The Legend of Bagger Vance
Cast: Will Smith, Matt Damon, Charlize Theron
Director: Robert Redford
Screenplay: Jeremy Leven, from novel by Steven Pressfield
Theatrical release: 2001; available on DVD
For those of you who are not sports buffs — or golfers — bear with me and take a look at this film. I'm no golfer, but the film makes it easy to get past the obvious and see the bigger picture. As director Robert Redford says in the liner notes to the DVD and in an on-screen interview from the DVD's bonus features, "the story of this golf match is a metaphor."
Redford didn't come easily to the story until legendary Hollywood producer Jake Eberts (Open Range; Chicken Run; James and the Giant Peach; A River Runs Through It; Dances with Wolves; Texasville; Driving Miss Daisy; Chariots of Fire) came up with the phrase, "It's about a man who's lost his authentic swing." Recognizing that the book had "all the elements of great storytelling — the classic journey of a hero who falls into darkness through some disconnect with his soul, and then of his coming back into the light with the help of a spirit guide" — Redford set about the task of finding the right actor to play the title role. Envisioned as a 'coyote trickster,' someone mythological that you can never be sure about, Will Smith was chosen as "the very person who is going to describe the mysteries of life [and] is himself a mystery."
"No one knows better than a golfer that within the game of golf are contained all the lessons of life," says Redford. "But this is not just a golf story. It's about a character who loses his swing — his authentic swing — and has to find it again. And in that sense, it's universal because we all lose our swing in one way or another at some point in our lives. We're all tested by adversity...and I suspect that all of us have at times hoped for someone like Bagger Vance to come along and help us through."
The film is set in the Savannah, Georgia of the early 1930s, just as the Great Depression hits the United States. Both the fallout from World War I and the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties are memories that haunt once-booming towns and people who now find themselves down on their luck. But they're not giving up. In fact, Adele, a plucky young woman played by Charlize Theron, is determined to carry on in style by picking up the pieces of her father's failed investment in a golf resort. She dreams up a spectacular tournament pairing real-life star-caliber golfers Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen. But the local business leaders insist on a hometown golfer to represent Savannah if they are to invest the rest of the money she needs for the event.
Matt Damon plays the Savannah golfer Rannulph Junuh, a legend in his own right, who dazzled the golf scene before going off to war and returning home a lost soul. Jack Lemmon has a cameo as the narrator, a grown-up version of the Savannah youngster who believes more strongly in Junuh's abilities than does Junuh — and who ends up caddying for Junuh during the match. Of course, there's a love story connecting Adele and Junuh that is "the best way to show the hero's coming back to life." And Will Smith as Bagger Vance provides the trickster persona that provides a quirky bit of mystery and the inspiration that illuminates the spirit of recovery.
Golfer or not, The Legend of Bagger Vance makes for an exciting and engaging story.