“THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” (2000) Review

“THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” (2000) Review

I never saw “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” in the movie theaters when it was first released years ago. I have a low tolerance of sports movies and there are only a few that I consider favorites of mine. Another reason why I never saw this film in the theaters is that my family simply had no desire to see it. 

Based upon Steven Pressfield’s 1995 novel and directed by Robert Redford, “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” was a box office flop. Worse, it had received mixed to negative reviews. Among the criticisms directed at the film was the accusation that the Bagger Vance character was basically a “Magical Negro” trope. I have to be honest. I was never aware of these criticisms or the film’s status as a flop. I barely noticed the film when it was first released. And I did not see it for the first time until a few years later on cable television.

Near the end of the 20th century, an old man from Savannah, Georgia named Hardy Greaves began experiencing his sixth heart attack, while playing golf. This led him to reminisce about his love of the game and how it connected to his childhood idol, one Rannulph Junuh. The latter turned out to be one of Savannah’s Junuh is the favorite son of early 20th century Savannah, Georgia and a highly regarded golfer. He became engaged to Adele Invergordon, a young socialite from a wealthy family before he went off to war. While serving as an Army captain during World War I, Junuh became tramatized when his entire company was wiped out during a battle. Although he earned the Medal of Honor, Junuh disappeared after the war for several years, before returning to Georgia to live a life of a drunk.

During this time, Adele’s father attempted to create a local golf resort. Mr. Invergordon finally opened the resort, but the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Great Depression bankrupted him. In an effort to recover her family’s fortune before the banks could claim her land, Adele decided to hold a four-round, two-day golf match between At the start of the Great Depression (circa 1930-31), Adele is trying to recover her family’s lost fortune by holding a four-round, two-day exhibition match between two golf legends of the era – Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen with a grand prize of $10,000.

However, she needs a local participant to generate the city’s interest. The young Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief) speaks up for his golf hero, Junuh, prompting Adele to ask her estranged love to play. Junuh is approached by a mysterious traveler carrying a suitcase, who appears while Junuh is trying to hit golf balls into the dark void of night. The man identifies himself as Bagger Vance (Will Smith) and says he will be Junuh’s caddie. With Greaves as the young assistant caddie, Bagger helps Junuh come to grips with his personal demons and play golf again.

It was not that surprising that “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” was based upon Steven Pressfield’s 1995 novel. However, I was very surprised to learn that Pressfield had loosely based his novel on the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita. In this text, Warrior/Hero Arjuna (R. Junuh . . . get it?) refuses to fight. And the god Krishna appears as Bhagavan (Bagger Vance) to help Arjuna (R. Junuh) follow the path of the warrior and hero (sports hero) that he was meant to take.

Considering that this movie was not that popular with moviegoers or critics, one would be hard pressed to even like it. I have my complaints about “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE”. There were moments when the movie threatened to become a little saccharin, especially midway into the golf tournament when Junuh finally began displaying those exceptional golf skills that made him such a legend before the war. Savannah’s reaction to Junah’s golf game and yes . . . even the ending struck me as a tad syrupy. I realize that this movie is one of those feel-good movies wrapped up in sports, but I think Redford could have tone down the saccharin a bit. I also feel that he could have tone down some of the performances of the supporting cast. Overall, all of them gave solid performances. But there were times when the supporting cast – namely those portraying Savannah’s citizens – seemed to be chewing the scenery.

Despite the flashes of saccharin and hamminess, I have to admit that I enjoyed “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” as much as I did when I first saw it. There is so much to enjoy about this film. One of them is the movie’s production values. I wish I could say something about Rachel Portman’s score. Mind you, I thought it blended well with the movie’s narrative. But I did not find the particularly memorable. However, I thought hers and Redford’s use of early 20th century songs and music well done. As for the movie’s re-creation of early 20th century Savannah, I found it more than memorable. Frankly, I found it mind-blowing. Stuart Craig had managed to acquire a good number of awards and nominations for his work, but he never received any acclaim for his production designs for “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE”. Personally, I find this rather criminal. His production designs were exquisite. And they were enhanced even further by Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography, which was nominated for Satellite Award. Yes, I realize that a Satellite Award is not the same as an Academy Award, a BAFTA or a Golden Globe Award. But at least someone acknowledged his work on this movie. Judianna Makovsky has done her share of costume designing for Marvel Films and other movies. And she has also received at least three Academy Award nominations. But she did not receive any for “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE”. Again . . . criminal. Her costumes struck me as an exquisite recreation of the period between 1917 and 1931 – especially the latter. If you think I am exaggerating, take a look:

Hollywood always seemed to have difficulty in re-creating the 1930s in costumes and hairstyles. Thanks to Ms. Makovsky, “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” proved to be one of those movies that got that period – especially the early 1930s – right.

