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Up to Par

  • by Peter T. Chattaway Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2005 27 Sep
Up to Par

Shia LaBeouf has gone from Holes to holes-in-one. The 19-year-old actor, who worked on several Disney Channel productions—and won a Daytime Emmy for his starring role on Even Stevens—before making the leap to the big screen, now stars in a movie based on the true story of a working-class immigrants' kid who won a major golf tournament.

In The Greatest Game Ever Played, opening September 30, LaBeouf plays Francis Ouimet, an amateur golfer and former caddy who surprised everyone—including himself—when, at the age of 20, he defeated legendary British golfer Harry Vardon at the 1913 U.S. Open. Ouimet's success has been credited with breaking down social barriers and boosting the image of golf, which until then had been perceived as a sport for the wealthy.

LaBeouf has worked in more grown-up films lately, such as Constantine and I, Robot, but this film appears to have been cast in the classic inspirational Disney sports-movie mold. He spoke to Christianity Today Movies from a press junket in Toronto.

Are you drawn to sports movies? What was it about this particular movie that drew you to this subject?Shia LaBeouf: First of all, Francis Ouimet was the best sportsman ever. The movie really should be called Why Didn't This Movie Get Made Sooner, because the truth is that there is no more inspirational story than the one that we've created. Before 1913, pro athletes weren't treated like celebrities, like they are now, and Francis changed that. There was also an influx of immigrants that came to the country in 1913. Here's this immigrant son of a farm worker, a gardener, and he went on to win the U.S. Open, and now, even 92 years later, he is still the youngest amateur to win it. I mean, it's rare in sports that you have a fact that lasts 92 years.I think one of those facts that has lasted is that Harry Vardon, the person Francis went up against in 1913, had won a record six British Opens.LaBeouf: And that's just it. This is not like every other sports film. Usually in a sports film you have this dichotomy: you have a hero who's supposed to win, who's getting beat up or messed with by the antagonist, and the antagonist is vilified, and it's always the angry team or the bad team or whatever. This is not that. There's no villain here. The golfer's villain is himself. And we didn't vilify Harry Vardon. Harry Vardon was Francis's idol. And he was going through the same type of struggle.Plus it's not just about golf. This is far from a golf film. This is a film made by people who love film, not by people who love golf. This is really a movie about a class struggle and where America was in 1913 and how it started to change itself. America had an influx of immigrants who had no hero, and the immigrants started hearing about this immigrant son, and he won the U.S. Open and then they had a hero. And it was unlike anything America had ever seen. The whole country banded together to support this kid, who really, unknowingly, became the hero of many, and became the biggest ambassador of golf ever … [even though] he never wanted to actually win the U.S. Open. This wasn't his goal. He wanted to be loved by his father. It just so happened that he grew up across the street from a golf course, so that was the venue that he had to prove himself to his father.You said pro athletes weren't treated like celebrities. Not even Harry Vardon, with all his victories?LaBeouf: Here's the deal. "Pro athlete," as you think of it now, is not what it used to be. A pro athlete was someone who played because he was paid. It wasn't a person who was making $25 million and had people looking up to him. "Pro athlete" has been completely transformed. Back then it was an occupation; it wasn't the star status that it is now. And Harry Vardon, even though he had six British Open championships, was Catholic; he was not allowed to be in a social club, because of his religion and because of his lineage, and because of his family. So it was a class struggle back then in England as well. So he actually had a lot in common with Francis.Francis wasn't able to play the course. He was a caddy. He was a poor man's son, and he was an amateur. He had never been in a professional realm like that. You're talking about a situation where there's one putt and he wins, and he beats his hero, Harry Vardon. That's a choice to make, as well. Do I make this shot and take a championship away from the person I look up to? Or do I take this for myself? Do I do this because I want my father to love me? Do I do this because I want Harry to love me? There's a lot going on, when there's a hundred thousand people hovering around a course in 1913, who walked miles and miles to come and see this boy wonder. At this time, it was unprecedented. America didn't band together like this for single purposes other than war.Mark Frost [who adapted the screenplay from his book] has talked about how the film takes place just before World War I, and he has drawn a contrast between our present times and back then, "when the country had an honesty about itself." Does that come up in the film much?LaBeouf: Absolutely. Because this is a truly American film. This is a film about immigrants in America, and how immigrants came together and became American. And it's not that we're flag-raising here. We didn't make some political film, but there's a lot more to it than just golf.People went to Seabiscuit and didn't walk out of Seabiscuit and go, "Wow, what a great horse film!" We've done over 230 screenings for thousands and thousands of people, and nobody has come out of the film and said, "Man, that was a great golf film." They say, "That was a great film." Yes, we are the best. Because before us, what are the quintessential golf films? Happy Gilmore and Caddyshack—satires of golf, comedies? And golfers can't stand Bagger Vance because the swing looks fake. [Matt Damon] trained for two weeks on his swing. I trained for six months. I went on tour with the UCLA golf team.How was it working with Bill Paxton as a director?LaBeouf: He's an amazing director, you know. He's very trustworthy. And you have to trust who you're performing for, and I trust Bill, and that's probably the biggest thing that me and him share. He trusts me to do the right thing, I trust him to do the right thing, so there's no questioning, which makes it easier. And he's very inclusive when someone's trying to find the character, especially when it's a true story. We do the research together. We watched as much footage as we could, we read as much as we could, so the reality is that Bill was just as much a part of this performance as I was.If there's one thing you learned from that research, what would you say it is?LaBeouf: One thing that I got out of learning and playing the part is that golf is more than just a sport; it's honorable. No other sport in the world has honor attached to it. It's a trademark of golf. You mess up the ground that you play on, then you fix it for the next person, out of honor, out of respect. You mess up the course when you swing, and you replace the grass when you leave, or you put sod in the dirt so that it can grow back. No other sport does that. In football, you mess up the ground, and the guys who are paid to fix the ground fix it. In golf, professional athletes will fix their things. It's an honor code, there's a discipline to it, there's a respect, and there's a lot of lessons that people should learn. Kids should learn these things.Copyright © Peter T. Chattaway 2005, subject to licensing agreement with Christianity Today.
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