Thoughts on “The Greatest Game Ever Played”

Historically-based sport movies were all the rage for a while in the early 2000s. Off the top of my head you had Remember the Titans (football), Miracle (hockey), Cinderella Man (boxing), Seabiscuit (horse-racing),Invincible (football again), The Rookie (baseball) and I’m sure about a dozen others that I’m forgetting or never saw. Coming in the midst of them was 2005’s The Greatest Game Ever Played, which is about golf.

Coming from Disney and adapted by Mark Frost from his own book, the set up is as follows: in Edwardian-era Boston, young Francis Ouimet (played as a young man by Shia LaBeouf, back when he was a rising star) lives with his French-Irish family across the road from a golfing club, where has a job as a caddie. He falls in love with the game as a child and tries his best to learn it, though he knows perfectly well that it’s considered a game for the upper-class. In particular, he idolizes the British Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane, whom I mostly know as Thomas Jefferson in the excellent John Adams miniseries), nicknamed “the Stylist” and supposedly the greatest golfer in the world, and who comes from a working-class background similar to Francis’s.

Through a series of events and setbacks, Francis learns the game, receives training from a sympathetic club member, and eventually finds himself with the opportunity to play in the 1913 U.S. Open, pitting himself against the best professional American and British golfers, including Vardon himself.

Somehow, this movie has slipped through the cracks so as to be almost forgotten (as of this writing it doesn’t even have a page on TV Tropes). On the one hand, I can see why; taken as a sports film, it’s pretty generic, hitting all the obvious beats of the narrow-minded, disapproving father, the indomitable rival, the socio-political themes worked into the contest, the supportive love interest, and so on.

On the other, it’s still a pretty good movie with a lot to like about it, and in particular has several noteworthy aspects that I think render it deserving of much more attention than it gets.

The first, and most obvious, is simply the fact that it was directed by Bill Paxton. Yes, that Bill Paxton: the second of only two feature films he ended up helming (probably in part because this one underperformed at the box office). Raw curiosity to see how such a legendary performer acquits himself behind the camera ought to be enough for many to give the film a watch.

And on that subject, his direction is really quite impressive. I’m sure even its most ardent enthusiasts will own that golf is not a particularly, ah, fast-paced game. So with it taking up a good two-thirds or more of the screen time there was an obvious risk of the film becoming unbearably boring and repetitive.

Paxton very clearly was aware of this and he breaks out every trick in the book and then some to compensate for it. The result is that this is a golf movie shot like an action film. We see strokes from the point of view of the player, from inside the player’s head (e.g. Vardon envisioning everyone around him vanishing, leaving him alone on the silent, empty links), from the point of view of the ball itself, from under the ball, multiple players overlaid on each other, flashing scoreboards, and on and on. The film is worth seeing for the sheer creativity and visual dynamism of the golf scenes alone (though, to be honest, even this isn’t quite enough, and we could have done with handful fewer dramatic, drawn-out golf-strokes).

The visual creativity reaches beyond the golf scenes. The opening credits (almost a lost art these days) are likewise impressive: setting the tone of the Edwardian world via a colorful collage of period photographs, drawings, and archival footage that perfectly capture the feel of the era.

I also find it amusing how certain scenes are set up. Like when the bloatedly arrogant Lord Northcliffe makes his pitch to Vardon about winning the US Open for the glory of the British Empire, it’s framed like a supervillain explaining his evil plan to the heavy, with Vardon framed ominously before a fireplace while Northcliffe gives his spiel. Then, when Vardon goes to invite his friend Ted Ray to join the team, it’s set up like we’re getting a demonstration of the chief henchman’s terrible power, Ray establishing his credentials by knocking a golfball through a London phonebook to win a bar bet.

In all of this there is a great sense of energy and creative enthusiasm, as though the director is genuinely excited about the subject matter and is eager to draw the audience into the story.

Of course, the above framing is somewhat misleading, since (and this is the third really notable point about the film) neither Vardon nor Ray are by any stretch villains. Quite the contrary: both are presented throughout as sympathetic and admirable men, who are antagonists only in the sense that they’re playing against the hero.

There’s a more direct antagonist in Lord Northcliffe who, along with his protege Reid, are pretty much cartoons of the bloated, arrogant upperclass twit. They and their American counterparts – e.g. the head of the golfing club – are blots on the film’s otherwise admirably balanced portrayal of its characters, but not unacceptably so, as people like that did and do, of course, exist (though today they tend to couch their arrogance in things other than wealth and blood, but that’s another story).

But the real ‘villain’ of the story is the class structure of both Britain and America that tells a man to stay in his place and not to aspire to anything higher whatever talents he possesses. Me, I’m more open to that structure than most, but I certainly am not gonna complain about its being critiqued if it’s done well.

In that sense it’s important that, as noted, Vardon and Ray both come from similarly working-class backgrounds to Francis, and Vardon is shown to struggle with similar personal demons, silently telling him that he isn’t good enough (there’s a bit early on where he thinks he’s being asked to join a prestigious London golfing club, but is actually only being offered a job as a private coach to one of the members).

A less explicit, though no less absolute structure exists in Boston society on the other side of the Atlantic, where even Mr. Campbell, the caddiemaster of the golf links where Francis works, admits that he’s not allowed in the club house, and where the wealthy patrons mostly look down on Francis every bit as much as the London gentry look down on Vardon. When Francis is reluctantly invited into the clubhouse before an early qualifying match, for instance, he tries to bluff his way through the evening with a series of not-quite lies (e.g. “I have family in France”).

(The film also makes a point of establishing that both Francis and Vardon are Roman Catholics, by the way; one more point in which they stand removed from the elite of the Anglosphere).

Though this is not quite absolute. While many of the rich American pseudo-gentry are portrayed as jerks, at least one of them is a friend and early supporter to Francis. Likewise Lord Northcliffe’s press agent, Darwin (no, not that Darwin), is shown to be very friendly and encouraging of both Vardon and Francis. Later, when the U.S. Open starts, the obviously-wealthy American champion, McDermott (who actually wasn’t from a wealthy background in real-life, though conveys the image in the film), completely ignores Francis’s economic background and amateur status in a fervent expression of common cause (“This is our Open”): national pride trumping class pride. As always, I appreciate the film allowing a bit of nuance and human variety in its characters.

McDermott’s national pride is somewhat critiqued, however: it parallel’s Lord Northcliffe’s imperialism (though even that is shown to be only a front for his personal ambition), and it leads him to be unnecessarily aggressive toward the visiting Brits and allows Vardon to psych him out during the match. Again, I like the balance on display here; McDermott isn’t a bad guy, but he’s not really someone you’d want to see triumph either.

This is a recurring theme in the film, expressed by Vardon in the book that Francis eagerly devours: “There are only two type of player: those who keep their nerves in control and win championships, and those who do not.” Again and again the film emphasizes that golf is first and foremost about keeping your nerve and focus, not letting outside thoughts or outside influences disrupt your effort. Which, of course, parallels the two leads as they pursue excellence in their God-given gifts despite the voices around them telling them that they aren’t good enough or that this isn’t for the likes of them.

The film’s first act comes to an end when Francis attempts a qualifying game to play in the upcoming U.S. Amateur tournament. The entrance fee requires him to borrow money from his stern father, who reluctantly agrees on the condition that, if he loses, he will give up the game to focus on finding a real job. His father then shows up to watch the final hole, causing Francis to lose his nerve and funk the shot. This sets up the inevitable conflict when, a few years later, he receives the offer to play in the Open and has to go back on his word.

Francis’s father (played by Elias Koteas; most famous as Casey Jones in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – yes, that surprised me too)is something of a stock figure; the uncomprehending patriarch who discourages his son’s dreams. But again, they don’t oversimplify him; he’s shown to be a good man and good father (again, he gives Francis the loan), with no hint of any kind of abusive tendencies, and whose attempts to discourage his son are explained as him not wanting Francis to suffer the kind of crushing disappointment that he believes is inevitable to anyone who challenges the structure.

He also features in one of my favorite bits in the film. During the Open, he’s working on a construction site while the foreman sits disinterestedly reading a newspaper and munching an apple. The man carelessly tosses the apple at his feet, symbolically consigning him a place with the trash. Then, as Ouimet looks up angrily, he sees that the man is reading an article about his son.

I don’t think they really needed the forced drama where Mr. Ouimet threatens to throw Francis out of the house for breaking his word, and I rather wish their reconciliation at the end had gotten more time (though it’s a nice moment, and I suppose a credit that they manage it without dialogue). But overall, as contemporary movie fathers go, you could certainly do a lot worse.

On that subject, I really like Francis’s affectionate relationship with his mother, who is more supportive of his dreams. The way he’s shown casually spending time with her, talking frankly with her about his goals and so on makes their relationship feel very real (I also love the moment where she rushes out to watch part of the Open and has to ask Darwin what’s going on…and then to ask him to explain what he just said).

On the other hand, the obligatory love interest is…well, pretty much just there because she’s obligatory. She doesn’t really form a believable connection with Francis, has very little to do in the story, and doesn’t really get any kind of payoff (possibly because she’s completely fictional). Her character and role in the story is one element that definitely either should have been fleshed out or simply cut.

Then there’s Eddie. See, as depicted in the film, Francis’s caddie gets hired out from under him just before the Open begins. He hastily employs a younger neighbor to caddie instead, but then the neighbor gets picked up by a truant officer, leaving his ten-year-old brother to stoutly volunteer to do the job in his brother’s place. The result is Francis ends up playing the Open with a smart-alecky ten-year-old carrying his clubs.

This sounds like a pure, unbelievable Disneyism…except it actually happened. Eddie Lowery’s unpublished memoirs were one of main sources for the book the film’s based on.

Francis and Eddie’s growing friendship under fire, as the dogged kid earns the older golfer’s respect becomes a major element of the second half of the film, serving ultimately as one of the core relationships of the story. Which admittedly gives the film a bit of an odd emotional structure, as one of the most important figures only appears at about the half-way mark and almost immediately assumes a near-protagonist role (it also makes the obligatory love interest feel even more unnecessary). It probably would have been better to have established Eddie earlier somehow, as simply part of Francis’s extended acquaintance. But it’s nevertheless a fun element, all the more so because it’s based on real life, and the two have good chemistry together. It also leads to a strong payoff where, after Francis has forced a tie-breaker match, the American officials want to replace Eddie with a real caddie, giving Francis the chance to stand up to them in his defense, showing real defiance and authority for the first time.

But, as indicated earlier, my own favorite aspect of the film is the dynamic between Francis and Vardon. It’s a comparatively rare set up wherein the protagonist gets pitted against his hero, considered the best of the best, and yet he remains his hero and an inspiring figure throughout. The triumph is not so much in defeating him, but more in having the chance to stand equal with him.

It is – or at least feels to me – so rare to have something like that, where a character gets to meet his inspiration without being disappointed or disillusioned. Even when the hero ends up as a sympathetic figure – e.g. Sing 2 – there’s almost always a scene where he gets knocked off his pedestal first.

Not so here. Francis first gets to meet Vardon as a wide-eyed little boy, when his mother lets him miss school to attend a live appearance by the already-legendary pro. When Vardon asks for a volunteer, little Francis rushes the stage at once, where the slightly-surprised Vardon immediately establishes a friendly rapport with him and invites him to take a shot. The inexperienced child gives a clumsy blow that draws laughter from the crowd, but Vardon doesn’t laugh. Kneeling down to eye level, he quietly tells the boy not to let it bother him, then shows him how to hold the club properly (Vardon invented one of the most common grips used in golf today) before having him take another shot; this one landing perfectly.

