Bottom of the ninth, down 2-0 in the pennant game, two men on base, two outs, and batting-sensation Roy Hobbs is stepping up to the plate. It's what baseball mythology is all about.
Striving to translate any novel for the big screen can be tricky business, and not even talented director Barry Levinson ("Diner," "Rain Man," "Quiz Show") can successfully pull off Bernard Malamud's eccentrically pessimistic, 1952 allegory on the inherent weaknesses of man. So rather than trying to manage the convoluted fable literally, Levinson in this 1984 movie version opts for a simplified Hollywood rendering, complete with a revised, fairy-tale ending. The result is not so much disappointing as it is disconcerting for anyone who has read the book. Nevertheless, taken at face value "The Natural" reveals charms of its own, not the least of which is its sweet, lyrical attitude toward America's Favorite Pastime. Combined with a measure of good humor, it's a film that even non-baseball fans can like.
Robert Redford stars as baseball player Roy Hobbs, a man who simply wanted to be the "best there ever was." The story begins in the early 1920s, when he's a promising young pitcher on his way to the major leagues. Seeing him strike out the leading slugger of the day, "Whammer" Wambold (Joe Don Baker in a nod to Babe Ruth), in a carnival pickup game, shows us how really good he is. So does it show something in Roy to a more-than-casual spectator, Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey). She has been murdering the best athletes in the country, and when she witnesses what Roy can do, she turns her attentions away from the "Whammer" and toward her new prey. Before we know it, Roy is lying face down in a hotel room with a bullet in his side, courtesy of the mysterious Ms. Bird.
Next, we skip ahead sixteen years to 1939. Roy is approaching middle-age and struggling to get back into the game after a long convalescence. Here, Redford looks a tad too old for the part, being somewhat over the line into middle age himself at the time, but he gets by. He's noticed by a scout for the most inept team in the majors, the New York Knights, and brought aboard, much to the chagrin of the general manager, Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), "I shoulda been a farmer." Pop doesn't want any over-the-hill rookies on his team and at first won't give Roy a chance to play. Of course, when Roy does get his big break, with the sudden death of the team's most valuable prima donna, Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen), in a bizarre accident in center field, he becomes an instant star. Roy can no longer pitch, due to his injury, but he can hit home runs like nobody's business.
Then come the complications, probably too many, in fact, bloating the film to 138 minutes and causing it to sag noticeably in the middle. But what can you do? It's in the book. The first complication is the lovely Memo Paris (Kim Basinger), Pop's temptress niece. Next, there's the nefarious "Judge" (Robert Prosky), who owns a majority share of the team and threatens to oust Pop if they don't win the pennant. Then there's Gus Sands (Darren McGavin in an uncredited part), an unscrupulous gambler who will do anything for money. And finally there's Max Mercy (Robert Duvall), an opportunistic sports writer who makes or breaks just about any ball player he chooses. It doesn't take long before the less-than-savvy Roy succumbs to the lures of late-night partying with Ms. Paris, much to the delight of the aforementioned bystanders, each of whom has a stake in his downfall. But coming to Roy's rescue is a Lady in White, Iris Gaines (Glenn Close), an old friend who becomes his renewed inspiration.
What it all means in Levinson's scheme of things, in spite of the film's length and complexity, is not much more than the redemption of a fallen hero through a revitalized purity of spirit. The story contains little of the dark, metaphoric content of Malamud's book.
For those interested, I thought it might be fun to speculate on some of Malamud's symbology, much of which is only hinted at in the film. Those readers less interested in such matters may safely skip to the next paragraph. For starters, there's the dictionary definition of a "natural" as a person born with a gift or talent; but it's also a reference to someone unenlightened or an idiot. Sorry, Roy. Then, there's Gus Sands, a probable allusion to Arnold Rothstein, the bookie responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series ("Say it ain't so, Joe"). But it's the Arthurian symbols that are most obvious. The very name Roy, for instance, as in Roi or rex, means king, a clear pointing to King Arthur, and a matter supported by Roy's having a bat called Wonderboy, just as Arthur had his Excalibur, a powerful, sometimes magical, weapon. Interestingly, the original Irish name for Excalibur was Caladbolg, derived from the words "calad" (hard) and "bolg" (lightning). In the updated narrative the Wonderboy bat is honed so that it cannot be chipped and is engraved with the likeness of a lightning bolt. Needless to say, the New York Knights have to be the Knights of Arthur's Round Table in this reading of the story, and Knights Stadium must be Camelot. The pennant the club is after is probably their Holy Grail, the legendary cup of Christ. To see the Grail, a knight had to be morally perfect (or as Roy wished to be, "the best"). Pop Fisher can easily be seen as the Fisher King (King Pellam or, in variations of the story, the Rich Fisher, Pelles, Pelleam, Pellehan, Parlan, Bron, Anfortas, King Pescheour, King of the Waste Lands, or the Maimed King, and thank you very much Phyllis Ann Karr and "The King Arthur Companion").
In Arthurian lore the Fisher King was supposed to be the guardian of the Grail and was supposed to have been maimed or crippled. There's no indication of such a disability in the movie, but in the book Pop Fisher's ailment is athlete's foot of the hand. So what is one to make of Iris? The Lady of the Lake, presumably. In most of the Arthur legends she is a good, mystical benefactress. In contrast, Harriet Bird and Memo Paris may be manifestations of the villainess, Morgan Le Fay (also known as Morgana). In most of the Arthurian tales, Morgan was an enchantress, accountable for much conflict among the Round Table knights and for the downfall of several of them. Both Harriet and Memo easily fit the bill. Judge Goodwill Banner? Probably Mordred, who was responsible for the death of Arthur and the destruction of the Round Table. Earlier, Mordred had attempted, through treachery, to become king himself, something the Judge continually strives for in Malamud's book and in the film. Finally, there's Bump Bailey, possibly representing Breuse Sans Pitie. In Sir Thomas Malory's account of the Arthur traditions, "Le Morte D'Arthur," Breuse is described as "the most mischievous knight living." You still with me?
Let's talk about the movie's image quality. It's soft focused and pastel shaded, reinforcing the poetic fantasy of the story. It is not absolutely clear and it's not meant to be. The screen size is 1.74:1 and anamorphic in presentation. I liked it. The sound comes in either two-channel Dolby Surround or four-channel Dolby Digital. There's quite a difference, too, the DD 4.0 being far more dynamic, discrete, and transparent, as I found out the hard way.
As usual with a Columbia release, the best possible sound is not always the default. It was about twenty minutes into the film before I realized a touch of the audio button would bring me the improved sonics. There still isn't a really deep bass, but there are some excellent rear-channel effects like crowd noises and the startlingly lifelike sound of a baseball hit directly over our heads and into the stands behind us.
As for special features, there aren't many. The main one is a forty-four-minute documentary featuring the narration of Cal Ripken, Jr., who appears quite taken by the film. There are also a few talent files, some production notes in the booklet insert, twenty-eight scene selections, and three theatrical trailers, one for "The Natural" and two more for other Columbia TriStar titles. English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese are the spoken language options, with English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai for subtitles.
The movie interpretation of "The Natural" may not be everything Malamud fanciers would have wanted, but in any case it's a good, old-fashioned, sentimental, and, yes, even uplifting story. Unlike Oliver Stone's attempt to expose the brutal facts of football in "Any Given Sunday," director Levinson steers clear of too much realism (as well as much symbolism). Instead, "The Natural" basks in a kind of golden mythic glow that isn't often seen in movies anymore, making it a film that's hard for anyone but the most flint nosed to resist.