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"No one knows better than a golfer that in the game of golf are contained all the lessons of life," says Robert Redford about his latest movie, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Dick Niro reports.

The Legend of Bagger Vance is only Robert Redford's sixth film as a director. It’s in the classic Redford mould, though - a story of triumph, of coming back from adversity, not unlike the 1984 film which gave him one of his biggest hits as an actor: The Natural. And, like The Natural, Bagger Vance is a sporting tale.

" Entertaining but quirky…"

But that’s not what attracted Redford to it. In fact, he abandoned an early idea of starring in the film precisely because it was too like The Natural. "I’ve sort of been there," he said. In point of fact, it was because The Legend of Bagger Vance was so different from the last film he directed, The Horse Whisperer, that his interest was aroused. "That was a heavy trip," he admitted recently to the Los Angeles Times. "Even though it had some positive aspects to it, it was about healing. It involved damaged animals, children, and was a hard, heavy movie to make. So I thought, next time, I’d like to do something quirky. Entertaining but quirky…"

The solution arrived on his desk courtesy of producer Jake Eberts, who had worked with him on A River Runs Through It. It was a novel by Steven Pressfield about a golden boy who loses his faith in himself and humanity as a result of World War I, then regains both in a magical tournament against the two greatest American golfers of the 20s and 30s.

Pressfield had been influenced by the Bhagavad-Gita, building mythical elements into the tale. And Redford, it turns out, has always been fascinated by myths. "When I was young," says the director (who grew up the son of a milkman in Santa Monica, California), "mythology was huge for me - larger-than-life characters in bigger-than-life situations. That and movies were my main entertainment, and the strongest underpinning in either is a good story. I have a permanent belief that good storytelling will survive any change in time."

"to take a closer look at this particular story "

But, in an age in which every other movie seems to try and build in a mythical dimension, something more specific persuaded Redford to take a closer look at this particular story. Casting around for a way to describe what The Legend of Bagger Vance was really about, Eberts came up with the phrase: "It’s about a man who’s lost his authentic swing."

The phrase ‘authentic swing’ evidently struck a chord, because it crops up a lot when Redford talks about it - Redford and anyone else closely connected with The Legend of Bagger Vance. "It sounds like it’s only about golf," says Will Smith, who plays the title character, a sort of guardian-angel caddy who eventually restores the hero’s faith in himself, "but it’s that part of every one of us that is the most real.

"It’s very subtle," Smith adds with a grin, "and I’m not always comfortable with subtlety: I like it loud and clear. But, for that reason, it was good to play a character who isn’t big and funny and is a lot more subdued… to explore other aspects of myself and to emote in a way that’s different from any of my past work."

"Will is a talented guy: that goes without saying"

"Will is a talented guy: that goes without saying," Redford (nevertheless) says. "His talent is obvious. Using that as a foundation, I knew he could do whatever I asked of him for the role.

If somebody’s willing to try something different and has faith in you and you have faith in them, then there’s a trust there. It gave us a nice framework to work from."

Smith may be the title character, but the ‘hero’ of The Legend of Bagger Vance is Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), a boy from Savannah, Georgia, who starts out with everything and is a golfing genius to boot. Then, in one brief moment during World War I - a sequence which lasts less than a minute on screen - all Rannulph’s ideals are shot away. He returns to Georgia without his ’authentic swing’ - without his soul - and loses his girl (Charlize Theron) in the process.

She, meanwhile, is struggling to protect her father’s life-long dream and all-consuming investment, the Krewe Island Golf Resort, from ruin. It is a mission that becomes progressively harder as the unbridled prosperity of the Jazz Age - during which most of America’s great golf courses were built - begins to give way to the grimmer realities of the Depression. In the end, the two strands of the story come together in the final contest, pitting Rannulph against two all-time golfing greats, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen. Jones and Hagen were real-life golfers of their day, the one graceful and restrained, the other flamboyant and money-oriented. And it is with that tournament, amid the lush greenery of Kiawah Island off the Carolina coast (which stands in for the film’s fictional Krewe Island), that the movie comes to its climax.

"Three different visual styles"

The film covers a 15-year period, from 1916 to 1931, and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus - who was Oscar-nominated for Broadcast News and The Fabulous Baker Boys and last worked with Redford on Quiz Show - selected three different visual styles. A monochrome look was used for WWI; bright colours for the twenties Jazz Age; and a more muted palette for the Depression. Plus, of course, a lot of green, since much of the film takes place on a golf course.

And that, it turned out, was one of the production’s greatest problems: both the game and the courses on which it is played have changed hugely since the thirties, with greens becoming smaller and fairways becoming smoother. Knickerbockers, sweaters and socks, once de rigueur in the clothing department, have given way to immensely lucrative leisure-wear. And the hickory-wood clubs handle quite differently from today’s graphite, steel and titanium variety. In the end, although the film was shot on a real golf course, Oscar-winning production designer Stuart Craig ended up creating a whole new 18th hole - a 220-yard par five.

But all concerned go to considerable lengths to stress that The Legend of Bagger Vance is not really a golf movie. Smith, a self-confessed golf junkie, is the first to admit that golf is a kind of metaphor for something else in the film.

"What’s great about golf," he says, "is that it allows the average person to taste perfection. That one shot, that one hole… you can be the best in the world at that moment, and then you spend the rest of your golf career chasing that. Golf is so simple and so difficult - the wonderful oxymoron of life."

"We’re all tested by adversity"

"It’s about a character who loses his swing - his authentic swing - and has to find it again," explains Redford. "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 some time hoped for someone like Bagger Vance to come along and help us through."

Damon, however, needed his Bagger Vance before he could even start work. The actor, who spends half the film with a club in his hand, had never actually handled one before he began training with PGA master professional Tim Moss. "In order to present Matt as a legitimate player," says the latter.

"I had two choices: I could make him a cosmetic player, or I could teach him really to hit the golf ball. Since there were so many golf shots to be played, I decided the best thing to do would be to teach him exactly as I would anyone else - to turn him into a fundamentally sound player.

"I believed that, with the fundamentals under his belt, the cosmetics would naturally follow - and that’s exactly what happened. I have never seen anyone take to the game as quickly as he did. Matt is a good athlete: his hand-eye co-ordination is just phenomenal and he worked very hard."

As for Damon, despite many days of blistered hands and a separated rib from when he swung especially hard, he is now "completely addicted to the game". In other words, one might say he has found his authentic swing.

Published February 1, 2001

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