Rated: Not Rated (Theatrical Cut: PG)
Length: 144 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen
Languages: English, Japanese, Portuguese (all Dolby Digital 5.1)
Subtitles: English, Japanese, Portuguese, French
The Natural, regarded by many to be one of the finest baseball movies every made, has been given a first-class release by Sony in this Director’s Cut special edition. Most readers of this review are undoubtedly familiar with this fable about Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), a gifted baseball player who makes some serious mistakes in his life but is then given an opportunity for redemption. The stellar cast includes Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Barbara Hershey, Joe Don Baker, Wilford Brimley, Richard Farnsworth and Robert Proskey. Also appearing (unbilled) is Darren McGavin.
Director Barry Levinson introduces this Director’s Cut by explaining that this version more closely approximates his original intent in making the film. He explains that time constraints forced him to abandon some of his ideas when the editing was being done in 1984. I have not seen the original theatrical version in more than twenty years, and my memory of it is not clear enough to allow me to comment on the specific changes. However, Levinson says that most of the alterations have been made in the opening act. There seems to be some confusion about how much previously unseen footage is in this cut. Levinson says that he used 20 minutes of new footage, but he also made cuts which ended up making this version six minutes longer than the original. However, the DVD packaging says that the Director’s Cut includes 15 minutes of new footage. The running time of the Director’s Cut is listed as 144 minutes; my reference books show that the theatrical version had a running time of 134 minutes. So it would appear that this version contains between 15-20 minutes of new footage, and 5-10 minutes of original footage has been deleted. What I can say with certainty is that the new opening act works extremely well.
Fans of The Natural will definitely want to see the Director’s Cut, and anyone who likes a good sports film will find it to be immensely entertaining. Robert Redford and Joe Don Baker both look like real baseball players and many of the supporting roles are filled by men with minor league baseball experience. Consequently, the game scenes have an air of authenticity which is missing from many baseball films.
NOTE: The theatrical cut is not included in this release.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of The Natural looks fine in most every respect. This new transfer was supervised by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, so what you see is clearly the look that he wanted. There are many dark scenes in the film, and shadow detail is quite good. The scenes of Roy playing ball with his father are quite vivid. I have read one review which claims that a few close-ups appear to be a bit worn, but if so they must be very brief because I did not notice them. I did not see any distracting digital artifacts and all in all it looks very natural and film-like.
Apparently when The Natural was released in 1984 it had a four-track Dolby soundtrack. For this DVD the audio has been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1. The re-mix sounds pretty good. During the opening credits birds can be heard chirping, and my cat jumped up from his nap and searched all around the room, trying to figure out where those birds were. Randy Newman’s score is one of the strong points of this film, and the music fills up the room at times. The dialogue is clear and always understandable. Overall the surround sound is not quite as involving as you would expect from one of today's films, but it is very satisfactory.
This release is not billed as a “special edition” but it is packed with extras.
First up is a three-part “making of” featurette entitled “When Lightning Strikes – Creating the Natural.” Part One provides a great deal of information about Bernard Malamud, the author who wrote the novel upon which this film is based. Malamud, a native of Brooklyn, grew up on baseball and The Natural was his first novel. He drew upon real-life baseball players such as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Eddie Waitkus. Some of the situations which occur in the story are based upon real events. Part Two covers how the cast was assembled. Redford was the first to come on board. Glenn Close had to be wooed by Redford and then almost dropped out because she was supposed to do a Merchant-Ivory film. Darren McGavin was the last star to sign on; he appears unbilled because he decided that it would be better for him to be unbilled rather than have his name appear below all the other actors. Part Three discusses the actual filming of the movie. The game scenes were filmed at War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, New York because it was the only large baseball stadium in the country which still looked like it did prior to World War II. Redford and Close appear prominently and discuss the film in detail.
A four-part featurette entitled “Extra Innings” covers the use of slow motion photography, the problems involved in making the uniform colors appear to be authentic (almost all baseball photographs taken in the first half of the 20th century are in black and white), and a discussion about the motivations of Barbara Hershey’s character, Harriet Bird. Bob Costas and Ryne Sandberg (formerly with the Chicago Cubs) talk about a 1984 ballgame in which Sandberg’s late-innings heroics led to the contest being dubbed “The Sandberg Game.”
In “Clubhouse Conversations” baseball greats such as Don Mattingly talk about how difficult it is to play baseball, given that a hitter who fails 70% of the time is considered to be a great success. Mattingly makes the interesting point that in order to get a base hit 30% of the time, a batter has to hit the ball solidly 60-70% of the time.
“Knights in Shining Armor: The Mythology of The Natural” is a discussion about the mythical aspects of baseball.
In “The Heart of The Natural” baseball great Cal Ripken, Jr. talks about how the relationship between Roy Hobbs and his father mirrors the relationship Ripken had with his own father. Ripken points out that there are players who are physically gifted but who fail to dedicate themselves sufficiently to reach their potential, and there are other players who work extremely hard but are not sufficiently talented to excel at the highest levels. The great players, he says, are those who are both gifted and hard-working.
Finally, there is an intriguing featurette entitled “A Natural Gunned Down: The Stalking of Eddie Waitkus.” Eddie Waitkus was an all-star first baseman for the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies. He served in the Pacific during World War II and was awarded multiple Bronze Stars. While he was playing for the Cubs, a teenager named Ruth Ann Steinhagen became obsessed with Waitkus and fantasized that he was in love with her. Waitkus was traded to Philadelphia after the 1948 season and Steinhagen went over the edge. When the Phillies came to Chicago to play the Cubs in June, 1949, Steinhagen lured Waitkus to her hotel room and shot him (fortunately for Waitkus, he was not fatally wounded). Considered by his peers to be a natural ballplayer, Waitkus clearly was one of the people Bernard Malamud had in mind when the created the Roy Hobbs character.
The feature can be played with or without the introduction by director Barry Levinson. Those who have seen the theatrical release will want to watch the introduction at least one time, as Levinson explains why he made changes for the Director’s Cut.
Scene selection is available from the main menu.
This is a two-disc set. Disc One is devoted to the feature, while the supplemental materials are on Disc Two. Both discs are packaged in a single keep case.
The Final Analysis
Sony has done an excellent job with this Director’s Cut of The Natural. The film looks and sounds excellent, and the supplements are extensive and very interesting. With a street price of under $20, you cannot go wrong.
Equipment used for this review:
Cambridge Audio DVD-89 DVD player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: April 3, 2007