Saturday, June 16, 2012

Movie – The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)

On its surface, The Legend of Bagger Vance is just a movie about golf.  If you look a little deeper, though, you will find a film based on a Hindu tale about a man rediscovering his true path in life.  Because of this, and because the plot involves a white man and a black man interacting in 1930, the movie also stirred up some controversy.  I will discuss this below.

The film stars Will Smith as the title character of Bagger Vance.  His co-lead in the movie is Matt Damon as Rannulph Junah.  Charlize Theron is the female lead as Adele Invergordon.  It is her actions that drive the events of the movie.

The film opens and closes with an elderly Rannulph (an uncredited Jack Lemmon in his final film role) playing golf.  Lemmon also narrates the film.  He was quite famous as a passionate golfer, so it is very fitting to see him in this role.

The movie is set in Savannah, Georgia around 1930 during the Great Depression.  Adele is having trouble keeping her recently deceased father’s business interests afloat and comes up with the idea of hosting the two best golfers in the world – Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill) – at the course her father had built.  The idea is that it will generate tons of publicity for the course and its related businesses.  The locals will support the idea only if “one of their own” is also involved in the match.  This is where Rannulph comes in.

He had been a promising young golfer, but had come back from the trenches of World War I a broken man.  He has not done much with his life other than drink since he came home.  When they were young he and Adele had been a couple, but this also was destroyed by what he encountered during the war.  Despite this, Adele approaches him about taking part in the match.  Rannulph agrees.

While attempting to practice one night, a mysterious man enters Rannulph Junah’s life.  He says his name is Bagger Vance and he offers to caddy for Rannulph.  He provides a lot of advice on life and tries to help Junah find his way back to his “true swing”.  To do this, Junah will have to make peace not just with others, but with himself.

Much of the latter part of the movie involves the match.  FYI – although the story is fictional, both Jones and Hagen were real people and are portrayed fairly accurately in the film.  Director Robert Redford shot it very well and he lingers many times on the beauty of the course.  The people who find golf boring may find this section of the film boring as well.  I happen to like both playing and watching golf.  In fact, I’ve already spent hours watching the first two rounds of the 2012 U.S. Open and I will continue doing this today and tomorrow.

“What about the controversy?” you may be asking.  It came from two very different fronts.  The first came from some Hindus who felt basing the movie on one of the tales of their god Krishna was disrespectful.  “Bagger Vance” is “Bhagavan”, another name for Krishna.  “Rannulph Junah” = “R. Junah” = “Arjuna”.  As told in the Bhagavad Gita the warrior Arjuna had lost his way and so Krishna masquerades as a lowly chariot driver for Arjuna.  While doing this he helps Arjuna find his way back to his true path so that he can live the life he was meant to.  I worked with many contractors from India, the majority of whom were Hindus.  Now and then I would ask them if they had seen this film.  For those who had, I would ask them if they were bothered by it.  None were.  Some even seemed to like the fact that a Hollywood film had used one of their tales as a basis for a movie.

The second controversy was stirred up by Spike Lee, a man who has sometimes become more famous for the things he is upset about, than for his film making.  While giving a presentation he singled this movie out as one that perpetuates the 1930s Hollywood stereotype of the “happy slave” whose only ambition in life is to help the white man (see Gone with the Wind, for instance).  Lee seems to have missed the entire point of the movie by a breathtaking amount.  Not only is the Bagger Vance character not subordinate to the Junah character, he is most likely a god.  At the very least he would be considered an angel from the Christian mythology.  Even if a person knows nothing about either religion it is shown quite clearly on screen that Bagger Vance is more than human.  In addition, he is the voice of reason and intelligence that shows the Junah character how to turn himself around.  It amazes me that this can somehow be interpreted as a negative portrayal of a black man.

Apparently a black caddy in the American South in 1930 should not be portrayed accurate to the period, but instead should be shown with lots of attitude and suspicion like one of the characters from Lee’s modern movies, no matter how out of place it would have been.  Unfortunately, Lee’s comments caught on with some people, which has led them to retroactively condemn this movie, too, sometimes years after it came out (*cough* Time Magazine *cough*).

If all you’ve heard about this film is related to one of these controversies then I definitely recommend you see the film for yourself and decide what to think then.  If you hate golf, then this film might give you a better appreciation of it, especially as a metaphor for life.  For everyone else, if this concept sounds interesting then I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars



  1. I had no idea this movie was that deep. Wow, what an interesting backstory,

    1. Thanks. To be honest, while I had read quite a bit on Greek, Roman, Norse, and Christian tales I did not pick up on the Hindu tale reference until seeing a news story about it offending some people. It was only then that I delved a little deeper into it. It's sort of like how O Brother Where Art Thou is based on The Odyssey, which I did get.

  2. One of my favorite movies of all time. The controversies surrounding it are, in my opinion, totally off base. A great story about life, learning, and living.

    1. Thanks for sharing. I'm glad you like this film.