But I was really impressed by how director Robert Redford and screenwriter used the game of golf to portray Rannulph Junuh’s post-war struggles. Unlike many other sports films, Junuh had already achieved a reputation as a superb golfer in the opening scenes. This meant that the conflict was not about Junuh trying to prove to the world that he was a talented golfer. In fact, this movie was not even about Junuh trying to prove that despite the passage of fourteen years, he was still a top-notch golfer. That was proven by the tournament’s second day. World War I had left Rannulph Junuh traumatized and broken to the point that he returned home as an alcoholic – estranged from Adele Invergordon and many of Savannah’s citizens. It was the golf tournament that led Junuh to Bagger Vance, the story’s embodiment of a deity or spirit that not helped the former get back his groove as a top notch golfer. Bagger also helped Junuh, through the game of golf, regain that human spirit everyone thought he had lost during the war.

As I had earlier pointed out, “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” was not a box office hit. One of the main complaints charged by film critics and others was the Bagger Vance character portrayed by Will Smith. Many had accused the character of being a “Magical Negro” stereotype. Considering Bagger’s role in the film as spiritual guide for Rannulph Junuh and the fact that the character was portrayed by African-American actor Will Smith, it is not difficult to agree that Bagger Vance was a “Magical Negro”. I do find it ironic that a fictional character labeled as a “Magical Negro” was based upon a Hindu religious figure. Did that affect my viewing of the film? Honestly? No. I enjoyed Smith’s performance too much to really care. Was his Bagger Vance very saintly? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Smith did portray Vance as a friendly and soft-spoken man with a well of good advice on the game of golf. However, Smith also did a superb job in conveying Vance’s controlling and occasional sardonic nature underneath the soft-spoken manner.

Ironically, Matt Damon had the easier job portraying the damaged World War I veteran/golfer, Rannulph Junuh. His job was easier, due to the fact that he was never criticized for portraying a stereotype. Otherwise, Damon did an excellent job in conveying Junuh’s emotional journey from a happy-go-lucky sports figure to shell shocked war veteran, later an alcoholic community pariah and finally to a battered yet satisfied survivor who managed to regain his life after so many years. If I have to be perfectly honest, the Adele Invergordon has to be one of my favorite characters portrayed by Charlize Theron. Thanks to actress’ energetic performance, Adele proved to be a passionate and outgoing woman who had to resort to charm, guile, brains and God knows what else to overcome the traumas of losing her father to suicide and Junuh to his personal demons in order to save her family’s fortunes and plans for a golf resort. Theron practically lit up the screen whenever she appeared.

“THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” also featured excellent performances from Bruce McGill, who did such a wonderful job in portraying the theatrical golfer, Walter Hagen; Joel Gretsch, who skillfully portrayed Bobby Jones as a man who hid a raging ambition behind a gracious persona; and Peter Gerety as the hard-nosed city councilman/businessman, Neskaloosa. I do not know if I could regard J. Michael Moncrief (who was 12 years old at the time) as an excellent child actor. But I must admit that I admired the enthusiasm and energy he poured into his portrayal of young Hardy Greaves. As for Jack Lemmon, he did an excellent job as the elderly Hardy and the movie’s narrator.

Overall, “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” had its few shares of flaws. And utilizing the “Magical Negro” probably hurt its chances to be a successful movie. But . . . “Magical Negro” or not, I really enjoyed this movie, thanks to director Robert Redford and the screenplay written by Jeremy Leven. The movie also benefited from a superb production design and a first-rate cast led by Will Smith, Matt Damon and Charlize Theron.

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