Bland, uninspiring biopic of the legendary golfer. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Follow the Sun, Fox's 1951 biopic of golfer Ben Hogan starring Glenn Ford, Anne Baxter, Dennis O'Keefe, Larry Keating, and June Havoc...along with some real-life golfing legends making cameo appearances, like Sam Snead. As is usually the case with Hollywood biopics from this era, facts and details that could have made golfer Ben Hogan an interesting subject for movie biography are left out, utilizing instead standard biopic boilerplate construction for this familiar, homogenized love story/sports movie hybrid. An original trailer is included in this okay fullscreen black and white transfer.
According to Follow the Sun's script, young Valerie Fox (Ann Burr) "meets cute" with teen Ben Hogan (Harold Blake) in their hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, when she keeps running into him and knocking him down. From that moment on they're a couple, as young Ben works hard at caddying to help pay his family's bills...while learning to be a first-class duffer. Growing up and hoping to go pro, Ben (Glenn Ford, dull as paint drying) wants Valerie (Anne Baxter, wasted here) to marry him, asking her to give him just one year to make it in the tournaments, before coming back to Fort Worth if he can't cut it. "Following the sun" from East to West in tournament after tournament, serious, focused Ben has a hard time getting his game under control, unlike popular winner Chuck Williams (overly hamboney Dennis O'Keefe), who can break his gallery up as easily as he bogeys his birdie. Once Ben does start winning, it bothers him that he isn't liked by the fans, but that's the least of his worries when after his first truly big win--beating his pal, Chuck, in the process--he and Valerie are involved in a horrific head-on collision with a bus. Lucky to be barely alive, simply walking again, let alone golfing, is deemed iffy at best by Ben's doctors. However, through the love of Valerie and his own grim determination, Ben Hogan fights back to play competitive golf once more.
Now, in the spirit of full disclosure for the golf fanatics who may have searched for "Ben Hogan" on the net and clicked on this review by mistake: I know almost nothing about golf. The closest I ever came to playing it was a vicious game of Putt-Putt with my ten-year-old, who handily beat me (she cheated). I've never watched a tournament on TV, either (I met Jamie Farr, though...). I know the names of the great players, but almost nothing about them. And the only thing that "Ben Hogan" meant to me prior to seeing this biopic was a set of his AMF clubs my old man had rusting away in the garage. So, before I watched Follow the Sun, I spent a few minutes looking up Hogan's bios and stats, just so I knew what was what.
And boy, did they make one boring movie about his life here. Now, granted--and no offense to fans of the game--but I would imagine at first glance it would seem a fairly daunting task to make an interesting movie about any guy who spent most of his life on a fairway trying to get a little white ball to go into a cup by hitting it with a stick. But after reading about Hogan, there's some really intriguing elements to his life story--a complicated guy, apparently, who overcame obstacles that would have put down most people, before working his ass off to come back and cement his status as truly one of the greats in his chosen field (Hogan is routinely ranked as one of the top five players in the history of professional golf, according to what I read). Where, though, is any of that in Follow the Sun? As I've written many times before when reviewing biopics on historical figures, I don't need that kind of movie to be slavishly accurate to the "facts." All a biopic has to do is entertain me; I'm not watching them as history lessons. If a moviemaker can't use the real facts of his subject's life (for legal reasons or censorship issues), or chooses not to (for artistic reasons), well...okay; just make sure whatever you make up, is entertaining. That, unfortunately, does not happen in Follow the Sun. True, a few of the signposts of his life are presented here, but more interesting ones are left out, while the leftover melange of fictionalized bunkum and pasteurized "truth" is presented in a most distressingly prosaic fashion.
