DVD Review: The Greatest Game Ever Played
Release Date: April 11, 2006
Distributor: Walt Disney Video
· Bill Paxton
· Francis Ouimet
· Harry Vardon
· Eddie Lowery
· Ted Ray
· Lord Northcliffe
· Official Site
by Paul Schultz
Published: April 14, 2006
With apologies to the NFL's "Greatest Game Ever Played," this fact-based
tale of triumph by actor/director Bill ("Game over, man, game over!") Paxton presents a suspenseful (even though it is golf) recreation of the 1913 United States Open Golf Championship. It is another in a line of Disney "based on a true story" sports dramas featuring underdogs that have
recently highlighted football (Remember the Titans), baseball (The Rookie), hockey (Miracle), and, their latest, basketball (Glory Road). The screenplay is by Mark Frost and adapted from his book The Greatest Game Ever Played: Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and the Birth of Modern Golf. Even if you don't know a nine iron from an iron lung, the game is presented accessibly and you will find yourself being caught up in the personal motivations of each of the players.
The movie opens with stern-looking men in black top hats surveying land near Harry Vardon's childhood home. When the young Vardon (played by Paxton's son James) inquires, he's told that a golf course is going to be built there, though "not for the likes of you." Thus we are introduced to the class struggles that underpin this drama, as Vardon's cottage is torn down to
make way for "the sport of gentlemen." Born in 1893, Francis Ouimet grew up in a working-class poor family, directly across the street from The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. Between being able to watch play from his bedroom window, and encountering the then-current US Open champion Vardon at a department store demonstration appearance, Ouimet falls for the game of golf and displays a natural talent for it. Ouimet, as played by Shia LaBeouf (Holes), comes across with earnestness as someone who is aware of class distinctions but refuses to be pigeonholed
by them. Still, he faces stiff opposition in a time when status was something that one was born into, and the unworthy were diligently kept out of the gentlemen's world. He spars with his father, who tries to teach him that a man must "know his place" and rails against his love of a sport that earns him no money. Ouimet attempts to enter an amateur tournament, only to be looked upon with disdain and informed that the competition is "not for your
kind." Also, coming from a lower-class upbringing, Vardon, too, encounters his share of disrespect from the upper-class. In a particularly poignant scene, Vardon has just won a major tournament and has been summoned to
the local country club, where he fully expects to be offered membership.
Instead, the gentlemen have no intention of inviting an outsider in but want to
exploit his visibility as champion by having him work for them. We squirm
in our seat as we feel Vardon's humiliation, though he handles it with
(ironically) gentlemanly restraint.
By 1913, Ouimet has grown to be a young man who has hung up his clubs at his father's request and focused on a business career, though his love for golf has not diminished. The US Open is coming to town, and the league president approaches Ouimet with an offer to fill out his desire to include local amateurs. Ouimet initially refuses, but the allure of playing with his idol Vardon proves too strong, and he defies his father by entering the tournament. Indeed, Vardon was such a towering figure at the time that the US Open was delayed for three months just so he could play in it. At this point in his career, Vardon toured with fellow British talent Ted Ray on the payroll of newspaper owner Lord Northcliffe, who wants nothing but to hoist the American's greatest golf prize for Britain. So begins a tournament for the ages as David squares off against two Goliaths.
The last half of the film is devoted to tournament play, complete with point-of-view golf trajectories and slow-motion swings through the grass. It's well-acted, especially from the leads, and from the scene-stealing Josh Flitter as the pudgy 10-year-old Eddie Lowery who caddies for Ouimet. Lowery is full of appropriate, wise-beyond-his-years advise, including allaying Ouimet's nervousness before a crucial putt by telling him to just "read it, roll it and hole it." Buoyed by an uplifting musical score, the action brings an exciting tenseness to the proceedings that belie golf's reputation as an excruciating bore. As far as historical accuracy is concerned, dramatic liberties are, of course, taken, though not as many as you might expect. Significantly, the final round is played much closer that the actual scores indicated. The greatest game ever played, really, was the round leading to the playoff, but I guess I'm okay with the tinkering to enhance the suspense. The only other major fabrication is a romantic interest for Ouimet in the form of well-to-do Sarah Wallis, though, after their intriguing introduction, she is mostly relegated to shots of her smiling from the sidelines. Golf aficionados will
be pleased to see that LaBeouf and Dillane have decent swings, which brings a welcome realism.
