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Rockpile revisited: Director's cut of 'The Natural' offers many extras

It was just weeks before "The Natural" was to start filming, and the production was still lacking its primary location: a baseball stadium that "looked the way stadiums looked in the '30s."

Location scouts searched the country -- Oregon, Alabama, Texas and Kentucky -- and even as far as Mexico and Puerto Rico to no avail. Little did they know that what they needed was an "old Rockpile," the affectionate nickname given to the former home of the Buffalo Bills, War Memorial Stadium.

Once production designer Mel Bourne saw the stadium, built in Buffalo around 1935, he was sold and "The Natural" headed here in 1983.

"There was no question about it -- this was our stadium," Bourne says in the production notes for the film.

The filmmakers discovered even more treasures and stayed in Buffalo through mid-October to shoot at such locations as Ellicott Square, All-High Stadium (doubling for Wrigley Field), the Central Terminal, the Masten Street Armory and Parkside Candy Store. Everywhere they went, they renovated and spiffed up locations to give them the right look for the movie.

Not only did "The Natural" crew put Buffalo locations on film to be forever admired, the experience also brought an amazing all-star cast into Buffalo, led by Robert Redford, and poured money into the economy. Buffalo hasn't seen anything like it in the nearly 25 years since "The Natural" was filmed here. What a missed opportunity. But that's another story.

For now, Buffalonians can look back at the old Rockpile as it once stood in "The Natural: Director's Cut" ($24.94, Sony). Director Barry Levinson has recut the first act of the film to be as he originally conceived it but was not able to do with a limited post-production schedule. This director's cut, he says in an introduction on the DVD, is "much closer to the intention we had in mind."

The two-disc DVD set includes "When Lightning Strikes: Creating The Natural," a three-part making-of featurette with new interviews with Redford and Glenn Close. In "Clubhouse Conversations," baseball greats such as Don Mattingly, Jason Giambi and Ryne Sandberg are joined by Bob Costas and George Will in discussing their love of baseball. "I can't remember life before baseball," says Will, the nationally syndicated political columnist.

The featurette "Knights in Shining Armor: The Mythology of The Natural" is exactly what it sounds like: a look at the importance of such mythology as "The Odyssey", the Knights of the Round Table and the Holy Grail in Bernard Malamud's book and the movie.

Much as we would love it, there is not a separate featurette on the glories of shooting in Buffalo. In fact, I could only find two mentions of Buffalo on the DVD that I prefer just weren't there since they were about the weather.

"It got cold in Buffalo -- and this was in September," Levinson says about the challenges of filming the movie.

Discussing the 3,000 or so costumed extras used for the ballpark scenes, Levinson had this to say: "We're trying to keep these people there and suddenly the temperature is going down in the 40s, and people are trying to sneak out."

Another new release on America's favorite pastime is the baseball double feature with the movies "Safe at Home!" -- a 1962 film with appearances by baseball legends Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford -- and "Kill the Umpire" -- a 1950 film starring William Bendix as a diehard baseball fan forced to enroll in umpire school. The two-movie set is $19.94 (Sony).




Easter tidings


If you're looking for an Easter gift that doesn't involve chocolate or kiddie fare, Fox Home Entertainment has a nice selection of the type of biblical titles that Hollywood churned out during the 1950s and 1960s. These epic and colorful movies starred big-name actors such as Charlton Heston, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison and Jean Simmons and always carried a serious and melodramatic tone.

"The Robe" ($14.95), the first movie filmed in CinemaScope, starred Burton as the Roman centurion who oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Nominated for five Oscars, it spawned the sequel "Demetrius and the Gladiators" ($9.98) with Victor Mature reprising his role as the slave entrusted with Christ's robe. Susan Hayward is the woman who tempts him.

In "The Agony and the Ecstasy" ($9.98), Charlton Heston played Michelangelo, who was commissioned by Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) to paint the Sistine Chapel. "Francis of Assisi" ($14.98) stars Bradford Dillman in the title role of the 13th century monk who talked to animals. "The Bible . . . In The Beginning" ($14.98) is a nearly three-hour depiction of the first 22 chapters of Genesis, with an all-star cast led by Peter O'Toole, John Huston and Ava Gardner.




Coming Tuesday


"Arthur and the Invisibles" (Weinstein), "Beneath Still Waters" (Lionsgate), "Bobby" (Weinstein), "Doris Day Collection: Volume 2" (Warner), "Flannel Pajamas" (Hart Sharp), "The Investigator" (Acorn) and "Murder in Suburbia, Series 2" (Acorn).




THE GOOD SHEPHERD: Matt Damon, Robert De Niro and Angelina Jolie star in this taut thriller about the birth of the CIA. Extras: 15 minutes of deleted scenes. ($29.98 or $39.98 HD-DVD combo, Universal. Available now.)




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