Fairway to heaven

Bagger Vance a curious blend of Eastern philosophy and Southern mythology

A little birdie told me that Steven Pressfield drew inspiration from the Hindu scriptures in writing his historical golf novel The Legend of Bagger Vance. Hence the name of caddy Bagger Vance comes from the Bhagavad Gita, while golfing protagonist Rannolph Junuh derives from Prince Arjuna.
Without that bit of foreknowledge, you might have a handicap in approaching Robert Redford’s adaptation of The Legend of Bagger Vance. In the film, a mythic 1930s golf tournament in Savannah becomes an unwieldy allegory for finding your way in life itself, and drives of overconfidence lead to the sand traps of error, or something like that. If Bagger Vance took its characters as seriously as its notion of golf as a vehicle for grand ideas, it may have been above par, but instead Redford hooks the film into the rough.
You can’t say it’s not attractively photographed, as it drinks in vistas of the Georgia coast. As shown in such previous films as A River Runs Through It and The Horse Whisperer, Redford the director may be too fond of honeyed lenses, and letting his camera loose on golf courses in the Deep South makes nearly every frame look like a picture postcard.
About 20 minutes of awkward exposition set the stage, as aging Hardie Greaves (Jack Lemmon) narrates the story he saw as a poor but ardent young golf fan. Before World War I, Junuh was the toast of Savannah and the region’s most promising golfer, but he returns strangely haunted from the Great War, abandoning both his game and his wealthy fiancé, Adele (Charlize Theron).
In the ensuing years Adele’s father builds a luxurious golf resort, which opens just as the stock market crashes, leaving it penniless. With her father dead and creditors at the door, Adele comes up with a sure-fire publicity stunt: an exhibition match between the two greatest golfers of the 1930s, lusty showman Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill) and gentlemanly intimidator Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch). “Dixie” plays on the soundtrack as Adele puts her plan in motion.
The hitch comes when the Savannah establishment insists that a native son play in the tournament. As an Atlantan, Bobby Jones isn’t viewed as being from “the real South,” but Junuh is “a gentle-born Chevalier.” (In this film, Southerners speak that way.) Despite being a hard-drinking recluse, Junuh gets entreaties from young Hardie, the city fathers and Adele to play the match.
Junuh rebuffs them all, claiming that he’s lost his swing. But that night he receives a visit from a mysterious caddy called Bagger Vance (Will Smith), whose gentle humor and confidence at being able to find his swing persuade Junuh to sign up. Smith dampens his innate exuberance while playing an African-American in the Jim Crow South. As Vance, he’s self-effacing but with a twinkle in his eyes, as if unable to take life’s inequities seriously (although the film avoids making race an issue).
With a fictional hero challenging historical sports figures, Bagger Vance runs parallel to Redford’s baseball tall tale The Natural. Each of those films presents sport in archetypal terms, which Bagger explains by going on about matters like one’s “true, authentic swing” or offers platitudes like, “There is a perfect shot trying to find each and every one of us.” From teeing off to sinking the putts, Vance’s blather about the oneness of all things invariably reminds you of Chevy Chase saying “Be the ball!” in Caddyshack.
If we had genuine stake in the characters, we might be more engaged with the game’s metaphorical aspects. But Junuh’s romantic issues with Adele couldn’t seem more perfunctory, with Theron only called upon to look pretty. Apart from a murky sequence in the no-man’s-land of WWI, the film never gets a grip on how the war harmed Junuh, so it can’t successfully dramatize him getting over it. It doesn’t help to have Lemmon’s narration making such remarks as, “He had no choice but to come to terms with his demons.”
The film appealingly captures the hype of a big golf match in an era long before the sport would have its own cable channel, and McGill and Gretsch portray Hagen and Jones as realistic and in proportion to the game of their day. Damon can be charming as well, especially in his scenes with Smith and the other players, and Redford occasionally provides some clever shots from the point of view of a golf ball soaring toward the green.
But The Legend of Bagger Vance ultimately proves less a metaphor for life than a tribute to golf itself, “a game that cannot be won, only played.” The success of Tiger Woods has helped show that golf need not be considered the pastime of privileged whites. Unfortunately, that’s essentially the game honored by this film, and it’s strange to see morsels of Eastern philosophy and an African-American movie star made to carry its clubs.