Vardon could have been made the rapscallion but, instead, the broader villain is the class system. This makes it somewhat hard to direct your ire at any one individual, though Lord Northcliffe is as close as you'll get to fitting
that bill. He does get his come-uppance, albeit in a rather gentlemanly
way, as Vardon scolds him in a well-written discourse on respect. The film
only hints at Vardon's gamesmanship. While playing against the defending
American champion John McDermott, Vardon stands in wait at a tee while leisurely holding an iron. McDermott falls for this intimidation, thinking if the
great Vardon can reach the green with an iron, then so can he. Consequently, after McDermott comes up short after his swing, Vardon casually replaces the proffered iron with a driver.
Ouimet's ascendance to golf immortality is told sentimentally, yet captures all the elements of hardship that made his accomplishments all the more astounding. I honestly had never heard of either Ouimet nor Vardon before watching this film, so I couldn't fully appreciate the aftermath that this
monumental achievement produced. It's definitely a story worth knowing,
and this movie breaks par in delivering a cinematic reenactment of the event.
Feature Film Audio Commentary: Director Bill Paxton - Paxton
shows obvious pride in his work, so much so that he comments on every name as it's displayed during the opening title sequence! Including the Beatles' Yellow Submarine for the aforementioned title sequence, he points out his influences, which mostly come from his previous work as an actor (Tombstone) and director (Frailty). He admits several times to gushing, but "he can't help it." While this might seem egotistical, it really doesn't come across as offensive, but rather earnest. At times, he states the obvious ("The father is not diggin' the chili," Paxton intones after Ouimet exhibits his interest in golf after meeting Vardon as a boy), but his commentary is entertaining, as when we meet Ted Ray in a frenetic bar scene: "I always liked the idea of someone hitting a golf ball with a driver
indoors... it's just so wrong." He points out cameos (Joe Jackson
playing piano in the bar) and fictional elements (Ouimet's love interest, and
him quitting golf), and makes a fascinating parallel to Star Wars characters
that you just have to hear to believe.
Feature Film Audio Commentary: Writer Mark Frost - Frost tells
how his book was translated into the screenplay. He fleshes out the
background of virtually every scene, vastly adding to your appreciation of the
events. He explains the reason for Vardon's sudden and uncontrollable tremors later on in his career, something that was intimated in the film but never adequately explained. He also fills in the gap between Vardon's
championship at the 1900 US Open and appearance in 1913 by describing his long bout with tuberculosis. It's been a long time since I've heard such a
complimentary pair of audio commentaries.
A View From The Gallery: On The Set Of The Greatest Game Ever Played - a mutual admiration piece describing various aspects of the production of the movie, mostly narrated by director Bill Paxton. (15:22)
Two Legends And The Greatest Game - a historical perspective on the famous golfers and on the game of golf itself. It includes fascinating facts like Ouimet being one of the first four players inducted when a Hall of Fame was created, and Vardon being the inventor of what today is still considered the modern grip and swing. (6:50)
From Caddy To Champion: Francis Ouimet - this gem of an inclusion is a 1963 interview with an elderly Ouimet by Fred Cusick from the site of the 1913 Open. This black-and-white (and quite grainy) piece celebrates the 50th anniversary of the big win, and Cusick and Ouimet leisurely stroll the links while discussing key moments of that famous match. (25:15)
Sneak Peeks - Cars, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Glory
Road, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, Air Buddies, Walt Disney World Golf