Golf has never been my thing, so when The Greatest Game Ever Played came out, I wasn’t interested. Now, it’s one of my favorites, as much for its story as its unique form of characterization.
The story centers around the staging of the first 1913 U.S. Open. The hero, Francis Ouimet, works as a caddy at the local golfing club, with ambitions toward becoming a golfer. His father believes he will never be successful at it, but Francis’ talent earns him a position in the U.S. Open. There, he goes up against champions Harry Vardon and Ted Rey, considered the world’s best golfers, in an 18-hole playoff.
Francis’ life is no different from that of Vardon. He too lived in poverty and strove to be successful through his talent. His father was unsupportive of his dreams, forcing him to leave home to pursue his goals. This similarity makes the championship meaningful; it’s about two people wanting the same thing for different reasons. Francis intends to prove to his father his talent is worthwhile; Vardon strives to reclaim lost dignity after a severe illness and earn respect among the upper class he so wants to be a part of.
Both men are talented. Each earns a chance to win in the Championship. Neither was given life on a silver platter and both are looked up to as the finest golfers that ever lived. But what is even more remarkable is the most “cinematic” moments are all true! Such scenes as President Taft’s unexpected arrival in the audience throwing Francis off his game, Ted Rey punching a competitor in the face, and the drama between Francis and his father, are true. Only a couple of minor alterations are made; the film introduces a love interest for Francis from the upper class and brings it all down to a final stroke.
As a writer, I most appreciate talent in other writers: the ability to not only make the audience feel things but have our feelings torn between two equally strong opposing forces. To write a villain to antagonize your hero is commonplace; to write a hero to pit against another hero is more difficult, and much more rewarding. This is where the film succeeds; it’s not just an inspirational story but about two men who have more in common than they think; a boy pitted against his golfing idol, and a man hoping for a comeback after a bad streak of luck. Most movies choose to make you root for the hero. They omit anything to make his competitor remotely likable. It’s easier that way. Instead, as the story unfolds, we find ourselves torn between wanting Francis to win… and wanting Vardon to win. It’s a great choice, since it divides our loyalties and engages us even more emotionally in the game.
Characters are what this film is built on. From the calm, collected Vardon to the hot-tempered Rey (who has a golf stroke that can knock a man off his feet) to the ambitious and star-struck Francis and his short, chubby kid caddie, Eddie, to the vast array of wealthy benefactors and jerks alike that influence their lives, it is never so much about golfing as a declaration that it is possible to live out your dreams, if you’re willing to work hard to accomplish them.
As in most films of this nature, a feel-good element is prominent in the conclusion, but this one is bittersweet. After all, only one of the two men we like so very much can actually win! Yet it’s a game played so well, with so much heart, that even the loser can’t help feeling proud of the winner. Not only do we experience an example of what talented writing can do, it also reminds us that there are winners and losers. Whether or not you win is unimportant; how you handle it is what says the most about you as an individual. There are two kinds of people in this world; those that appreciate another’s success, and those who resent it. The former is the greater person, and it’s a rare delight to see it on screen.
Vardon had every right to feel threatened by and hate the teenager standing between him and victory. He risked his reputation, his career, and his fame because an American lad showed an extraordinary talent. Instead, he embraced the gift given to him… a real challenge, a game that tested his talent and pitted it against a terrific competitor, a game he would never forget… truly, the greatest game ever played.