On release, the film was a box office bomb, grossing almost $40 million worldwide, and received mixed to negative reviews; criticism was targeted by several African American commentators and reviewers for employing the "magical negro" stereotype.
As an old man having his sixth heart attack while playing golf, Hardy Greaves (Jack Lemmon), contemplates how his wife used to ask him (before her passing) why he insisted on playing "a game that seems destined to kill" him. Explaining his love for the game, he begins the story of his childhood idol: Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon).
Junuh is the favorite son of Savannah, Georgia and a noteworthy golfer. From a wealthy family, the beautiful Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron) was Junuh's girlfriend before he went off to war. While serving as a captain in the US Army during World War I, Junuh is traumatized when his entire company is wiped out in battle. Though he earns the Medal of Honor, he disappears after the war, returning to Georgia years later to live a shadowy life as a drunk, golf being just a distant memory.
At the start of the Great Depression (circa 1930), Adele is trying to recover her family's lost fortune by holding a four-round, two-day exhibition match between Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill), the best golfers of the era, with a grand prize of $10,000, at a golf resort her father opened as the Depression struck. However, she needs a local participant to generate local interest. The young Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief) speaks up for his golf hero, Junuh, prompting Adele to ask her estranged love to play.
Junuh is approached by a mysterious traveler carrying a suitcase, who appears while Junuh is trying to hit golf balls into the dark void of night. The man identifies himself as Bagger Vance (Will Smith) and says he will be Junuh's caddy. With Greaves as the young assistant caddy, Bagger helps Junuh come to grips with his personal demons and play golf again.
When the match starts, Jones and Hagen each play well in their distinctive ways, but the disengaged Junuh plays poorly and is far behind after the first round. With Bagger caddying for him and giving advice, Junuh rediscovers his "authentic swing" in the second round and makes up some ground. In the third round, he closes the gap even more, hitting a hole in one in the process. Junuh and Adele find their romance rekindling.
Late in the final round, Junuh disregards Bagger's advice at a crucial point and after that plays poorly. He hits a ball into a forest, where he has a traumatic World War I flashback, but Bagger's words help him to focus on golf. Junuh pulls back to a tie with Jones and Hagen, then has a chance to win on the final hole, but has the integrity to call a penalty on himself when his ball moves after he tries to remove a loose impediment.
Seeing from this that Junuh has grown and matured, Bagger decides his golfer doesn't need him any more. With the 18th hole left unfinished, Bagger gives the position of caddy to Greaves, and leaves Junuh as mysteriously as he came.
Though losing a chance to win because of the penalty, Junuh sinks an improbable putt and the match ends in a gentlemanly three-way tie. The three golfers shake hands with all of Savannah cheering. Junuh and Adele get back together.
The old Greaves wakes up seemingly fine and sees an unaged Bagger Vance beckoning him from a distance. Hardy follows, presumably to the after life.Will Smith as Bagger Vance
Matt Damon as Rannulph Junuh
Charlize Theron as Adele Invergordon
Bruce McGill as Walter Hagen
Joel Gretsch as Bobby Jones
J. Michael Moncrief as Hardy Greaves
Lane Smith as Grantland Rice
Peter Gerety as Neskaloosa
Wilbur Fitzgerald as Roy
Jack Lemmon (uncredited) as Narrator / Old Hardy Greaves
Reaction from the movie critics was mixed. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 43% based on 129 reviews.
Film critic Roger Ebert, who gave it 3½ stars, said, "It handles a sports movie the way Billie Holiday handled a trashy song, by finding the love and pain beneath the story. Redford and his writer, Jeremy Leven, starting from a novel by Steven Pressfield, are very clear in their minds about what they want to do. They want to explain why it is possible to devote your life to the love of golf, and they want to hint that golf and life may have a lot in common". The BBC's George Perry called it a "sumptuously photographed film" but added that "in spite of being lovely to look at, it is pretentious piffle, although Will Smith shows skill and subtlety in his ludicrous role".
Time called it one of the most "embarrassing" films of recent years for its treatment of African Americans and the use of a "Magical African-American Friend".
The Legend of Bagger Vance opened at #3 at the U.S. box office, grossing $11,516,712 from 2,061 theaters. According to the Internet Movie Data Base website (imdb.com), the film's total gross came to $30,695,227, far short of its estimated $80 million budget.
The now out-of-print soundtrack to The Legend of Bagger Vance was released on November 7, 2000. It was mostly written by Rachel Portman, except for tracks one ("My Best Wishes"), thirteen ("Bluin’ the Blues") and fourteen ("Mood Indigo"), which were written by Fats Waller, Muggsy Spanier and Duke Ellington, respectively.Track list
Total soundtrack time: 47:15
Referenced in the Gilmore Girls season 3 episode, "Haunted Leg."
Mentioned in YouTube series Unforgivable in Unforgivable #2.
The film was referenced as a meta-joke in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, when Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are shooting a movie-within-a-movie in reference to Good Will Hunting, and Affleck says to Damon (Referencing The Talented Mr. Ripley as well) "I'm sorry I dragged you away from whatever gay-serial-killers-who-ride-horses and like-to-play-golf touchy-feely picture you were gonna do this week."
Referenced in the Home Movies season 3 episode, "My Cheatin' Heart."
- My Best Wishes (2:27)
- The Legend of Bagger Vance (2:11)
- Savannah Needs a Hero (4:53)
- Bagger Offers to Caddy for Junuh (4:07)
- Bagger & Hardy Measure the Course at Night (2:32)
- The Day of the Match Dawns (3:07)
- Birdie (1:46)
- Junuh Sees the Field (5:11)
- Hole in One (2:30)
- Junuh Comes Out of the Woods (3:55)
- Bagger Leaves (3:12)
- Old Hardy Joins Bagger by the Sea (5:50)
- Bluin' the Blues (2:27)
- Mood Indigo (3:07)