlier review, John J. Puccio remarked that "'The Natural' basks in a kind of golden mythic glow that isn't often seen in movies anymore." Maybe that's because writer Bernard Malamud felt that the whole history of baseball has the quality of mythology. But unless you do your homework or are as much a student of the game as he was, it won't occur to you just how much of his novel and this film adaptation was based on real baseball events until you watch the bonus features on the new two-disc Director's Cut.
Barry Levinson explains that because "The Natural" was the first film from Tri-Star, there was a lot of pressure to deliver it on-time. As a result, Levinson says he wasn't able to craft the film the way he wanted, and so he used the occasion of a director's cut not just to add scenes, but to completely re-do the first act to make it closer in tone to Malamud's novel. Twenty minutes of new footage was added, but because of the re-edit, this version only runs six minutes longer than the original. In an introduction, Levinson downplays the significance, saying, simply, that he hopes fans of the book will find it "interesting."
Well, it's more than that. This cut of "The Natural" is definitive. It's more fully realized and makes more sense than what we saw in the theaters. Now, Roy Hobbs is darker and more troubled by a past that helps better prepare viewers for events to come. There's more emphasis placed on the 16 years lost when Hobbs, a local man who struck out the Whammer (Malamud's Babe Ruth character, played by Joe Don Baker) during the baseball giant's barnstorming tour, ends up getting shot by a mysterious woman (Barbara Hershey) en route to begin his own major league career. And with a silver bullet, no less.
On one of the extras, screenwriter Phil Dusenberry tells a story about how President Reagan was confused about why the woman pulled the trigger and asked him to explain. What was her motivation, the former sportscaster-actor wanted to know. To tell the truth, I never fully understood it myself, until this director's cut. Though the film's ending is still a complete "180" from the novel (in which Hobbs strikes out in his big championship game opportunity) the new first act makes "The Natural" feel even more mythic than before.
Cowboys have been America's mythic figures, compared by more than a few scholars to the knights of English mythos, so it's no coincidence that Malamud has Hobbs playing for the New York Knights, and the courtly intrigue involves greedy part-owners and a seductress (Kim Basinger). There's even a little of the Western hero in Hobbs, who "rides" into town a virtual stranger with a special skill that can save the townspeople--in this case, a lowly baseball team and their fans. But "The Natural" also celebrates baseball's early days, and in so doing, it reaches back into American folklore. This was baseball's golden era, and many of the scenes are, in fact, tinged with a golden cast, while other scenes bring in elements of another genre--the crime noir film. Instead of a private eye trying to figure out whodunit, it's a sportswriter (Robert Duval). Instead of an attractive client, we get another blast from Hobbs' past in Iris Gaines (Glenn Close)
Levinson bucked the tradition of hiring actors first and then teaching them how to play baseball by going after ballplayers. Many of the Knights were minor leaguers. That, combined with old-time character actors Wilford Brimley and Richard Farnsworth in the dug-out, really create an atmosphere that celebrates baseball's olden days. We learn in some of the new features that they were also meticulous about the uniforms and equipment that they used, and hear from Redford how difficult it was to catch balls with a glove that had no stitching between the fingers and wasn't much larger than his hand.
There's much to admire and enjoy about "The Natural," but like "The Great Gatsby," another literary property that Redford attempted, not all of the magic makes it from the page to the screen. This cut is better than the original in that respect, but the screenplay by Dusenberry and Roger Towne seems more workmanlike than magical. There simply aren't enough stand-out lines. Other than a sports psychologist who gives repeat lectures comparing losing to various maladies, there's not much obvious humor either--which makes those scenes stand out in a peculiar way.
In the end, though, those mythic archetypes are powerful enough to make up for any of the film's shortcomings. "The Natural" is a film about mythic baseball heroes, recovery and second-chances (another form of the American dream), good luck vs. bad, and father's and sons. "My dad wanted me to be a baseball player," Hobbs says. And if that isn't enough to drive a person to work hard enough to become a natural, nothing is.
I don't have a copy of the Special Edition to compare notes, but this print is mastered in High Definition and presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Some scenes are grainier than others, but by and large it's a very decent transfer. There's a good amount of detail in the murky scenes, and the colors are bright and "natural"-looking in game sequences. In fact, there's an Oz-like quality about those sequences on the field that makes a pretty obvious statement about the game of baseball in relation to everyday life.
Soundtrack options are English, Japanese, and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1. I can understand the Japanese, where baseball is big, but Portugal and Brazil? Wouldn't Spanish have been a better option, given how big baseball is in Latin America and the Caribbean? But there's not even a Spanish option among the subtitles, which only offer English (CC), Japanese, Portuguese, and French. As with the video, the sound is pretty solid for a DVD release, with a booming but not overpowering bass that's sensitive enough to pick up some of the lower tones in some of the darker scenes.
Except for an extra featuring Cal Ripken, Jr., which might overlap from the Special Edition, the rest of the features on this two-disc release seem to be brand new. Levinson's introduction is followed by an intelligent and fluid commentary that addresses all aspects of the film and filming, and a number of "featurettes" cover as much ground as a good center fielder. There are only six deadly sins according to Ripken, who defends the actions of the judge in the film and says greed in baseball isn't necessarily bad. Ripken says a few other interesting/astounding things that make for an entertaining feature. "When Lightning Strikes: Creating the Natural" is broken into three segments. One focuses on Malamud and his vision, with the author's daughter appearing. There's some great stuff here. Another focuses on assembling the "moviemaking team," and again is pretty mesmerizing. Finally, there's a brief segment on the actual filming, with most of the stadium shots taken in Buffalo, New York. Fans of Robert Redford will enjoy hearing how he too apparently was a natural, distaining hitting lessons and batting practices. Like Hobbs, he just walked up to the plate and whacked the balls into the cheap seats.
In other extras, "Extra Innings: Clubhouse Conversations" is a four-parter in which Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg appears along with Bob Costas, who once remarked of Sandberg (which is why, presumably, they're both here), "Forget about Roy Hobbs. There's the natural." One of the best of the bonus features is "A Natural Gunned Down: The Stalking of Eddie Waitkus." Yep, there really was a player who was shot by an adoring female fan, and he was nicknamed "the natural." What a fascinating feature for fans of the film! Then there's "Knights in Shining Armor: The Mythology of 'The Natural,'" which covers some of the mythic bases-though I take exception with the definition of myth that's offered by their "expert," who claims that myths "reflect the inner psychology and attitude towards the world." Well, maybe, but myths have always been constructed to promote the ideals that a culture values most. That's the purpose and the heart and soul of myth, and in baseball we certainly see the attitudes and attributes that Americans hold dear and try to live up to. All in all, a very nice package of extras.
Baseball movies are like baseball teams. Everyone is going to have a favorite or two. While I personally think "The Pride of the Yankees" and "Field of Dreams" rise above the rest, "The Natural" falls into the second tier of highly respectable and entertaining fare, joined by "A League of Their Own," "Bull Durham," the original "Angels in the Outfield," "It Happens Every Spring," "The Rookie," "Major League," "The Sandlot," and "The Babe." And if you're wanting to round out your spring baseball movie program with minor-league flicks, there's always "Bang the Drum Slowly," "The Pride of St. Louis," "Eight Men Out," "Stealing Home," "The Babe Ruth Story," "The Bad News Bears," and a new baseball double feature ("Kill the Umpire"/"Safe at Home") from Sony. Play Ball!