The Greatest Game Ever Played
In 1913, British golfer Harry Vardon—nicknamed "The Stylist"—was past his prime but still a legend in the sport. And even as Vardon's fame and prowess had begun to wane (think Michael Jordan the second time he came out of retirement—still a potent, determined foe, but not quite the player who took the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships), so had the power and influence of the British Empire.
The fact that an American had won the U.S. Open the year before was an affront to the Brits, who'd previously owned the game. So the British aristocracy drafts their man, Harry Vardon, for one more go at the Yanks. And though Vardon is a legend, he is not an aristocrat in a land where titles still mean everything. Vardon is willing to give it a go for one last shot at glory—and possibly an honorary title.
Across the pond, 20-year-old Francis Ouimet is full of golfing vim and vigor, but likewise from the wrong side of the tracks. As a caddie at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., he knows the course intimately. His own dreams of golfing glory are dampened, however, by a father who refuses to acknowledge his pursuit as a worthy endeavor—or one that will put bread on the table. On the brink of a breakthrough in an amateur competition, he assures his father he'll quit golfing if he fails to qualify. Overconfidence gets the better of the young man: He misses qualification by a stroke and hangs up his golf bag.
But everything changes when Vardon—Ouimet's childhood hero—comes to town to reclaim the Open crown. And when Ouimet is invited to participate in the U.S. Open as an amateur, the stage is set for what golf historians have labeled "the greatest game ever played." Against the wishes of his father, 20-year-old Ouimet picks up his clubs again and strides into competition against men twice his age, encouraged by a feisty, if diminutive, fifth-grade caddie named Eddie Lowery.
Ouimet and Vardon tee off amid a memorable cast of characters vying for U.S. Open accolades. But Ouimet and Vardon are battling more than one another. They're also battling inner demons that chastise them because they weren't born in the right place or with the right family name.
One of the most consistent elements in underdog sports movies like this one is the hero's willingness to discipline himself to win. It's clear that Ouimet possesses unusual talent. But even as a youngster, he augments that talent by disciplined practice—to the point of keeping his parents awake after midnight as he practices his putts on his wooden bedroom floor.
Ouimet's relationship with his parents is a complex one, partly because both are looking out for his best interests in their own way. Not everything they do and say to each other is "positive," but the honesty with which the film portrays their lives gives insight into our own relationships at home and with friends.
Though his father disapproves of his love for golf, his mother secretly encourages it because she recognizes her son's gift for the game. When Arthur Ouimet confronts her, she tells him, "I do encourage him. He has a God-given talent. This is one chance to give a voice to it. He's just trying to make you proud."
Dad is gruff and harsh, but he seems to care deeply about his son's ability to provide for a family someday ("This game doesn't give a man what he needs to make a life and feed his family"). And one of the central lessons of the film revolves around the conflict generated by the unreasonable "bargain" he foists upon his son (which keeps the teenager off the course for some time). At 20, Ouimet is drawn back to the game, and when he is, his father threatens to kick him out of the house. But the elder Ouimet eventually begins to back off his unnecessarily harsh stance and sees how special his son's talent truly is. It doesn't hurt that his co-workers are raving about the young man's success.
Vardon, meanwhile, is the consummate British gentleman. He competes honorably and admires Ouimet's pluck and determination. When Vardon's well-to-do British patron suggests that there's no way an untested "peasant" such as Ouimet could actually win, Vardon snaps back, "If Mr. Ouimet wins tomorrow, it's because he's the best, because of who he is. Not because of all the money he's got. And I'd thank you to remember that. There's a respect a gentleman gives as a matter of course."
The U.S. Open is also the occasion for an unlikely friendship between Ouimet and his fill-in caddie, a lad not even as tall as a golf bag, who begs for the chance to carry the clubs. It's hard not to laugh at Eddie, but the little boy proves to have a big heart. His one-liner bursts of encouragement express wisdom beyond his years ("We'll play our game, let them worry about theirs," "Gotta settle down now, Francis. ... You can do it: Read it. Roll it. Hole it"). Ouimet rewards Eddie's constancy by remaining loyal when The Country Club suggests replacing the youngster with a "real" caddie.
Mary Ouimet recognizes that her son's golf skills are God-given.
One scene depicts a drunken barroom brawl. When the up-and-coming British golfer Wilfred Reid provokes Vardon's partner, Ted Ray, by mocking his home (the Channel Island of Jersey), Ray hits him hard in the face. Afterward he tells Vardon, "I couldn't contain myself. He shouldn't have brought Jersey into it."
Crude or Profane Language
At least four uses of God's name in vain, two uses of "d--n" and one of the British profanity "bloody."
Drug and Alcohol Content
The country-club world in which the film is set is one of social drinking and smoking. At least eight scenes show characters drinking wine, champagne or beer, or smoking pipes, cigars or cigarettes. Vardon is rarely without his pipe, which he takes to smoking as he plays by the end of the movie. One scene in a rowdy tavern depicts people in a drinking competition downing shots of hard liquor.
Other Negative Elements
Several men are shown gambling at a pub.
No matter how many times I see movies with the Rocky template, I never get tired of watching scrappy underdogs battle it out with opponents who, on paper, should bury them. And The Greatest Game Ever Played is no exception. I'm not a golfer, so I wondered how interesting a movie about this sport would be to me. But the parallel struggles that Ouimet and Vardon face as they compete not only against each other but against those who look down on their humble backgrounds makes for a compelling story.
Shia LaBeouf, who plays Ouimet, found portraying this internal battle very satisfying as an actor. He told Plugged In Online, "This movie [gets] inside the golfer's mind—which is the most complicated mind that there is in sports. You go watch some golf on television, and it's extremely boring, of course. But you go inside a golfer's mind, and it's the most fascinating aspect of any sport. Think about it: They're six inches away from a putt that might change their life, and they miss. They don't scream. They don't go crazy. They look at the crowd, they smile. They take off their hat, and they wave. Inside, they're crying, they're screaming. It's a head case, this game. So, as an actor, it's fun to portray that." And that's exactly what draws us in as Ouimet tees up against Vardon and Co.
Though the movie obviously wants us to cheer for the young American player, it's hard not to root for the aging Vardon, too—the tested veteran who plays with class, poise and integrity even when his aristocratic patrons fail to exhibit the same traits. Such fierce competition between two honorable opponents stands in stark contrast to today's high-dollar, me-first world of celebrity athletes.
The early 20th-century context of this movie also reminded me of two similar Depression-era underdog stories, Seabiscuit and Cinderella Man. Like both of those movies, The Greatest Game Ever Played shows us a world in which many of its privileged characters indulge in alcohol and tobacco—which is the biggest strike against it. Unlike those movies, though, The Greatest Game Ever Played dials down the profanity to levels that make this film relatively more family friendly. It doesn't score a perfect 10, but it's probably about as close as your average PG movie today is going to get.
For families willing to talk about the use of alcohol and tobacco by the movie's characters (with the important exception of Ouimet, who wisely avoids both), The Greatest Game Ever Played offers an engaging, encouraging story of dreaming, perseverance, honor, friendship and sportsmanship.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Shia LaBeouf as Francis Ouimet; Elias Koteas as Arthur Ouimet; Marnie McPhail as Mary Ouimet; Stephen Dillane as Harry Vardon; Stephen Marcus as Ted Ray; George Asprey as Wilfred Reid; Josh Flitter as Eddie Lowery
Bill Paxton ( Frailty)