A Nice Guy Finishes First - But What About the Film?

The story is remarkable enough in itself: In 1913, a 20-year-old caddie named Francis Ouimet, the son of French and Irish Catholic immigrants — aided by a brash, 10-year-old truant caddie named Eddie Lowry — stunned the world by besting British master Harry Varden and winning the U.S. Open.

Yet The Greatest Game Ever Played, starring Shia LaBeouf and directed by Bill Paxton from a screenplay by Mark Frost, adapting his own best-selling book, isn't just the true story of a dramatic championship playoff. It's also the story of a revolution in popular culture, and how a poor, unassuming youth helped democratize the most aristocratic of games, transforming golf from the exclusive domain of private clubs and wealthy elites to a popular middle-class pastime played on public courses.

“I think Francis was in many ways the Jackie Robinson of golf,” Frost recently told the Register at a Toronto press event. “He was the man who broke through that class barrier and created an interest at a national level that had never been there before. He landed on the front page of every newspaper in the country, and golf became a sport that was then accepted into the mainstream of sports culture, and in the years that followed has become a mainstream sport around the world.”

Yet Ouimet's dramatic story had long since fallen into obscurity — in part because Ouimet himself, a career-long amateur, never made much of his own success.

“Francis was so unfairly modest and humble as a person that he never talked about himself, and he never really tried to toot his own horn,” said Frost. “The thought of a 20-year-old unknown kid winning the U.S. Open today in a playoff against, say, Tiger [Woods] and Phil Mickelson, and who then refuses to exploit that opportunity commercially, or take a bunch of endorsement deals, is unthinkable. But that's the kind of person Francis was. He didn't think that was the right thing to do.”

Ironically, if Oumet's integrity was part of what led to his obscurity, it was also a big part of what drew Frost, Paxton and LaBeouf to tell his story.

“Francis — that was the whole appeal of the movie,” said LaBeouf, who plays Ouimet. “Golf was secondary. It could have been Frisbee. Francis was an amazing human being. … Francis was a man. Francis was honorable. Francis was a family man, he had integrity, he was respectful, he was shy. He wasn't the poster boy for any kind of sport you would ever think of.”

“Every day you're confronted with choices that could take you down one path or another,” said Frost. “And people who choose the good path can often seem kind of boring, but a guy like Francis Ouimet, who unfailingly followed that path, I found extremely heartwarming, and a great role model as a human being, because he was so kind to other people. Kindness is a quality that we don't see a lot in people.”

Frost's popular new book has revived interest in this inspiring story.

“Mark Frost wrote a great book,” said Paxton, “that brought these forgotten people back into the public consciousness, much like when Walter Hill published A Night to Remember back in 1955.”

Now Paxton's film stands poised to raise the story's profile even higher — if anyone sees it. But the filmmakers know they have a challenge: Golf doesn't have the box-office cachet that other sports do. As LaBeouf bluntly put it: “A lot of people don't like this sport.”

That's why the filmmakers knew they needed to do something different. Commented Frost: “I realized, having seen a bunch of real boring golf movies, that you can't shoot a golf film like you do golf coverage on television. … You follow the flight of the ball, you watch it land, and you watch it stop rolling — that's fine for sports coverage, but it's deadly dull in a film. There was a film about Bobby Jones last year (Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, starring James Caviezel) that was a very reverent golf-based movie that had a lot of that kind of coverage in it, and nobody went to see it. And I think that may have been one of the reasons.”

If the filmmakers wanted to do something different, they succeeded. Paxton and cinematographer Shane Hurlbut bring an impressive bag of tricks to bear in making The Greatest Game visually and psychologically compelling in ways you would never expect of a golf movie.

In truth, much of the film does resemble a generically manipulative Disney film, from disapproving fathers to Eddie Lowry, the tough-talking young caddie. The catch here is that in this story the clichés are apparently all true.

Also, despite the emphasis on the film not being “a golf movie,” LaBeouf and Frost both commented on the extent to which this game in particular tests the character.

“It really tests your character in very strong and powerful ways. And I think it's a great developer of character, myself. I think it taught me to be patient, and it taught me a kind of emotional resiliency I might not have had otherwise. It taught me how to be self-reliant in ways that no other sport had, because you can't depend on anybody else.”

“You sit there and watch these guys who have these six-inch putts to make,” said LaBeouf. “And if they make the putt, their life is changing for the better, everything's great. And they wind up missing the putt. They don't scream. They don't pull a Jeremy Shockey and go crazy and punch a wall. They take their hat off, they smile at the audience, they wave, they put their hat back on. That's a cowboy, that's not a golfer.”

This is the way Paxton speaks of the film, too. “I wanted to create these moments like he's the cowboy who's never been in a gunfight,” the director says, “or the knight who's never been through the tournament or battle.”

Then again, Westerns don't sell so well these days either. As well done as it is, will audiences show up for Greatest Game?

“If the movie could just speak for itself, it'd be on fire,” said LaBeouf. “The truth is that America doesn't always support quality or good film.”

Still, he's optimistic. “We're going to be out for a long time. It'll be the same type of grass-roots thing that Holes had.”

I hope so.

Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.