The Natural (1984)

…when I walked down the street people would’ve looked and they would’ve said there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game.”

Synopsis

It’s 1923 and Roy Hobbs, a nineteen year old pitcher is on his way to a try out with the Chicago Cubs. Targeted by a serial killer who targets athletes, he’s shot but survives to find his career detoured and delayed. Fast forward to 1939 and Hobbes is struggling to resume his career. The New York Knights are struggling to win ball games. Their manager Pop Fisher wants a pennant, but his team is unlikely to fulfill that dream.Unknown to Pop some of them are on the take, paid to lose by the corrupt owner. What he needs, but doesn’t know it, is the stuff of legend to join his team and that’s exactly what will happen.

Roy Hobbes is seen as nothing more than an washed up aging ballplayer. Signed by the Knights scout to keep the team from winning, the new acquisition is considered a joke. But what the scout doesn’t know it Hobbes is the man the Knights need to get them back in the game.

Why We Love It

What is there not to love? It’s a great ride from beginning to end and it doesn’t let baseball fans or movie fans down.

Based on the novel by Bernard Malamud, with some changes that I believe make necessary concessions to the needs of film, The Natural stands as one of the best baseball movies ever made because Levinson and company understood the emotional depths that baseball can have for fans of the game. Not merely their own team, but for the game itself.

The film maintains much of the book but the mood is different capturing the mythic feel of the game at its best. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel does baseball proud giving the film an almost bathed in gold look that enhances the fairy tale take on the story by director Barry Levinson.

In The Natural Hobbes defies time and his age to fulfill his dream to play major league baseball. Hobbes and his bat, Wonderboy, honed from a tree struck by lightening on the night his father died, is a man with mythic talent who can hit a ball so hard it’s reduced to leather and string.

He is of course the stuff of legends as played by Robert Redford.

Robert Redford is the perfect movie version of Hobbes. Always larger than life he makes Hobbes the perfect storybook ballplayer. He even manages to pull off the younger Hobbes and settles in beautifully as the older, but not necessarily wiser man who returns almost literally from the dead.

There was some grumbling from critics when the movie came out. Malamud’s more realistic ending with Hobbes striking out was changed to a fairytale one with him hitting the game winning homer. I love the book, but the changes work on film. The almost tragic ending in the book would require a far different much darker film than Levinson decided to make.

The movie ending, which is very much the home run at the bottom of the ninth with the score tied and your team down to their last strike, is the stuff that makes baseball my favorite game. It’s the comeback against all odds achieved by the hero who nearly fails but manages to prevail.

The cast has a line up of veteran actors who are perfectly matched to their roles from Wilford Brimely as Pop Fisher, the manager who wants to win the pennant, to Richard Farnsworth as his sidekick coach. Robert Prosky is The Judge, the owner who is foiled by Hobbes.  Darrin McGavin appropriately creepy as Gus Sands and Robert Duval as Max Mercy, the cartoon drawing sports writer who thinks there’s something familiar about the ballplayer who came out of nowhere.

The women in Hobbes’s life are the down to earth Glenn Close as Iris, the girl he left behind. Kim Basinger is Memo, the temptress used by the Judge in an attempt to derail the Knights mysterious new slugger.  Barbara Hersey as Harriet Bird captures the cold, calculated madness of a killer.

Michael Madsen does a nice turn as the on take outfielder Bump Bailey who literally dies trying.

Moment We Fell in Love

The young, clueless, pitcher Roy Hobbes strikes out the aging slugger called The Whammer, Joe Don Baker, at a fair during a stop on his train ride to Chicago. The loyalties of the crowd shift from the older ballplayer to the new phenom. The attention of Harriet Bird shifts to Hobbes and he becomes her target since she only kills the best.

The cinematography, the gold of the sun setting as The Whammer’s stock descends and the young Hobbes is on the rise, capture the mythic quality that baseball at its best can evoke. It’s a pivotal moment in Hobbes’s young life. He’s consumed with being the best. That drive still haunts him when years later he’ll say to Iris:

“And then when I walked down the street people would’ve looked and they would’ve said there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game.”

It’s what he said to Harriet Bird sixteen years earlier.

Final Thoughts

This is a beautiful film to watch from the flow of the story to the visuals and the performances of the cast. Randy Newman’s score is a classic and I can’t imagine the film without it. It bolsters the film emotionally and is simply perfect.

This is one of the great baseball movies, but even someone who isn’t a fan of the game can enjoy it. The film captures not only the essence of baseball but of the time period. Not merely with sets and costumes but an almost an intangible sense of life in the Depression when there might not be much to root for but your favorite team and players.

The Natural captures the heart and soul of the game it portrays and glorifies with a cast of characters that are truly memorable.

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