At least as far as the majority of the American public is concerned, Erich Maria Remarque is one of those authors who only wrote one book. It’s not true, of course, but his seminal All Quiet on the Western Front eclipsed his other work in the same way that Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest eclipsed everything else they wrote. In some cases this all-encompassing book isn’t even the best work by the given author, and there’s certainly a case to be made for that notion as far as Remarque is concerned. Heaven Has No Favorites, his 1961 novel, was serialized before publication but joined the rest of his works in achieving only minor notoriety. But it’s a hell of a book, heartbreaking and beautifully written even with the knowledge that it’s been translated from German.
And it would be nice to say that Bobby Deerfield yanked Heaven out of obscurity, but it really didn’t. Alvin Sargent (who would eventually win an Oscar for his screenplay for Ordinary People) penned the adaptation of Remarque’s novel, and the treatment soon piqued the interest of Sydney Pollack. By this point Pollack was well-established in Hollywood, having the Robert Redford-starrers Jeremiah Johnson and Three Days of the Condor under his belt, and so the next stop in the life of the script was in front of the on-fire Al Pacino. Pacino was drawn to the role of American F1 driver Bobby Deerfield, saying he identified with his journey more than any role he’d taken to date.
Remarque, Sargent, Pollack, Pacino…quite the impressive list of names, and yet Bobby Deerfield might be the most under seen film in Sydney Pollack’s long filmography (or Al Pacino’s, for that matter). Part of this might be due to the inevitable degree of unintentional false advertising — this is a film about F1 racing, ostensibly, which is a high-octane sport of fuel and adrenaline and pure power. Bobby Deerfield isn’t actually about racing at all, though, and the F1 circuit is used sparingly and only as a backdrop in both film and source novel. Again, this is partly unintentional just due to the facts of the plot, and it shouldn’t be surprising that someone might flick Deerfield on and be disappointed by the lack of action. Of course, there’s a certain degree of intentional false advertising, too:
Pacino’s Deerfield never wears that jacket in the film, nor does that actually look like the same Pacino from this film at all. The fellow with the slicked-back hair looking grimly at the crashing vehicle below him? Who the heck is that? And the crashing vehicle itself is misleading, for although it is in the movie it’s a fairly small plot point that just serves to shake things up in Bobby’s life. This is just a bootleg DVD, granted, but still — no wonder people are disappointed.
The actual story is a love story, a strange and slow stop-and-go fling between Bobby and a beautiful but frenetic woman he meets in a hospital. The dynamic first scene between them captures them as two sides of a coin: Bobby is quiet, careful, precise, while Lillian is mile-a-minute and non-stop. Pollock’s framing in this scene adds to the attraction between them, with Lillian seated with her back to Bobby as she scarfs down her dinner. Bobby only gets glimpses of her face as her voice keeps going and going. Where’s he from? He’s from Newark. New York? No, Newark. And on and on and on. If there’s any action in Deerfield, it resides in the more animated conversation between Bobby and Lillian.
The characterizations are in the end too finely drawn to be wholly believable. Lillian is a life-force and Bobby’s a paint-by-numbers guy — fine. But soon this is being stated more and more explicitly, and soon it becomes the actual plot of the movie. Bobby has to essentially not be boring if he’s going to be with Lillian, so he learns to shed his code of precision and embrace surprises and less-beaten paths. Unlike Tom Hardy’s Locke, in which the protagonist holds to a similar code of exactness, Deerfield pushes this character trait to the forefront of the film instead of letting it play as subtext, and so the resulting third act is predictable and nowhere near as fresh as the first two.
Still, Bobby Deerfield stands on strong performances and strong staging from Pollock. The European countryside is striking throughout, but even the scarcely-lit scenes in a train tunnel are shot well. There’s less racecar driving than you’d expect, and so this isn’t a driver-has-personal-stuff film like Ron Howard‘s Rush or, you know, Talladega Nights. But as a thoughtful and faithful adaptation of a great love story, Bobby Deerfield deserves a little more recognition.