by Michael Viers
“When legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
This quote from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance feels very apt for Arthur Hiller’s The Babe. When it came out in 1992 both critics and movie fans panned it for being “generic”, “schmaltzy” and ultimately a fictitious account of the man’s life. To quote Peter Travers of Rolling Stone: “What could have been the Raging Bull of baseball movies becomes the nibble of a mouse on the legend of a giant.” The Babe, which according to the Mill Creek Blu-ray, is billed as “the definitive story of one of sport’s most fascinating figures”. The film starts in 1902 where we meet a seven-year-old George Herman Ruth, Jr. (later to be known as The Babe) who is being surrendered by his father to a reform school/orphanage. He’s a wild kid who cares more about mischief than his schoolwork and his parents no longer know what to do about his devilish ways. While at the orphanage, young George Ruth meets Brother Matthias (James Cromwell) who teaches the young boy how to play baseball. The movie portrays this moment as almost mythical as young Ruth hits his first homer (after a few misses) and finds an outlet for all his aggression and pain. Baseball will save this lad…or so we think. From there we see how a now grown Ruth (John Goodman) gets literally adopted by the Baltimore Orioles to play baseball and he’s just naturally gifted. Sadly, ruth’s devilish mentality from childhood follows him throughout adulthood. We get to see Babe Ruth’s journey from his time on the Orioles, the Red Sox, the Yankees and finally the Boston Braves and all the booze, women and wives he had along the way. It’s a story of excess, greed, power and trying your best even when your best isn’t good enough.
The film, which owes heavily in style and presentation to Barry Levinson’s The Natural, gets a lot of flack for playing fast and loose with the Babe’s life. One such myth that the film portrays is when the Babe goes to visit a sick child in the hospital and agrees to hit two homeruns for him, so he’ll get better. In the flick, Ruth hits those two homers and has a rather emotional moment with the grown child at the end of the film. We can hear the headlines now: BABE RUTH CURES TERMINAL ILLNESS! This never happened. It was part of the myth that is Babe Ruth. Another questionable moment in the film is his famous “called shot”. We all know the story (or you should if you’ve seen The Sandlot): it was an infamous home run hit by Ruth while playing for the Yankees during the 1932 World Series where he supposedly points to the center field promising a homerun and wallops it out of the park. While there’s controversy about that moment in baseball history, the movie plays this up for emotion in an attempt to replicate the thrilling conclusion of The Natural. After reading a lot of the criticism about The Babe I’m realizing that people’s issue(s) with the film ultimately spawn from Arthur Hiller and John Fusco’s being more interested in making a movie about the legend of “the Sultan of Swat” over the real life of George Herman Ruth. But who cares?
Fun fact: I was never a baseball guy. I like the *idea* of baseball more than the game itself, yet I truly dig baseball movies. When you listen to baseball fans talk about the sport it can sound mythical and elegant; it’s very romanticized. However, I’ve never been able to see those elements while watching a game. Yet, when I see Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs run the bases in slow motion in The Natural, Shoeless Joe Jackson exit the cornfield in Field of Dreams, or John Goodman as Babe Ruth “calling his shot” in The Babe I feel that romanticism. So, with all the mythology behind the legend of Babe Ruth, why wouldn’t you want to film it? I didn’t expect to leave this film an expert on the Bambino. I just want to be told a good (okay, I’ll accept passable) story with some good performances, drama and some memorable moments. This flick has a similar charm to it that Joseph Pevney’s Man of a Thousand Faces has: it’s a good movie trying to be a good movie, not necessarily an accurate one. Now, would I love to see a more accurate portrayal of the of the Babe’s life done in a Queen’s Gambit style mini-series? One hundred percent! However, for what it’s worth, this was a really good lazy morning watch.
I’ve been rather difficult on Mill Creek with a couple of their more recent Blu-ray releases, but I was quite surprised by how much I liked the picture quality of The Babe. There was some slight compression artifacting at times, but I truly think this was a pretty accurate presentation of Haskell Wexler’s cinematography. There was fine grain throughout (and the foggy opening to the film looked great despite the fact that film grain, dust/fog and compression don’t usually mix), colors popped, skin tones were accurate, and I didn’t notice any egregious use of dreaded digital noise reduction.
The film sounded quite good, which is something that Mill Creek has been doing quite well with their budget friendly releases. The film was originally released in 1992 on Dolby Stereo Surround which was an early form of surround sound. What I like about these tracks are they work both if you’re watching off TV speakers or a stereo soundbar, but if you have surround sound it can really add in some much-needed atmosphere. The 2.0 DTS-HD MA audio track serviced this need admirably. Dialogue clarity was great and never felt like I had to ride the volume control, and it really made Elmer Bernstein’s score shine through a wide soundstage. Sadly, no special features from Mill Creek Entertainment, but all things considered I really enjoyed this flick and see myself returning to it again. I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as many people insist and found it to be rather charming despite being about a man of questionable morals. There’s something very warm and engaging about the world of early baseball and even as a non-fan I found myself getting caught-up in the drama of America’s favorite pastime.