This was my first time watching The Natural. Still, I knew exactly what I expected from it. And boy, oh boy, did the movie give me that for the first 15 minutes or so. Then, suddenly, a wild twist, and I was interested in what would come next.
If only my interest had been fulfilled.
Roy Hobbs is a “natural” at baseball. He grows up on a farm in the midwest, surrounded by fields of wheat. His father dies of a heart attack when Roy is young. Then, a lightning bolt destroys a giant tree outside his home. From its charred remains, he creates a baseball bat that he calls Wonderboy. He expresses love to his childhood girlfriend before setting off to Chicago to make it as a big-league pitcher. On the train, he meets an attractive woman who invites him to her hotel room in Chicago and shoots him. Then we skip 16 years, Hobbs shows up to play right field for the New York Knights for...some reason... and despite various shenanigans, he hits the game-winning home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to help them win the pennant.
So before I get into how dreadful the non-baseball stuff was - and it was dreadful - I want to talk about how dreadful the baseball stuff was. Robert Redford was 47 when he starred in this film. He’s one of those people who seems to only become more attractive as he ages, but it was still very apparent that he was too old to be even an old baseball player.
We know baseball seasons are long. People have been complaining or celebrating that length for a long time, but no one suggests that the season is anything but long. However, the single season in The Natural was so long that it saw the team playing horribly before Redford’s character was brought in “in the middle of the season.” Next, it saw the team continue to play terribly for what seemed to be several weeks until their star right-fielder died in the middle of a game. Then Redford’s hitting was so good that, although he was replacing the team’s sole star, he propelled them out of the cellar and into first place. Then he started dating the star’s old girlfriend without anyone questioning if she wasn’t moving on awfully quickly and went into a slump that sent the Knights back into the cellar. Then he saw his old flame in the crowd and was inspired to hit unreasonably well again until the team managed to storm back up into a tie for first place by the end of the season. That is a lot of season.
As to the actual action... well, let’s let Roger Ebert describe it,
“...the movie isn’t even subtle. When a team is losing, it makes Little League errors. When it’s winning, the hits are so accurate they even smash the bad guy’s windows. There’s not a second of real baseball strategy in the whole film.”
So, in a sentence: there was nothing redeeming or interesting about the baseball aspects of the film. So let’s talk about the non-baseball aspects. The major conflict of this film comes in the form of team ownership and sports gambling. The manager of the team, Pop Fischer, is also a part-owner. He was the majority owner but had to sell some of his shares to a man known as The Judge in the previous year due to financial hardship. There is a clause in the contract which indicates that Fischer must be allowed to purchase his shares back if the team wins the pennant this season. The Judge doesn’t want that, so he partners with an infamous sports bookie to fix things to prevent the team from winning. That isn’t an awful setup for a film. Except, as you’ll note from my earlier summary, that isn’t the setup, and it has surprisingly little to do with the star of the film.
It only comes up three times and only in insinuations and passing. The owner gently implies he’d pay Hobbs more to play worse, the bookie implies more strongly, and then, at the very end, the owner attempts to pay him off directly. When Hobbs eventually refuses (despite the owner’s assertion that he had agreed), the gambler tells the owner not to worry because Hobbs is so hurt that he’s going to fail anyway. And it would have been true if an usher and police officer hadn’t broken all protocol and reason to tell Hobbs something he should have already known! So why were they willing to give him 40 times his salary to throw the game, anyway?
So, yeah, let’s talk about the money. Hobbs gets signed for $500 to “play right field” by a scout. Why did the scout sign him? Well, because Hobbs was a nobody and he was working for the owner to hurt the team. How does signing a random guy hurt the team? Well, so far as I can tell, it doesn’t. It was just one guy that the scout had apparently never even seen play. Stick him on the bench; problem solved. Anyway, at about the film’s midway point, the sportswriter - who is played by Robert Duvall and draws cartoons and is evil, somehow? - offers Hobbs $5000 for his life story. Now I know newspapers had more money and sway back in the 30s than they do now, but I have a hard time thinking they’d happily offer up ten times a player’s salary for a single color story. Then, as I said, the owner and sports bookie offer him $20,000 to throw a single game. That’s a ludicrous amount of money compared to his salary. And, as we saw in Eight Men Out, you usually want to spread the money around to more than one player in a baseball game. None of it adds up.
