The Greatest Game Ever Played is perhaps the most visually and emotionally dynamic film ever made about a game of golf — perhaps the most visually and emotionally dynamic possible film about a game of golf.
If that’s not enough to sell you on seeing it, it’s also a rousing, true underdog story about a poor, young American caddy named Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf, Holes, Constantine) who, in 1913, at a time when golf was a rich man’s hobby played solely on exclusive private courses, stunned the genteel golf world and the nation with his performance in the US Open against the best amateur and professional player of dominant Britain and America.
Francis’s amazing story helped democratize the game, raising general interest and leading to the institution of public courses. His story was recently celebrated by writer Mark Frost, who adapted his own best-selling nonfiction account for the screen. (This film isn’t nearly enough for me to forgive Frost for perpetrating the screenplay for Fantastic Four, though it’s a step in the right direction. Then again, almost anything would be.)
If that’s not still enough to sell you on seeing it, it’s also a rare humane sports film that doesn’t demonize the opposition (for a recent offender, see the otherwise exemplary Cinderella Man), in this case British professional Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane), a top-ranked player nicknamed “the Stylist” with a working-class background similar to Francis’s.
A movie needs a villain, of course, and The Greatest Game has several, from the odious Lord Northcliffe (Peter Firth), who expects a cabinet seat if he can pull off a British victory, to the sinister aristocratic specters that only Vardon sees, shadows of a childhood memory that haunt him at every stroke, silently telling him that he’s not good enough.
But these onscreen villains are only proxies for the true adversary, the class system that tells the less privileged to stay in their place and not get any ideas above their station. The real point of The Greatest Game is not who wins or loses, but whether a man of privilege is ultimately worth more than a common man.
It’s a story of honor, courage and friendship, in which the noblest stroke is made not with a club, but with a word, as when Francis stands up for pudgy little Eddie Lowry, who has lugged his clubs around for the first two days of the Open — long enough for Francis to prove his worth to the American hosts, but also long enough for Eddie to prove his worth to Francis.
Or when Ouimet’s opponent Vardon stands up for Francis himself, snapping to Lord Northcliffe, “If Mr. Ouimet wins tomorrow, it’s because he’s the best, because of who he is — not because of all the money he’s got. I’d thank you to remember that. There’s a respect a gentleman gives as a matter of course.”
And if that’s still not enough to sell you on seeing it, there’s always the cute factor. John Flitter is a scream as little Eddie Lowry, the 10-year-old caddy that Francis got stuck with because Lowry’s older brother got nicked by the truant officer. Lowry’s too cute and smart to be true, except that it seems he really was. Or, at least, that’s the way he remembered himself later in life; Frost based his portrayal of Lowry, along with other details of the game, on Lowry’s own unpublished account of the Open, written in middle age and acquired by Frost from Lowry’s sister.
Back to the film’s unique visual style. Directed by Bill Paxton (Frailty), The Greatest Game is a daring effort to film the game from inside the mind of a golfer, where it is really played. Previous golf movies, like Bagger Vance and Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, filmed the game of golf as you would have seen it if you were there watching. The Greatest Game Ever Played sets out to film the game as you would feel it if you were there playing — or rather, as players like Francis and Vardon would have felt it.
When Francis looks out toward the horizon, measuring the distance to an impossibly remote flag, the distance between him and the flag seems suddenly to telescope until the flag appears quite close, and you know he’s in the zone, and will nail the shot. Conversely, when he’s rattled and off his game, the flag wavers and shoots off into the distance, and you know he isn’t getting anywhere near it.
Vardon perceives the game differently. The consummate professional, he blocks out all distractions as he prepares to take a shot, and everything around him — the crowd, the trees — simply melt away, leaving him standing alone on a plain of green untouched by any landmark but the flag in the distance.
Cinematographer Shane Hurlbut bathes the film in bright, oversaturated colors, like early two-strip Technicolor. LaBeouf is earnest and appealing as Francis, and Dillane is effortlessly classic and sympathetic as Vardon.
If the film has a fault, it may be that for all its visual inventiveness, the story and the characters remain profoundly generic. I’m willing to accept that historically both Francis and Vardon had typical movie sports-hero relationships with their disapproving fathers (à la The Rookie), but The Greatest Game has no insights or observations about this type of relationship to differentiate the film from a dozen similar portrayals.
Yet if The Greatest Game doesn’t manage to distinguish itself from other sports movies, it’s still more than good enough to distinguish itself from other golf movies. Other golf movies assume that you either already love the game or that you don’t; The Greatest Game may give you some appreciation for why other people love it even if you don’t. I can’t say it’s made me a golf fan, but if I ever find myself watching a game of golf in the future, I don’t think I’ll watch it quite the same way.
The Greatest Game Ever Played, starring Shia LaBeouf (Holes, Constantine) and directed by Bill Paxton from a screenplay by Mark Frost adapting his own best-selling book, isn’t just the true story of a dramatic championship playoff. It’s also the story of a revolution in popular culture, of how a poor, unassuming youth helped democratize the most aristocratic of games, transforming golf from the exclusive domain of private clubs and wealthy elites to a popular middle-class pastime played on public courses.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.