The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Given the title, I want to begin with one of those exclamatory Gene Shalit quotes, "The Greatest Game Ever Played is the Greatest Game Ever Filmed!"
Oh, hell, I'll do it anyway. The Greatest Game Ever Played is the greatest golf movie ever made.
Now that I've done my bit for our planet's critical shortage of quote-whoring, perhaps I had better explain a little more. A logical starting point would be that there has never been a great golf movie. There's never even been a great movie with a peripheral golf scene. I suppose Goldfinger would be the best such movie. The early Bond film does have an excellent golf scene, but it is just a very good movie, not a great one.
Why are there no great golf movies? Well, let's face it, golf is not much fun to watch. For the main part of the game, some guy swings, and then there is a result somewhere far, far away. If he is an extremely powerful player and/or if the terrain is not entirely suitable, the result may not even be visible from the launching point of the shot. It's about as exciting a spectator sport as cannon practice. The guys who play the sport don't add much to the allure. They are, for the most part, not colorful guys like Yogi Berra or Dizzy Dean, but the sporting equivalent of Stepford Wives - dull, corporate, unemotional, fungible individuals who all dress like Mr. Rogers. The few who don't fit the mold don't look like athletes at all. If you someday meet Craig Stadler or Colin Montgomerie at a beach party, assuming you don't know him, and he tells you he's a professional athlete, you'll tell your buds, "That chain-smoking flabby guy is suffering from massive delusions." Later at the party, when you choose sides for beach volleyball, you will pick him last, after the women. Not much chance of that happening with athletes in any other sport - well, except bowling.
Television tries to give golf some appeal by concentrating on the greens, the one location where shots can be seen in their entirety. The media hotshots also layer in some drama by cutting rapidly back and forth from one guy to another while whispering dramatically about the strategic importance of each putt. In fact, however, none of those short shots have any intrinsic entertainment value except in context. The 40 foot putt seems mighty important when it is necessary to tie the leader, but the same shot would be completely unimportant when a non-qualifier makes it in a round of 87, and in fact the very same putt may turn out to be completely unimportant when the guy who made it falls out of contention later. In fact, if you think about it, the shot which is being touted as so important by the announcer/flack may not even be relevant if there is a scoring fluke and that same golfer took a two stroke penalty of which we are unaware. In addition, there is nothing larger-than-life about making 40 foot putts. Hackers like me make them all the time. The only difference between me and the pros is that they make them far more often. It's a matter of percentages. Unfortunately, the execution of a statistical likelihood experiment is a boring spectator activity indeed!
Of course, golf does have shots that are larger-than-life. If I hit my very best lifetime drive, it is still nothing comparable to what Woods and Daly can do. I will never be able to hit one of those 225 yard 7-irons over the water to a pin fifteen feet behind a hazard, and I'll never be able to hit one of those wedge shots that land thirty feet past the hole and come retreating back to gimme range. Unfortunately, TV is not very good at capturing the poetry of those shots, since the only way to show them is in three parts. Guy swings somewhere. Ball is silhouetted against the sky somewhere. Ball lands somewhere else. We accept on faith that all three camera shots belong to the same shot. No real theater there. Since that entire process isn't very dramatic, we end up watching a putting competition.
That may explain why there are great golf stories, but no great golf movies. I could find only seven golf films rated 6.0 or more at IMDb. The links on the list below lead to the IMDb page for that particular film:
There are only three non-comedies on the list. The Greatest Game Ever Played, The Legend of Bagger Vance, and Follow the Sun. Follow the Sun is all but unwatchable, a dreary 1950s biopic of Ben Hogan. The Legend of Bagger Vance is directly comparable to The Greatest Game Ever Played, a similar movie, but clearly not as good. The Greatest Game Ever Played is an insider's movie as well as an entertaining film, and I feel confident in saying that it is the best of the serious golf movies.
Caddyshack and Happy Gilmore are fun movies, but are not really golf movies at all. They are low-brow screwball comedies which take place in a golf environment, and exist in the Bizarro world rather than in reality. That leaves only two more comedies to contend for the title of greatest golf movie, and they are both pretty good, but neither is in the same league as The Greatest Game Ever Played. Tin Cup is a cute Kevin Costner comedy about a driving range pro who almost wins the U.S. Open. Dead Solid Perfect is a raunchy and entertaining flick about golf's hustler world. It seems to me that The Greatest Game Ever Played ends up on top of the leader board. If you disagree with my classification system and insist that Caddyshack should be treated as a valid entry in the Golf Movie Open, I still can't see any reason to list The Greatest Game Ever Played any lower than second.
