At first glance, "The Legend of Bagger Vance" appears to be simply an
inspirational sports story, directed by Robert Redford with his
customary elegance and economy. But there is something more going on
here. Based on Steven Pressfield's book, "Bagger Vance" takes two
renowned real-life Depression Era golfers and introduces them to a pair
of characters from an ancient Hindu holy book. The result is a
beautifully photographed, otherworldly fable that presents a Buddhist
look at spirituality, set against an exhibition golf match.
It takes place in the late 1920s in Savannah, Georgia. Adele Invergordon
(Charlize Theron) decides to save the golf resort she inherited from her
recently deceased father by staging a celebrity exhibition match
featuring the two undisputed stars of the game, Bobby Jones (Joel
Gretsch, in a star-making performance as a charismatic Atlanta
gentleman) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill, delightful as a flamboyant
Yankee). To appease town leaders that want a Savannah native in the
game, she reluctantly agrees to add a third player, one Rannulph Junuh
Years ago, Junuh was her love, as well as the most promising young
golfer in the South. But upon his return from fighting in the war, he
became a recluse, shutting out Adele along with the rest of humanity,
save for a few drinking and gambling friends. Local boy Hardy Greaves
(J. Michael Moncrief) tries to convince Junuh to join the match, but the
shattered ex-soldier resists, until a mysterious man named Bagger Vance
(Will Smith) appears late in the night and offers his services as a
caddy, and as a guide to help Junuh "find his swing."
Jeremy Leven's script strips the already-streamlined book down to its
essence; Junuh's spiritual journey with Bagger Vance. Leven may have
stripped away a bit too much – the book introduces the two long after
their teacher/student dynamic has been established, where the film
depicts their relationship from the first meeting, with Vance initially
coming off as a folksy enigma at best and a flake at worst.
Director Robert Redford draws warm, understated performances from the
talented cast and creates a picture marked by good humor, rich tones and
a welcome sense of restraint and balance. Occasionally, the score gets a
bit heavy handed and the production skirts the edge of pretentiousness,
but Redford keeps matters in check most of the time.
Now here's the fascinating part. Although the author of the book does
not point this out, "Bagger Vance" is a retelling of a portion of the
Indian epic, "The Mahabharata," where Bhagavan, an honorific title for
the Lord or for a spiritual master (a title which sounds a lot like
Bagger Vance) helps Arjuna (which sounds exactly like R. Junuh) through
his spiritual crisis. Bhagavan aides Arjuna in recognizing who he really
is, how he fits into the texture of existence and how to find peace in
the midst of action.
Thanks to fine actors and Robert Redford's great directorial skills,
"The Legend of Bagger Vance" can be enjoyed without that information,
but placed in its proper context, the little truisms of the story become
pieces in a vast, exotic puzzle that offers contentment when fully
Put that on your tee and swing at it.
Copyright © 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott