One of my favorite movies of all time centers on the game of golf, which has never interested me. It is not about golf, however. As Roger Ebert said in his review, “It is the first zen movie about golf.” The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) was directed by Robert Redford and stars Will Smith in the title role, Matt Damon, and Charlize Theron.
Rannulph Junuh (Damon) is a promising golfer whose girlfriend, Adele (Theron) is the daughter of a wealthy and prominent family in Savannah, Georgia. Junah, the golden boy, has everything going for him until, as a captain in the first world war, his entire company dies in battle. Though he wins the medal of honor, when Junah returns home, he lives in the shadows for a decade, as a drunk, abandoning everything from his former life.
In 1930, in an effort to recover the family fortune, Adele organizes an exhibition tournament between Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, the most famous golfers of the era, at an extravagant golf resort her father built just as the depression struck. To try to generate local interest, she asks her estranged boyfriend, Junuh, to play. Junuh can barely hit a straight shot when the mysterious Bagger Vance (Smith) literally steps out of the night and announces he will be Junuh’s caddy.
Bagger Vance becomes a mentor in every sense of the word, helping Junuh recover his “own authentic swing,” a metaphor for recovering an authentic life.
The movie did not do well at the box office, and critical opinion was mixed. Though Roger Ebert gave it 3 1/2 stars, George Perry of the BBC called it “pretentious piffle,” and Dana Stevens, writing in the New York Times said, “it’s central premises are so banal and dubious as to border on offensiveness.” Such a reading results from failing to understand that the movie’s genre is mythological, and Bagger Vance is a spiritual guide.
When the movie was released, director, Robert Redford, spoke of the “spiritual journey.” In one interview said he believed in “mythology as a foundational storyline,” and in Bagger Vance, the image of losing and finding one’s “authentic swing,” meant losing and recovering one’s soul.
The theme was close to my own heart. Nine years earlier, I’d finished a psychology masters thesis on “Imaginal Guides,” but when the movie came out, I felt my corporate work milieu threatened my own soul. Part of the problem, I think, confronts us all, as the mythical/imaginal dimension of our collective psyche has collapsed. Events, which once were woven into stories and ballads, become the stuff of headlines and clips on Entertainment Tonight, which are no more nourishing to the soul than yesterday’s tweets.
Redford came “from a big family of storytellers,” which led him to “place value…on mythological story lines because they’re the most solid and they usually have moral and rich characters and a simply told story. And [Bagger Vance] had that…a wonderful, simple, mythological story. A classic hero’s journey.”
The fact that the movie didn’t have more success may say more about our “entertainment culture” than about the film itself. Watch this clip, and if it resonates, you are sure to enjoy the movie.