Four Frames – The Natural (1984)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Barry Levinson’s hagiographic baseball epic The Natural.

Of all the films made about the sport of baseball, plenty have struck out, while only a handful have truly knocked it out of the park. None, however, can compare to The Natural.

It’s unsurprising that a sport so revered by its innumerous followers should provide the backdrop to a picture whose central character is seemingly touched by the divine.

The Natural

Determined to become “the best there ever was” in baseball, the rise to greatness of gifted 19-year-old farm boy Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford, aged 47 at the time of release) is brutally cut short by a maniacal femme fatale dressed head-to-toe in black (Barbara Hershey), who lures him to her hotel room before shooting him.

Sixteen years later, Roy joins the dead-end New York Knights as a “middle-aged rookie” and becomes an overnight sensation when he literally knocks the cover off the ball, a feat lent extra drama when a thunderstorm breaks out as the ball is struck.

The Natural

His belated ascent to baseball deity is threatened when he again allows himself to succumb to the wrong woman, this time in the form of the duplicitous and manipulative Memo (Kim Basinger). However, redemption presents itself when his childhood sweetheart Iris (Glenn Close) re-enters his life.

Director Barry Levinson’s sophomore picture incurred the wrath of many by jettisoning the downbeat ending of Bernard Malamud’s source novel in favour of a wholly triumphant final reel.

The Natural

It’s the crucial play-off game and a debilitated Roy steps up to the plate knowing the Knights’ whole season rests on his shoulders. Cometh the hour, cometh the man; he sends one final, glorious home run crashing into the stadium lights, exploding them in a shower of sparks that light up his lap of honour in front of an enraptured crowd – all played out in slow-motion as if time itself is in awe.

Shameless and implausible it may be, but for a genre that so repeatedly wallows in melodrama, it remains an iconic moment in sports cinema. All the ingredients are there; from Randy Newman’s superheroic score, to Caleb Deschanel’s breathtaking cinematography, which imbues each frame with a warm and nostalgic beauty.

The Natural

The film takes Arthurian legend (Roy’s Excalibur-esque bat Wonderboy, fashioned from a tree split in two by lightning) and Homer’s The Odyssey and fashions its own mythos out of the mix. It also lathers on the religious sub-text, most strikingly during a key moment when Iris, dressed all in white and stood in the stands watching Roy play, is bathed in an angelic glow courtesy of Deschanel’s astonishing use of lighting.

As hagiographic as it is towards Hobbs – and, in turn, Redford – The Natural perfectly captures the joy of witnessing the sort of greatness that comes along only once-in-a-lifetime.

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16 comments

  1. le0pard13 · March 20, 2014

    Wonderful translation of Bernard Malamud’s novel, even if it significantly changes its ending. I prefer the film’s, but I’m a romantic at heart. Great one to highlight.

    • Three Rows Back · March 21, 2014

      I’ve always felt a film should be treated on its own terms away from a book. You’re never going to please all the fans, although I’m aware the changes made really got up the nose of a lot of critics, Thanks for the feedback 🙂

  2. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · March 21, 2014

    Hagiographic, huh? I had to look that one up 😉 Really good piece mate. Haven’t seen this in a long time. It’s a little cheesy but still a great story.

    • Three Rows Back · March 23, 2014

      Happy to expand your vocabulary! Thanks Chris. I hadn’t seen it for ages but it’s stuck in my mind. It’s as great as I remember.

    • Tom · March 29, 2014

      lol I did the same thing! Mark’s a teacher, he is!

  3. jjames36 · March 21, 2014

    Great review. And amen. Definitely one of the finest baseball movies ever made.

    • Three Rows Back · March 23, 2014

      Thank you my friend. I love a good baseball movie and this is shamelessly sentimental. And great.

  4. vinnieh · March 22, 2014

    Great work, I’ve nominated you for a Versatile Blogger Award. http://vinnieh.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/my-second-versatile-blogger-award/

    • Three Rows Back · March 23, 2014

      You’re too kind! Thanks very much for the award; it’s lovely to get recognition in this way 🙂

  5. ruth · March 23, 2014

    Awesome review Mark! I’ve never seen The Natural, I’m not huge on baseball movies though I’d think I can still appreciate this one as I like Redford.

    • Three Rows Back · March 23, 2014

      Well, Redford is on fine Redford form here. It’s definitely worth watching, even if you’re not massive on baseball. Thanks Ruth; your feedback is always appreciated.

  6. Wendell · March 24, 2014

    I’m a huge baseball fan and love lots of baseball movies. Somehow I’ve never watched The Natural. Everything I’ve heard and read about it, including this, makes it sound too ridiculous to bother with. That said I love your passion for it. Can’t say I’ll be watching it anytime soon but at some point curiosity will get the better of me and I’ll relent. Nice write-up.

    • Three Rows Back · March 26, 2014

      Thanks very much for the feedback. I’m not normally swayed by cheese and/or sentiment, but there’s something about this film that really gets under the skin. The only thing I can say is give the film a shot. You never know!

  7. Tom · March 29, 2014

    An excellently written piece man, I can’t state how much I look forward to getting this as I’ve seen so much praise heaped upon the Golden Boy. 🙂

    I think The Natural is the natural next-step for me to take in increasing my appreciation for Robert Redford. Thanks for bringing it to my attention again.

    • Three Rows Back · March 30, 2014

      Very kind Tom, thank you. It’s a Golden Boy indeed! If you’re wanting to watch more Redford, have you caught The Candidate? It’s brilliant.

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