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
"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