The Natural is about Roy Hobbs, a midwestern farm boy, played by Robert Redford, who can play baseball better than anyone else who ever played the game. The story is how this phenomenon of a ball player meets his fate and learns that life is more than just success or failure in the arena.
The story is a fairy tale set in the golden age of baseball, the 1920s and 1930s. Roy lives on the family farm with his father who encourages him to become a baseball player telling Roy that he has a great gift. In a quick sequence of scenes, his father dies of a heart attack, then lightning strikes the old tree in his front yard and Roy uses the lightning hardened core of the wood to carve out a baseball bat that he inscribes with the name, “Wonder Boy” complete with jagged lightning bolt symbol and finally he has a farewell tryst with his childhood sweetheart Iris (played by Glenn Close) whom he promises to call for and marry once he is established in Chicago.
On his train ride to try out for the Chicago Cubs, Roy meets a famous baseball reporter named Max Mercy (played by Robert Duvall) and Babe Ruth (or a look-alike stand-in for him called the “Whammer”) whom he strikes out on three pitches in a field near where the train is stopped for refueling. He also attracts the attention of a femme fatale named Harriet Bird who was following the Whammer as part of her insane mission to shoot great athletes with silver bullets. When the train reaches Chicago, Harriet invites Roy to her hotel room where wearing a black veil she asks him if he will be the greatest baseball player of all time. When he answers yes, she shoots him, then jumps out the window to her death.
Sixteen years later Roy shows up at the home of the Buffalo Knights a last place National League team. He has been signed to a minimal pay contract to play right field. We meet the manager Pop Fisher (played by Wilford Brimley) and learn that Pop will lose his share of the team ownership to his dishonest partner, “The Judge” (played by Robert Prosky) unless the Knights win the pennant that year. At first the old rookie is dismissed by Pop and rides the bench, but finally Roy gets his chance and shows the Knights that he is their ticket to compete for the pennant. On his first at bat Fisher prophetically tells Hobbs to knock the cover off the ball, and he does just that. By the time the remnant of the ball is thrown back into the infield it’s just a bunch of thread and Roy is the hero the Knights need to spark them. He goes on a streak hitting home runs almost at will. The Knights are inspired by him and they all start wearing a lightning bolt on their sleeves in sympathy with his Wonder Boy logo. They climb out of the cellar and into contention for the pennant. Now Fisher’s niece, Memo Paris (played by Kim Basinger) comes on to Roy and introduces him to her “friend,” Gus Sands (played by Darren McGavin wearing some kind of glass eye on his left eye), a professional gambler who uses Memo’s attentions to distract ball players from their play on the field and thereby wins him bets. Between the two of them they distract Hobbs with a frantic nightlife to the point where his game falls apart and the Knights start sinking in the standings again.
But then fate and the strange magic that surrounds Roy steps in again. On a road trip to Chicago Iris Gaines shows up at the game. She’s heard about Roy’s emergence in the Major Leagues and wants to see him. Unbeknownst to Roy she is sitting in the stands watching the game. After another disappointing game is almost lost, Roy comes up to bat for the last time and on impulse Iris stands up in front of her seat in the bleachers and somehow, mystically, Roy at the plate senses something and it energizes him. He hits a colossal home run that smashes the enormous glass face of the centerfield clock. Looking up into the stands he tries to see her but the glare of the reporters’ flash bulbs blinds him. But later she gets a note to him and they meet after the game at a coffee shop. They talk about their lives and how fate separated them. They are obviously still in love but they seem almost resigned to their separation. As she’s getting into a cab, he asks her to come to the game. She says she can’t because she has to work but he tells her again to come.
In this next game he hits four home runs and it’s the beginning of a resurgence for the Knights. After the game he goes to Iris’s apartment and they talk some more and we find out she has a fifteen-year-old son (whose father lives in New York). Things remain unresolved and Roy leaves to continue the road trip in Boston.
With Roy back in the swing, the Knights tie for first place but this doesn’t suit the plans of Memo, Gus, the reporter Max Mercy and the Judge. They are all committed financially to the Knights losing the pennant. So, Memo invites Roy over to a swank party where various inducements are pitched to convince Roy to throw the pennant race. He refuses and shortly after Memo feeds Roy some kind of hors d’oeuvre he has a gastric attack and is rushed to the hospital. He misses the remaining games of the regular season and now the pennant depends on a final playoff game. While in the hospital the attending doctor tells Roy that the bullet that he was shot with sixteen years ago (a silver bullet) had worked itself loose and was recovered while they pumped the poison out of his stomach. And the doctor tells him that the lining of his stomach has been seriously degraded and he shouldn’t play ball anymore for fear of a fatal rupture of his stomach.
The same day Memo visits him and pleads for him to skip the playoff game promising that Gus will pay him off for it. Roy refuses. Max Mercy threatens Roy with exposing the scandalous details of the murder suicide attempt that Harriet Bird perpetrated on him. Roy refuses to quit. That night the Judge shows up and attempts to bribe him with twenty thousand dollars to throw the game.
The next day, before the game, Roy goes to the Judge’s office and in front of Gus and Memo, he throws the money back at the Judge. Gus calls him a loser and says it won’t matter, that the Knights will lose anyway. And the Judge reveals that he already has another key player who will ensure that the Knights lose. Memo grabs a pistol out of the Judge’s desk and fires a round into the floor but before anything else can happen Roy takes the gun from her and throws it away as he leaves.
The game goes poorly because Roy is badly hurt and as it turns out the Knight’s pitcher is secretly throwing the game. Roy calls time out and confronts the pitcher on the mound and he relents. But by the end of the eighth inning the Knights are down several runs. Up in the stands Iris is desperate to help Roy so she sends a message to him letting him know that her son is at the game with her and that Roy is his father.
In the climactic at bat, with men on base and Roy as the potential winning run, the opposing pitcher is replaced with a young phenom from Nebraska and even Wonder Boy is broken in half hitting a foul ball off his incredible speed. And at last with a full count and everything on the line Roy hits the fast ball down the middle of the plate so hard that it’s seen driving straight through the enormous out field lighting display used for night games. In fact, once the first light is struck all the rest of the lights explode in an extended chain reaction that continues until well after Roy has rounded the bases to win the game and the pennant. The last scene of the game shows the home run ball continuing through and past the lights, still rising. The scene shifts to daylight and a baseball is caught by Iris’s son in a farm field and then he throws it back to Roy. And Iris is in the dress of a farmer’s wife and they all live happily ever after.
The Natural was released in 1984. That was an amazing year. Reagan’s re-election was a high-water mark for this country in a lot of ways. After the hopelessness of the Jimmy Carter presidency there was incredible optimism and enthusiasm by the end of the first Reagan term. The Natural fit that era. It could not be made today. It’s too optimistic and has no moral ambiguity. The characters are clearly either good or evil. That would never work today. Granted, it is also ridiculously sentimental and improbable. But fairy tales usually are. The soundtrack by Randy Neuman has some themes that are used during some of the more stirring baseball scenes that are reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for The Common Man and are remarkably dramatic.
Tastes, of course, differ. I could see some people finding the Natural not nuanced enough, almost cartoonish. It’s true. It’s a fairy tale. How can a man slay a tremendous monster? Impossible.
I like the Natural. It cheers me up. Give it a try if fairy tales interest you.