I'm thinking about what I have written so far - first praise, then an unspoken admission that my praise is faint because the competition is weak - and that process has led me to conclude that I may be misleading you. I don't mean to deprecate The Greatest Game Ever Played, because it really is a good movie about events that really happened. The eponymous book, however, is much better. It is absolutely outstanding. I recommend it if you have any interest in the history of golf. It stays as close as possible to the facts and goes into great background detail about the personalities, the politics, the class struggle, the world of 1913, and the nature of the game as played a century ago. The screenplay, although adapted by the author of the book, plays looser with the truth. I think we have to acknowledge that a screenplay has only 90-120 minutes to get the job done, and the condensation necessary to turn a long and analytical book into a peppy, commercial movie requires the author to compress time and to combine characters to some extent or another. In that regard, I have no quarrel with author Mark Frost's tinkering with his own story, but I would have preferred that he not have changed facts.
Frost did manage to line up the events and characters necessary to optimize the narrative structure, and director Bill Paxton did a great job at capturing the excitement of the match and the spirit of the period. That guy is turning out to be a helluva director. I have to tip the cap to these two guys, because there is just not much I would change or criticize if given the opportunity. The only major thing wrong with the film is inherent to the story, and there's just not much Frost and Paxton could have done about it ...
The story is just too damned good.
I'm not being ironic here. The story is so good that if you made it up nobody would believe it. I know the facts and have read Frost's book, so I know that the film has not Disneyfied history that much, but I think many people will feel that it is a clichéd and formulaic sports movie simply because it seems too contrived, although the key facts are all true.
Here's the story in a nutshell:
Harry Vardon was the greatest golfer of his era, maybe of any era. He is probably still one of the five greatest of all time, with Jones, Hogan, Nicklaus and Woods. If those five could play a tournament with standardized equipment, I would not bet on the 1913 Vardon we see in this movie, because at that point he couldn't putt for shit. A long bout of near-fatal illness gave him a right hand incapable of fine motor skills, and he just couldn't sink short or medium putts. But if a thirty-year-old Vardon could come back, I'd take him against anyone. He was that good. He was good enough to win two more British Opens after his illness, and in 1920, at the age of 50, he finished second in the U.S. Open. I want you to take a minute and let that sink in. He was not just an old man, but one who had once been near death for months on end, and couldn't make any short putts - and yet he finished second in a field that included Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen. That'll tell you that the man could make some shots. In fact, the elderly Vardon was winning that tournament by a mile with seven holes to play when a violent gale blew in off Lake Erie and caused him to shoot the final seven holes in seven over par. Since he was the leader, in the last group, he played the longest in the near-hurricane conditions, but even then he lost by only a single stroke! He won the British Open six times in all, and probably would have won two or three more more, but the tournament was cancelled "on account of war" from 1915-1919, after Vardon won in 1914. That man could play, and he would win his last two British Opens just before and just after the events of this movie.
Oh, he's not the hero of the film. Vardon is the unbeatable opponent. A young American named Francis Ouimet is our underdog hero. The movie is smart enough to portray Vardon as a thoughtful, quiet, respectful guy who was Ouimet's hero, and had once treated the younger man with great affection many years earlier, when Ouimet was just a young boy and Vardon was touring the USA.
The great Harry Vardon came over to play in the U.S. Open in 1913 with much fanfare. Such a celebrity was Vardon that for the one and only time, the entire U.S. Open was postponed until October just so Vardon could fit it into his schedule. In the weeks before the tournament, Harry and his traveling companion, long-hitting Ted Ray, played several exhibition matches against American teams, and won every single one. They seemed invulnerable, and it seemed a virtual certainty that Vardon would take back in 1913 the American championship which an American had won for the very first time in 1911. America only had one player strong enough to defeat the great Vardon at Brookline, and that man was in the process of a nervous breakdown. The Yanks did eventually find another hero, albeit in an unlikely place. Francis Ouimet was not even a professional golfer. He had been a popular caddy at Brookline, and in fact lived seventy feet from Brookline's 16th hole, in a house directly across the street. Ouimet's mom watched the tournament from her porch, until some of Francis's friends brought her over and pushed her through the crowd. Unfortunately, Francis's dad hated golf. (All of the details are just like a 1930s movie script. And I'm just getting started.)