It’s the first of a brief handful of face-to-face exchanges the two have, each one seeing the gentlemanlike Vardon offering words of encouragement and affirmation to the star-struck youth (though, fittingly, Vardon remains a distant figure for Francis; polite and kind, but not an equal). He’s one hero who remains inspiring all the way to the very end; someone whose approbation is worth earning.

Meanwhile, on his side, Vardon quickly comes to respect the younger man’s talent, which culminates in him standing up for him in the face of Lord Northcliffe’s contemptuous insults. He gives the shocked nobleman and angry speech about how he, Vardon, will be playing his best out of professional pride, not for Northcliffe’s image, but that Francis could still very well win simply by showing himself to be the best, regardless of his background or status, and rounds it all off with, “And I’ll thank you to show the respect a gentleman gives as a matter of course.”

Again, I like that; Vardon couching his rebuke of Lord Northcliffe in the very principles and expectations that Northcliffe – like many such men – claims when they benefit him, but ignores when they impose an obligation.

But, as he says, this respect doesn’t mean that Vardon isn’t prepared to do his level best to beat Francis. He’s the best golfer in the world, and a professional, and he’s going to give the game his all no matter what. But then, of course, playing at his best is how one sportsman shows respect to another.

Speaking of which, I like the sportsmanship that gets put on display at times. For instance, when Francis loses the qualifying match, he nevertheless shakes hands with the sneering jerk he just lost to, even as the guy taunts him for it. Or how the crowd applauds Ray when he graciously drops out after falling too far behind.

Ted Ray doesn’t, of course, have the same dynamic with Francis as Vardon does, but he’s a fun presence with his massive build and working-class good-nature. He also gets some of the best lines in the film, like his comment on the second day of the Open that he slept, “like a baby; woke up every two hours and cried.” Which is not only a great line, but serves to further humanize the two master golfers, that even they have trouble sleeping the night before an important game.

There are quite a few other nice touches sprinkled throughout, like when (former) President William Howard Taft shows up to watch the Open and gives Francis a friendly salute. This throws off his shot, but he can’t help boasting about it to his family afterwards (Taft was in fact an avid golfer and, I believe, the first President to adopt the game). Though it is a little odd that they seem to be speaking of him as if he were still the President, when in September of 1913 he’d been out of office for several months.

Or the fact that a desperate gamble on Francis’s part to sink a seemingly-impossible shot falls just shy of working. And simply the way that all the golfers make mistakes, whiff shots, and encounter bad luck at times. They’re extremely skilled, but not infallible. I also appreciate that Francis is shown training intensely and receiving instruction from Mr. Campbell.

Overall, I certainly wouldn’t call this a great film. Again, despite Paxton’s best efforts to make the golfing scenes as dynamic as possible, the tense and drawn-out strokes get repetitive after a while, and I think the whole thing could have stood to be about ten minutes shorter or so. The love interest is entirely by-the-numbers and doesn’t really have a reason for being, and Lord Northcliffe and his cronies are cartoonish caricatures. At times the film seems to be hitting the beats of the standard sport film more by obligation than because it really needs to. And as hard as the film tries, it really can’t make a single putt into a satisfying climactic event.

But I do call it a good film; a solid and enjoyable specimen of the historical sports drama. More than that, it’s a refreshingly positive film, where the main action centers around a collection of good people who bear each other no ill will even in competition, and who earn and deserve one another’s respect. Again, even the standard-issue disapproving father is more sympathetic than most such characters. This really does feel like a genuine Disney live action film, from the time when that actually meant something good.

And as I say, the creativity involved in the visuals, and in how many different ways Bill Paxton finds to film a golf stroke once again make the movie worth watching for their own sake. It’s truly a shame that this film wasn’t a success, not only because it’s a good movie, but more so because I think Paxton really shows a lot of promise as a director here, and, alas, we never got to see him develop that talent further.

But we have what we have, and I would certainly recommend this to anyone who is a fan of golf, of sports movies, or who just wants to watch something light, positive, and uplifting with some very creative visuals.

Note: The above is an Amazon affiliate link. A purchase made through this link nets me a small commission at no extra charge to you.

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