The Natural

Screenplay: Roger Towne, Phil Dusenberry

Director: Barry Levinson (1984)


Matthew Kilburn reviews this film

I remember, late one evening a few years ago, catching the end of a film which depicted the tales of King Arthur and the Round Table in the form of a story about rivalry within a biker gang. [I didn't have the plot quite right, but I now know the film was Knightriders, and I approve of it! - MK, 1995] It looked somewhat contrived, the climax being a quasi-mediaeval tournament with Harley-Davidsons (or whatever) for steeds. When I first saw the television lisitng for The Natural my eye caught the phrase 'a baseball version of the Arthurian legend' and I was instantly reminded of that film. Oh no, not again, I thought.

My expectations were significantly altered when I saw that it starred Robert Redford and was directed by Barry Levinson, director of Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam and Toys amongst others. The comments of the various newspapers, which included 'a Redford turkey' intrigued me, particularly when the fim was condemned as predictable and incoherent.

Redford plays the Arthur figure, incarnated as Roy Hobbs. Roy is a country boy, innocent of the temptations of the urban jungle that is already taking over American life in the period between the world wars. His ability as a baseball player is as innate as his essential goodness. Like a king over a country, he is born with the power to rule over the baseball field. Yet he is warned by his father, immediately prior to his early death - by, rather than within, a large tree - that he can't rely solely on his gift alone, or he will fail. Only half an hour into the film the prophecy seems to have come true, as Harriet Bird, lover of veteran baseball star the Whammer, shoots Roy down with a silver bullet.

The evening before Harriet injures Roy, she asks him, in a restaurant car, whether he has read Homer. The authors - whether they be Levinson, Bernard Malamud who wrote the original novel, or the screenwriters - are not just drawing on the Matter of Britain for their archetypes. The manager and co-owner of the team Roy eventually rises to prominence with, the New York Knights, may be called Pop Fisher. He may warn Roy, momentarily changing role models, that he should not begin a relationship with the most beautiful woman in the baseball world, because she is bad luck. Max Mercy, the sports columnist whom we first meet as guardian to the Whammer, seems to represent the morally equivocal elements of Merlin, shaping events through his cartoons and his commentary, claiming to be acting for the good of baseball in a way inscrutable to others, but also lining his own pockets.

These Arthurian references stand alongside interpolations from other myths. Roy's Guenevere-like lover is named Memo Paris, persumably the face that launched a thousand strikes. In the sixteen years between his shooting by Harriet, and his signing by the New York Knights, Roy drifts, we are told, around the country, unable to return to his true love Iris and the son she has borne him, a veritable American Odyssey. The thunderclaps and lightning bolts that accompany Roy's greatest triumphs, and also split the oak tree from which his bat Wonderboy is fashioned, suggest that Levinson is also invoking the aid of the Norse gods.

I don't know how close The Natural is to Bernard Malamud's novel, but it's tempting to see Levinson drawing on some of the ideas of another Arthurian film director of the early 1980s, John Boorman. In Excalibur the King and his country are so sacramentally wedded they are effectively in symbiosis. Arthur's weakness makes the land barren; the Grail is found by the knight who realises that the King and his land are one. Levinson deals with a similar concept of the land, although one not so connected with government, but with spiritual identity. Before his departure for the Big City, the young Roy is invited by Iris [Isis? - MK 1995] to make love to her in a barn. His subsequent disapearance from her life, and his later infidelity with Kim Basinger's Memo Paris, neither sully nor weaken this fundamentally sacred union. On entering into the sexual act with Iris (a softly beautiful Glenn Close) Roy pledges his faith with the American ideals of rural innocence and individual enterprise. It can be inferred that these virtues are inimical to those of big business, which are coming to dominate baseball. Memo and her father, the Judge - who keeps his office in a state of perpetual darkness - represent this side of affairs.

Roy's affair with Memo is thus detrimental to his game and to his principles. Once he is sharing the Basinger bed, the Knights embark on a series of defeats which are only reversed in Chicago. There, Iris comes to see the game, Roy catching sight of her, framed in the sunlight, clothed all in white after the fashion of the Grail Maiden. Naturally, this vision restores Roy, and the Knights win the game. Unfortunately, Memon's influence remains there like the silver bullet head lodged in Roy's stomach, eating away at his health and spirit until his Camlann.

There are many Avalons in this film. BBC 2 showed a Moving Pictures documentary on Barry Levinson's work immediately before The Natural, revealing that another of his films was indeed called Avalon. This picture concerned the life of an immigrant in the United States throughout this century. One shot showed the hero running down a railway track, across a puddle of water, as his later self narrated his enthusiasm for his new country. There is a very similar episode in The Natural, as Roy begins his run during a crucial match, Iris looking on. Principles are being embraced, true selves discovered and celebrated. This is a water crossing that realises the aspirations of an individual and allows them to pass into legend. The hopes of this hero are that baseball will continue to represent a hometown idyll of America, rather than civic and corporate corruption.

The Arthurian legends, and those of Troy, both tell of the fall of a Golden Age. The Natural tells how it is prolonged. America had enough tragedies fresh in her mind in 1984. The tale is located in an inter-war perpetual summer of sun and sudden rainstorms, of radiant wheatfields, indeterminably pre- or post-Wall Street Crash. Roy survives the story, the Knights vindicated by their clinching of the League Pennant, and the Judge's machinations shattered in a shower of sparks as he sees his chances of depriving Pop Fisher of his interest in the club burn out. The last scene shows Roy, Iris and their son playing ball in a corn field. Roy is no more as a player, for his stomach lining is too severely eroded by the silver bullet and by the drug memo fed him at a pre-match party. However, he survives as a man, and Pop Fisher's shareholding is whole, allowing the old man's career to close in peace.

Of course, a lot of the connections are obvious. Iris is someone to watch over Roy. The name of the team that Roy played for, briefly, before he joined the Knights, was the Hebrew Oilers, anointing him King of Baseball in advance of Pop Fisher calling him off the bench. The allusions are at least fun for those who know them, but a viewer who is unfamiliar with the references may see only a flat, if sentimental, baseball movie.

The Natural is essentially an idealistic film. It audaciously lines up the American Dream alongside the heroes of old Europe. Indeed, its 'sword in the stone' sequence, where Roy sends three balls hurtling past the Whammer, may just be cheek. While some Britons could well be inclined to rebel, this writer allowed himself to be won over. An Arthurian legend that ends in an expression of hope with no room for despair may be heretical to some, but it would have been as welcome in the settlements of Dark Age Britain as around the fireside of Franklin Roosevelt, or the television screens of the Reagan years.

Originally published in Ceridwen's Cauldron no 25, Trinity 1993.