Well, to make the story short, Francis managed to finish the regular 72 holes in a three-way tie with Vardon and Ray. (That's really how it ended, unlikely though it seems. Just like in the movies.) His success was touted on the front page of all the Boston papers, and that was what finally got his dad to realize that the kid seemed to be doing something important. (Just like in the movies.) For comic relief, and a few more tugs on your heart-strings, Ouimet's caddy was a feisty ten-year-old kid who was playing hooky from school! The young boy had had a dream one night that he was caddying for Francis while the latter shot 72 in the U.S. Open. In the proper context, 72 was a tremendous score at Brookline in 1913. The course record was 70, and the co-leaders had tied at 304, an average of 76 per round, for the tournament. If any one of them could have shot a 78 or better in the fourth round, he would have obviated the need for a playoff. All three shot 79s.
Francis never did break 74 during the tournament's four rounds, but he played well enough to earn the three-way tie, which meant that he had to face the two great British players in an 18-hole playoff. Imagine the case of nerves he must have brought to that match. He was playing against the game's greatest player and the game's longest hitter. He was a 20-year-old kid, an amateur, an American playing for the country's honor, in front of a crowd which was not just from his home town, but consisted of his friends and neighbors intermingled with reporters and dignitaries. Every shot he launched in that round was accompanied by his mom's prayers, and the prayers of just about everyone present. You couldn't make that stuff up. Nobody would believe it.
And the son of a bitch won. It would have been a great story even if he lost, but he played like a machine. In front of what was then the largest crowd ever to witness a golf match in America, Ouimet hit every fairway, missed every bunker, avoided every three-putt, and ... are you ready for this ... he finally shot the 72 which his caddy had dreamt about. (Yes, just like in the movies.)
Finally, to make the story even more unrealistic, when the adoring crowd was passing around a hat to pay Francis's caddy, Francis's golf-averse father was in the crowd, tears in his eyes, a dollar in his hand.
That really happened.
Do you see what I meant when I wrote that the story was just too perfect, too pat? I don't know what the author and director could have done about it, but it may all seem like false heartstring-tugging to you if you don't know that it did all happen that way.
There is no exaggeration in the title. It was, in fact, the greatest game ever played.
I did enjoy the movie, but the movie is merely good. The book is great, and I recommend it with no hesitation. Given that the screenplay altered the truth from time to time, and given that the film has kind of a false ring to it unless you know the facts, my advice to you is this: if you really want to understand the greatest game ever played, read Frost's outstanding book first. But don't miss the movie.
A note on historical accuracy:
It is true that the film altered historical facts here and there, even contradicting itself at one point, and I don't really want to recite a persnickety litany of those instances, but I do want to address one key element.
The film shows (or implies) that Francis absolutely had to make a short tester on the 18th hole. Critics of the film have scoffed that Francis actually won that match by a mile, and would have won even if he five-putted that final shortie.
The critics are right in that the last putt was unimportant, but they are wrong to suggest that Francis won in a runaway. That scene pissed me off as well, but the match really was close and hard-fought. Francis came to the 17th tee with a lead of a single stroke. Vardon hit before Francis and knew that he could not win with par-par, so he decided to play for a birdie by cutting the dogleg, and launched a tremendous drive in that direction. Francis didn't have to gamble, so he played safely down the middle. The entire match hinged on the resting place of Vardon's ball. He ended up with a terrible lie on the lip of the trap, and had to chip out sideways, thus effectively ending the match. But Vardon's drive had originally landed on grass, and seemed safe before it took a wicked left kick into what would forever be known as Vardon's Trap. If it had stayed out of the trap, he would have been in good position to birdie 17 and thus to even the match with one hole to play. It really was an even battle that was decided by the location of Vardon's drive on 17. Ouimet's final margin of victory was deceptive.
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