THE NATURAL, based on the book of the same name by Bernard Malamud, is probably the greatest baseball film ever produced. Why? Because it contains no magical realism, no "tricks," no "gimmicks." It's just a film about second chances and redemption, in this case, redemption through the game of baseball. THE NATURAL is not nearly as dark as the book on which it is based and it's not totally factual in its portrayal of baseball, but who cares? This film gives us something better than facts. It gives us the poetry and lyricism of the game, the magic that made baseball "America's Pastime."
THE NATURAL is the story of Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), a Midwestern boy who dreams of being "the best" in the world of baseball. Roy's dreams aren't just "pie in the sky." This kid has talent, talent like no one's ever seen before. But, as he's making the trip to Chicago to try out, he encounters Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey), an enigmatic and dangerous woman, and Roy's life changes forever. Sixteen years later, though, Roy Hobbs is given what most people can only long for, a second chance. Yes, this second chance requires a stretch of the viewer's imagination, but not so much that it becomes an impossibility.
I know many people didn't care for Robert Redford's portrayal of Roy Hobbs, but I thought he was perfect. He really makes us believe in Roy and in his dreams and in his principles. I can't think of any other actor who could have carried off this role and carried it off so perfectly. Wilfred Brimley is perfect as Pop Fisher, Hobbs' manager. Robert Duvall as Max Mercy is also perfectly cast as is a very young Kim Basinger as Memo Paris, the woman who wants to be Hobbs' nemesis "the second time around." I didn't particularly like Glenn Close as Iris, but that's just personal preference. Close did a very good job with her role but not quite as good as did Basinger and Basinger's was far more demanding.
There are few mistakes in the continuity of this film. At one point, while playing for the mythical New York Knights at Wrigley Field, Hobbs' hits homeruns in the bottom of the ninth. What? He wasn't traded to the Cubs, so this has to be an oversight on the part of the production crew since the Knights, as visitors to Wrigley Field, would bat in the top of the inning. There are a few other such oversights, but I don't feel they're worth mentioning.
THE NATURAL works, and works so well, I think, because it relies so heavily on mythology, most notably the myth of the Fisher King. It romanticizes the game of baseball. Sure, it's been romanticized before, quite possibly more than any other sport, but THE NATURAL does it so well that we do believe and we do root for Roy Hobbs and all he stands for. Make us believe? This film makes us believe like no other.
Levinson has changed Malamud's ending considerably, but I feel that's for the best. Had there been no departures from the book, Hobbs wouldn't have been a sympathetic character and the film would have been too dark and contained too much despair. As it is, we're left with the promise of better things to come and hope for the future, just what baseball gave us in the "good old days."
THE NATURAL may be dismissed as "hokum" by some but I think it's an American masterpiece and pure magic.