I am a rabid baseball fan. I love the Boston Red Sox and their Double-A minor league team the Portland Sea Dogs. I also love reading books about baseball and watching baseball movies.
Among baseball movies, one of my favorites has always been The Natural. Starring Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Kim Basinger, and Wilford Brimley, The Natural is based on Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel of the same name. It’s a tremendously enjoyable although somewhat flawed film – well acted and written, with wonderfully designed costumes and sets, but a bit slow-moving and hard to follow at times. It certainly ranks as one of the most offbeat baseball movies ever made.
In the earliest decade of the twentieth century, amidst the grain fields of the great Midwest, a young boy named Roy Hobbs is beginning to show immense talent as a baseball player. He can already hit and throw a baseball, and run with almost supernatural skill. By the time he’s eighteen, Roy seems destined for greatness as a big league ballplayer. The Cubs have invited him for a tryout!!
Roy heads east to Chicago for his tryout. Along the way, he encounters several people who will eventually have a profound effect on his future: the famous “Whammer,” a Babe Ruth-like character; Max Mercy, a sports writer; and a mysterious, alluring older woman…
Roy gets all the way to Chicago, but before he makes it to that tryout with the Cubs, his dream of playing in the big leagues is suddenly dashed. He meets that mysterious woman from the train in a hotel room, where she shoots and seriously wounds him…
…Fast forward to New York, sixteen years later. The New York Knights are the worst team in the league. The Knights’ manager is Pop Fisher. He hates his job and he hates his team. Into this scene steps a middle-aged Roy Hobbs, freshly signed by the Knights. Roy can still hit and field with the best of ’em, but Pop Fisher has no interest in him; he vows never to play him.
Before long, however, Roy finds himself permanently in the Knights’ starting lineup. He’s so talented that the Knights’ fortunes are suddenly reversed. The team begins a long, steady climb to the top of the standings…
…Which is exactly what the team’s owner, “The Judge,” doesn’t want. He wants his team lose so he give his manager (and business partner) Pop Fisher the boot. “The Judge” uses bribery, sexual seduction, and blackmail to try and influence Roy Hobbs into “throwing” games.
How will Roy react to these worldly seductions? Will he heed the siren call of greed and accept “The Judge’s” money? How will threats of blackmail affect Roy’s on-field quality of play…? Watch The Natural to find out!
The Natural is set mostly in the 1930’s, and conveys the atmosphere of the Great Depression fairly well. We don’t actually see scenes of poverty, but the feeling is there. It shows on the face of Roy Hobbs as he arrives in New York. It is contrasted by the relative prosperity in which professional baseball players lived at that time.
It’s tempting to regard The Natural as just another run-of-the-mill baseball movie like The Babe Ruth Story and Pride of the Yankees. But The Natural isn’t “just” another baseball movie; it’s not a “biopic” of one of the game’s great players; it doesn’t narrate events which shaped baseball’s history. Instead, The Natural is an eloquent social commentary on the price of success in our great nation.
Roy Hobbs has always possessed an almost preternatural ability to throw and hit a baseball better than anyone else. As a young man, he’s on the threshold of achieving his dream of making it to the big leagues. With success almost in his grasp, success is denied him, at least for a while, when he gives in to temptation.
But Roy Hobbs is not one to be denied easily. He is tenacious; for sixteen years he continues striving toward the fulfillment of his dreams as he recuperates from his wounds and regains his athletic prowess. He ultimately gets that long dreamed-for shot at making it to the big-leagues…
Roy’s trials are far from over. He must prove himself to a manager who doesn’t want to play him; contend with a sports writer threatening to reveal his youthful indiscretions; and resist the temptation to accept bribes and sexual favors in return for throwing games. The question that Roy must answer is: what price success? Does achieving success mean he must compromise everything for which he has struggled for sixteen years?
The central message of The Natural is as relevant today as it was when Bernard Malamud first wrote the book in 1952. That message: The price for achieving success in any endeavor can be very high, but it is well worth paying. The most important ingredients for ultimate success are integrity, single-mindedness of purpose, and tenacity; perhaps the least important requirement for success is natural ability.
In The Natural, Roy Hobbs is the embodiment of that message. His dreams of success are in a constant battle with a cynical world and his own inner demons. Roy shows us what can be achieved by every person who applies single-mindedness of purpose and integrity, alongside their natural gifts, in order to succeed. Only when Roy allows himself the freedom to “reach for the stars” does he come to understand that the price of success, while high, is well worth paying.
MY VERDICT: Despite its flaws, The Natural is a movie well worth seeing… and more than once!! A movie with a wonderful message about the true meaning and price of success. Watch it and enjoy!!