In the opening credits of 42 the viewer is told that the film is “based on a true story.” 42 is not history. It is not biography. It is a feature film whose purpose is to make money by attracting enough of an audience to turn a profit. Its secondary purpose is to entertain and inform, perhaps even educate.
Many of those who read this journal will be quite familiar with the “true story” on which this film is based. Those who have a working historical knowledge of the “true story” will recognize the historical flaws and the departures from fact. Those who have a grasp on the minutia of baseball history will find those many small errors, and a few bigger ones, that creep into a film of this genre.
So be it.
Feature films distort time, collapse events in on one another, take liberties with reality for dramatic purposes, stress some events over others, ignore some facts, and invent others. This is the nature of the beast and to quarrel with that nature is ask the feature film to be what it is not.
So with 42 I could object to the treatment of the spring training experience of Jackie Robinson in 1946 by pointing out any number of mistakes and distortions and by raising questions about the neglect of several other incidents from that spring. I would point out that Jackie Robinson was run off the field by a sheriff in Sanford and not Deland. I could ask why the director did not use the more dramatic reality about Deland, namely that no game was played there because the lights malfunctioned leading to the cancellation of a day game. I could do the same with several other segments of the film.
But again this is not history. It is a feature film and as such 42 does entertain. The acting is of high quality, the trajectory of the action moves forward at a decent pace, there are moments of drama, crisis, and humor. Human strengths and weakness are given their due.
The overall social context of the United States in the immediate postwar years is reasonably well drawn. The realities of racial segregation and separation as well as racial hostility ring true. The pressures on Jackie Robinson are not soft-pedaled, and the callousness of the authorities in and outside baseball is clear. Initially almost nothing was done by anyone outside of the Brooklyn Dodgers to facilitate Baseball’s Great Experiment. Indeed there were those inside the Dodger family who tried to make life uncomfortable for Robinson or who were simply aloof from the reality taking place around them, although that changed fairly quickly.
The motives and methods of Branch Rickey are fairly presented, and Harrison Ford’s balanced portrayal of the righteous Methodist and profit-seeking capitalist is one of the [End Page 145] highlights of the film. There is no attempt to make Rickey into a saint as his motives are clear. At the same time the role of the Charles Thomas incident is not neglected.
Some may wonder about the small boy in Daytona who follows Jackie Robinson around and is inspired by him. The treatment of Ed Charles, future Miracle Mets third-baseman, made considerable use of dramatic license, but in point of fact Charles was a child living in Daytona Beach in 1946. As he climbed the fence beyond leftfield Charles described his first sight of a black man practicing with white Dodger players as an electric moment. For Charles the sight of Jackie Robinson on that field meant that Ed Charles could someday play Major League Baseball. It was an experience he never forgot.
The most dramatic and ugly racial incident involving the harassment by Ben Chapman, Phillies manager, was done with considerable power. For as powerful as these scenes were in exposing both racism and the brutal pressure on Robinson, it was not exaggerated for dramatic purposes. Some of Ben Chapman’s worst verbal abuse was not used in the film.
The portrait of Leo Durocher was...