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SnakePit Movie Night: The Natural

Note: the clip above contains a big spoiler for the end of the film. That said, you probably already know what it is, since this is one of the most beloved baseball films of all time. It's my personal #1, and the closing scene is one of my all-time favorites, across any genre. So spoilers be damned... That goes for the rest of this piece too, incidentally. The pre-show starts at 6pm on the MLB Network, with the film beginning half-an-hour later.

I wrote about this one at a great deal of length almost four years ago, so will refer you to that piece for a more detailed analysis, including the way in which the film radically twists the ending of the novel on which it's based, in a way few other cinematic adaptations have done [The film of A Clockwork Orange is also radically different, in part because the US edition of Antony Burgess's novel let out the epilogue!]. I confess still to not having actually read the book to this point, but it appears to have been almost a version of the King Arthur tale, with a hero rising from an unmemorable background to become legendary, in a baseball setting.

Certainly, what I think The Natural does better than any other movie is capture the mythic spirit which is such an essential part of baseball. The climax is one of those scenes beloved of commentators, where they say, "You couldn't make this stuff up!" Except, here, that's just what they did, but we have been taken along so far, and are invested so deeply in Roy Hobbs, that we believe, without a shadow of doubt, that he could pull himself from his hospital bed and deliver a monster, game-winning home-run in the ninth inning. purely by force of will. Because that's what true heroes do: they are no bound by the same rules as us mortals.

Most of the baseball scenes were shot at War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, which just about perfectly matches the period of the film - the New York Knights sign Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) in 1939, and the stadium was completed in 1937. It was the home of the Buffalo Bills up until 1972, and was also used for other sports, including a NASCAR race in 1958, that was the American debut of Richard Petty. It lost its last tenant in 1988 and was largely demolished in the late eighties. A high-school athletic field now occupies the spot, and does include a baseball diamond, so you could sneak in and re-enact the final scene, if you so desired!

The film was, in no small measure responsible for reviving the concept of the "serious" baseball movie. Prior to its release in 1984, the sport had, with occasional exceptions e.g. Beat the Drum Slowly, been largely the vehicle for schmaltzy player biographies or comedies - we saw The Bad News Bears earlier in this season. It's quite possible that, without its success, both critical (four Academy Award nominations) and commercial (it was the #14 in the box-office for that year, ahead of Red Dawn, The Terminator and The Killing Fields), there might have been no Bull Durham, Eight Men Out or Field of Dreams.

It was largely Redford's involvement that got this made. While the days of him being an utter megastar were behind him, there were still not many bigger stars on the Hollywood landscape at the time, even if it had been almost four years since his last acting role, Brubaker. Redford played American Legion baseball in high-school and at one point considered playing the sport in college, but as he said, "I discovered drinking instead and flunked out." By the time the movie was made, he was in his mid-forties, but spoke about how Ted Williams was the inspiration for Roy Hobbs, from number (#9) to batting-stance.

"Williams was my hero as a kid... I copied his stance the way I'd seen it in pictures. The first time I was ever in New York—must've been 1957 -- I got in a subway and rode out to the ball park and got a seat in the bleachers. Right, Williams wasn't in the lineup. Then he came up to pinch hit in the ninth. I said to myself, 'Bob, this is for you.' And I'll be damned if he didn't hit one right over my head for a home run. I remember it was a 3-1 count. I'd had some good days myself, but that was my biggest thrill in sports."

Redford's recollection, 27 years later, is on the money. Williams hit only one pinch-hit home-run against the Yankees. It was indeed in 1957 at Yankee Stadium, leading off the ninth inning against Whitey Ford. Couldn't tell you the count, but I'm inclined to believe it was 3-1. That's kinda mythic in itself, even if the Red Sox still lost the game. But there's nothing which can compare to Roy Hobbs striding the plate with the game on the line, and blood oozing from the wound in his side... You couldn't make this stuff up. So settle in and enjoy the last of these Bleacher Features. I know I will be.