Then there is our protagonist. Other characters, though not all, are given some history and some motivation. Pop has given his whole life to baseball, and he just wants to win one pennant. Memo, the bookie, and The Judge all just want to make money. But what does Roy want? You might answer, “He wants to be the best baseball player ever.” And I’d ask, “Why?” That’s a means to an end; it isn’t an end unto itself. Other people have wanted to be the best for a variety of reasons. Money, fame, to make parents or other loved ones proud, or for the love of the sport, just to name some broad categories. Hobbs had a special connection with his dad over baseball, but it doesn’t ever really come up again until the movie’s epilogue scene. If money or fame were the goals, he would have made different choices when offered bribes and blackmail. Roy never seems particularly happy to be playing baseball, either. So he’s just kind of there. Being the best baseball player ever sometimes and being the worst other times with no rhyme or reason for any of it to matter.
The film’s dialogue at a couple of key points and the epilogue scene combine to point the audience to conclude that they have just witnessed a redemption story about a man who “made a lot of bad choices” but then went back home to where he belonged with his first love and son. However, it doesn’t do anything to set that up. The movie never explains what precisely those “bad choices” were; Hobbs simply, repeatedly asserts that he did make them. Are we talking about someone who made some bad - but legal - bets? Or are we talking about someone who ran drugs and did hits for the mafia? No clue. The movie also doesn’t ever show us any redemption. Contrary to the strong desire of athletes, agents, and teams, “being good at a sport without getting into any more trouble” is not a redemption arc.
In the end, I think the problem with this movie is that it wants to be too many things. It tries to make itself an allegory of the knights of the round table with Hobbs creating a bat out of the lightning-struck tree being similar to Arthur pulling the sword from the stone. It also tries to cozy up to Homer’s Odyssey with Hobbs having to deal with a one-eyed monster and a woman who seduces him away from his journey home to his true love. There are some elements of the father-son relationship that other baseball movies have covered. The beginning borrows elements from a real-life story about a woman who tried to murder a baseball player. And I already mentioned the aborted attempts at a sports gambling movie, a movie about a team that goes from joke to champion, and a movie about redemption. It’s almost like someone cut up pieces from all of those stories, threw them in a hat, pulled out a fistful, and tried to turn them into a movie.
All that and I still haven’t directly discussed how insanely over-the-top the film is even outside the baseball stuff. Being over the top isn’t bad; Major League is over the top. But if you intend for your film to be serious - and every indication is that that was the intent here - it’s not exactly a good thing. First, to remind you, Hobbs is shot at the very beginning of the film. He also can’t hit anything when he’s seeing Memo and hits everything when he’s single or thinking about Iris. And the money stuff. And the woman who dates her dead boyfriend’s replacement on the team within weeks of his death. Then there is the fact that the movie implies that a player was murdered in cold-blood by the bookie when he refused to keep playing terribly. How was this murder accomplished? He fell through the fence when he was attempting to catch a flyball. I’m sure that wouldn’t feel good, but I’m at a loss as to how that would kill someone. His ashes are spread via airplane over the stadium immediately before a game when it’s full of fans and players. The first time Roy sees Iris after he leaves his farm, she is haloed by a setting sun while wearing a translucent hat. Hobbs’ old gunshot wound has caused the lining of his stomach to become damaged, which is causing him to bleed internally. The doctor insists that this should preclude him from ever playing baseball again but would otherwise allow him to lead a completely normal life (never mind that, speaking as a person with lots of digestive issues, baseball and digestive problems don’t directly interact like that.) Also, this stomach lining issue is somehow bad enough to make him bleed through his jersey when he tries to play one last game, too.
The best part is how the movie tells us Roy is a good hitter. Early on, he hits the ball so hard that he literally rips the cover off of a baseball. At another, he shatters a scoreboard clock. Finally, at the end of the movie, he hits a home run so hard that he manages to hit the light bank that allows them to play night games. This causes a chain reaction of violent explosions, destroying the stadium’s entire lighting system while Roy calmly trots around the bases.
So does this movie hold up? Absolutely not. It somehow manages to be completely ridiculous and completely boring at the same time. Nothing that happens in the movie seems to carry any weight or purpose. None of the characters have any depth. However, I am glad I watched this movie for one reason: