I used to think I wasn’t much of a sports film fan but in retrospect, that entirely depends on the type of sports film it happens to be. I have seen and loved quite a few movies revolving around actual people who accomplished tremendous things. I cried my way through Seabiscuit multiple times (sans the profanity, which wasn’t so fun), and I wanted to stand up and cheer at the end of Remember the Titans. (The real story if you have ever read/seen/heard it, is even more remarkable and profound.) So I suppose it was inevitable I should see The Greatest Game Ever Played.
Now, understand this — I am not someone who has even the slightest interest in golf. My brother used to watch hours of it on cable television in an attempt to perfect his swing. I would walk through, stare blankly at the screen, and then go watch paint dry, since that seemed more entertaining. (No offense to anyone who loves golf. I just… don’t.) I watched some other golf movie that escapes my mind because it was equally boring (in spite of the presence of Jeremy Northam … without him to occasionally compel me to crack open one eye, I might have slept through it) but this one was good. Why? Maybe because it didn’t feel like a movie about golf. For me, it was all about the characters. Golf was just something they had in common.
Frances, the story’s all-American hero, reflected for me every young person who has ever had a dream. Who has ever been told to grow up and move on, to sacrifice what they love to do for something that will pay the bills. He is everyone who has ever been snubbed by a rich snob, sneered at by men of superior birth, or wanted something so badly he could hardly stand it. And that I think is half of what makes the movie so great. The fact that Frances beat all the odds and accomplished something so astounding that to this day people are still in awe of it.
The other half of the movie belongs to Harry, who is not all that different from Frances. He rose from an impoverished birth and the destruction of his home for a golf course to being one of the most sought, respected professional golfers in the world, but throughout his life was tormented by memories of the people who told him he was “not good enough” to be one of them, that he could never rise from his humble beginnings and amount to anything. So in a way, Harry reflects a much older Frances, one who has found success but not acceptance. He still has his dreams, but they are threatened by recent illnesses… and yet he is not bitter with his loss because he sees something of himself in Frances. He marvels at Frances, even as he considers him a worthy opponent. In fact, he is the ONLY ONE who takes Frances seriously, because he knows the kind of desperation that drives him.
Sappy sports films more often than not take sides but this one doesn’t… it allows you to love and respect both men for who they are, and how their actions reflect their inner nature. In the last few moments I didn’t know who I wanted to win, and that has never happened to me before. The youthful dreamer Frances, or his hero? And darned if I wasn’t happy for one, and sad for the other, even if it was a slim-win! More movies should be like this, and make me feel something. If they made us all believe in our dreams and admire the integrity of other people, the world would be a much better place.