One problem may be they made the movie too soon. According to an article I read, Hogan, who was technical advisor on the movie, once said Fox rushed the movie into production after Hogan's remarkable comeback match in the Los Angeles Open of 1950, because the studio thought it was a fluke. Such was the extent of Hogan's injuries and the general consensus that his comeback was largely on guts alone, many felt he'd never play competitively on a regular basis again. The movie ends awkwardly after this climatic scene (Hogan, barely able to walk and playing in excruciating pain during four days of rain, comes this close to beating Sam Snead) with a last-minute mock-up of Glenn Ford's face on a magazine cover proclaiming him the winner of the U.S. Open--clearly a last-minute update to keep the movie timely upon its release. However, Hogan's greatest year, the "Hogan Slam" of 1953, where he won five out of six tournaments, including three majors (Masters, U.S. Open, British Open)--what some writers consider the single greatest season any golfer has ever had--is necessarily absent here two years before it happened. Knowing his biography, you can't help but feel the hurried Follow the Sun is a tad incomplete without Hogan's single greatest achievement dramatized.
But even allowing for a rush job, Follow the Sun seems overly concerned with presenting as nondescript and flavorless a picture of Ben Hogan and his life as possible. Throughout the movie we're told that the insular, focused, seemingly unfriendly Hogan worries that the fans don't like him, to the point that the moviemakers have Hogan, from his hospital bed, say he wants to play one more round for the fans, and that it took a ten ton truck to "wake him up" (that doesn't sound like the Hogan I read about...). It's the central crux of the movie's plotline, so why was he so off-putting in the first place? The movie won't say--which pretty much negates having this subtext in the first place--but you have to wonder if the real-life Hogan, 9-years-old at the time, was reticent to talk to anyone after seeing his father kill himself...a horrific event which of course is not mentioned here in Follow the Sun (verboten under the Production Code). Other potentially intriguing tangents go unexplored, as well. Hogan served honorably in WWII as a pilot in the Air Force, but it's barely mentioned here (according to something I read, Fox vetoed any subplot involving the war, to keep the movie "upbeat"). And as for his marriage (it lasted 62 years, until his death in 1997), its depicted as devoid of either conflict or real passion, with Ford and Baxter acting more like chummy brother and sister than married mates, with Baxter a cipher, reduced to cheering Ford on whenever he gets down about his game (what a comedown for the always underrated Baxter, following her triumph in All About Eve that same year). Follow the Sun was obviously designed to be a love story as well as a sports movie (the original poster asserts the movie is about both of them), but how can you have an interesting romance that begins with total satisfaction...and remains there (it's tough to understand why, exactly, her character is even needed here; they don't even let Baxter follow up with the potentially interesting scene where an insecure, uncertain Valerie--new to the golfing circuit and unsure of her place--must enter the country club at Ben's first tournament to try and make friends)?
Amazingly, we're denied even getting a handle here on why Hogan was so great at his game. How can you have a sports movie that doesn't explain--or just plan show--why the legend is so good at what he does? I didn't hear anything about hooks, or grips, or stance, or anything (let alone "the Hogan secret"), nor did I get a simple five minute scene where we see him progress from one level of his expertise to another (nobody thought it was compelling to show Hogan conquer his dreaded hook shot?). Golfing as a sport, as an art, is a meaningless concept in Follow the Sun; nobody explains it, or rhapsodizes about it, or damns it. It really serves no purpose here outside of providing convenient little bits that supposedly chart Hogan's personal ups and downs on his biographical timeline. It's a decidedly weird vanishing act; I mean, the guy was a genius with a club, and yet you'd never know that from this movie, where a smiling or frowning Ford simply whacking the ball is all the moviemakers are prepared to give us (a lackluster, unremarkable Ford, all phony faltering sincerity, doesn't exactly help here, either). Even the most obviously compelling aspect of Hogan's story--his recovery from his ghastly car accident--is dismissed with a brief rehabilitation montage that makes it look far too easy than what Hogan actually went through to not only walk again, but to play golf again...and play it better than anyone else on the planet. If I can't get excited by what should be Follow the Sun's hole-in-one sequence (how do you make that recovery sequence boring?), what am I supposed to do with what comes before and after it?
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.