HISTORY OF THE NATURAL: A Father Returns
A classic movie with a timeless topic comes to mind in celebration of Father’s Day. The 1984 film The Natural asks the question:
Can you return?
If the movie Field of Dreams was epic, then The Natural was mythic, as I’ll explain below.
The Natural: The Story
But first, how does a middle-aged baseball player named Roy Hobbs, seemingly missing for almost two decades, return to the game? He had been taught to play baseball by his father, and he had shown promise when he was a teenager, 16 years ago. He shows up in 1939 with a custom-made bat cut from a lightning-struck tree. He appears unannounced to a last-place major league baseball team, the New York Knights.
This is a movie that even non-sports fans fall in love with, an authentic slice of Americana. It is crafted so that it will choke you up and make you want to stand up and cheer at the end. The climactic pyrotechnics of the ending brings goosebumps. It’s a story about the power of faith and hope, the victory of good over evil, the consequences of right and wrong, and the reuniting of father and son.
“Based on” the novel by Bernard Malamud, though not a literal adaptation, the story is a morality play evoking the legend of Sir Percival, one of the Knights of King Arthur‘s Round table. His quest was to find the “Holy Grail.” When the story moved to later English literature, the hero was replaced by Sir Galahad.
In real-life, Eddie Waitkus was a baseball player who, in 1949, was lured to the hotel room of an obsessed female fan by a cryptic note. She then shot him, critically wounding him. That shooting was the jumping-off point for Malamud’s 1952 novel, The Natural.
Robert Redford plays the mid-thirties Roy Hobbs — the same age as farmer Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams — though Redford was 47 at the time. Redford is a natural in the role; he played baseball on scholarship at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in his youth.
The Natural: Cast
The supporting cast is universally excellent.
- Joe Don Baker as The Whammer is more Babe Ruth than Babe Ruth.
- Robert Duvall as sports writer Max Mercy is ingratiating and diabolical.
- Glenn Close as the ever-faithful Iris Gaines, is strong, beautiful, and angelic.
- Kim Basinger as Memo Paris is alluring and tempting.
- Wilford Brimley as Pop Fisher, the reluctant manager of the Knights, is crusty and wise.
- Richard Farnsworth as Coach Red Blow is always a delight to see.
- Robert Prosky as The Judge is reptilian and scary.
- Darren McGavin as an unbilled Gus Sands, a big-time bookie and gangster.
- Barbara Hershey as Harriet Bird is vampy and gives you the willies.
The Natural: the Myth
The movie goes in a different direction than the novel regarding characters and ending. And it builds on the Arthurian legend with a much more ancient myth: Odysseus from Homer‘s The Odyssey. One tipoff is the character of Gus Sands, who curiously has an oversized eye… like Cyclops.
Like Joseph Campbell‘s hero in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Roy Hobbs
“must cross the threshold between the world he is familiar with and that which he is not… “
before he can rise to fulfill his destiny.
Like Odysseus, our hero leaves on a quest (to return home to his wife and son from the Trojan War), only to be derailed, mainly through bad choices – it takes two decades for him to recover and achieve his goal. Despite various temptations, the woman he truly loves (Iris) is still there for him, providing crucial help and strength at the most perilous moments.
With a Christ-like wound in his side, there is a guardian angel appearing with a halo (Iris) and temptations (from Memo) which he ultimately resists.
Here are some parallels from Homer’s The Odyssey (with a bit of Arthurian legend):
- The Judge: like Hades, god of the Underworld who loves darkness, wants Roy to sell his soul by tempting him with money, then threatening to expose him.
- Max Mercy: like Hephaestus (Roman: Vulcan), the Greek god of fire and forging, can “make or break you.”
- Pop Fisher: like Zeus, the King of the Olympian gods, was head of The Knights, has #1 on his uniform, and the team wears his symbol, the lightning bolt on their uniform, and the power that creates Roy’s bat. He decides whether Roy will sit on the bench or play ball. He wants “The Holy Grail,” the pennant.
- Gus Sands: as mentioned, the Cyclops has a strange eye and displays incredible power. Odysseus faced the man-eating giant Cyclops Polyphemus on an island along his journey.
- Memo: like the nymph Kalypso (Greek: concealing the knowledge, wily) had an affair with Odysseus and detained him for seven years from returning home by promising him immortality if he would stay with her. Memo promised Roy a fortune if he did not participate in the championship game but would run away with her. She is a distraction to Roy, which causes the team to slump.
- Harriet Bird: is like The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy from a ballad by John Keats about a fairy who condemns a Knight to nightmare and delay after she seduces him with her eyes and song.
- Iris Gaines: like Penelope, Odysseus’ pure and ever-faithful wife and his only true love. Dressed in white, Iris was separated from her love for 16 years (20 years for Penelope) while raising their son Telemachus. Iris appears at a pivotal episode in the movie where the setting sun catches her nimbus-like hat, and she seems like a guardian angel with a halo.
- Roy Hobbs: like King Odysseus of Ithica — Roy (roi) is French for King — he has an indomitable will but makes many ill-fated decisions on his return, not the least of which is his boast to be “the best there ever was.” The gods consider this hubris, an insolent pride and arrogance. More than hamartia (sin), this transgression against the Olympian gods was not to be left unpunished but to be met by vengeance via the goddess of retribution, nemesis. Compare this to the fate of Narcissus. Through many delays and temptations, our hero returns with his magic bat (Excalibur) emblazoned by a lightning bolt, and with the power that only he can wield — as only Odysseus could string his bow — he triumphs over all adversities. Roy learns that Iris is the mother of his teenage son, and following his victory, he plays catch with him in the same field where Roy’s father taught him baseball.
The Natural: Music
Randy Newman created an unforgettably emotional and atmospheric score that has been much imitated since, but without reproduction. You’ll commonly hear this music now at ballparks. The score he wrote is majestic and haunting at the same time, occasionally bringing to mind Aaron Copeland. Newman is known as the composer for Ragtime, Parenthood, Maverick, Michael, Toy Story, and a host of other Pixar and Disney films.
The Natural: The Crew
The screenplay by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry makes some significant changes from the novel, I think for the better. Director Barry Levinson, who also did Mel Brooks‘ Silent Movie and High Anxiety and directed Rain Man, Good Morning, Vietnam, and Bugsy, sets the pacing in this movie with alternating humor and seriousness.
The Natural: Cinematography
The work by Caleb Deschanel is both glowing and golden, like a magical painting. You’ve seen his work in The Right Stuff, The Patriot, The Passion, and Being There.
You’ll like it if: you aren’t too discriminating about realism and give yourself up to the legendary, the myth.
You won’t like it if: you’re unable to suspend disbelief; you don’t buy Roy Hobb’s magical talent.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian