Redford’s Fishing Movie: A River Runs Through It (Robert Redford, 1992)

I have a confession to make: I love Robert Redford.

Correction: I really, really, really, really, really, really, reeeeeaaaally love Robert Redford.

Let me list the things I love more than Robert Redford:

  • My Mom
  • The Beatles
  • Chocolate cake

…That about covers it, I think.

Sometimes, when I’m watching a Redford film, I sense that I have a really stupid expression on my face. Like really stupid. Like mouth open, giddy schoolgirl stupid. I can’t help it. Watching a Robert Redford film just fills me with so much unbridled joy. A Redford film is like a cup of hot chocolate that infinitely replenishes itself with marshmallows, a bed with clean sheets, still warm from the dryer, the sound of a kitten purring, rubbing its wet little nose against the crevice of your chin. It is a beautiful experience.

I am now prepared to say, unequivocally, that A River Runs Through It is the most beautiful film I have ever seen (and it doesn’t even feature Robert Redford’s lovely face–just his voice and direction). And I will probably never, ever get over it. A series of therapy sessions with Judd Hirsch might help, but I doubt it.

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” 

The film tells the story of the Maclean family in Missoula, Montana. (Who knew that Montana was so beautiful? Not me.) The Reverend and Mrs. Maclean have two sons, one rebellious and carefree, the other level-headed and duteous. We see them grow up and lead lives that often intertwine and even more often conflict. Their love of fly fishing, instilled in them by their Presbyterian Minister father, however, always unites them.

Criticisms that this film is too long, too boring, that the fishing scenes lack drama and purpose are ridiculous. The fishing scenes are among the film’s most beautiful. Fishing–and by extension, nature–represents a spiritual experience for the Maclean men, but especially for Norman, the eldest son and the film’s narrator. It allows him to reflect on times spent with those were once closest to him, namely his father and younger brother, Paul. It is similar to Romantic Poet William Wordsworth’s religious relationship with nature (whose poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” is quoted by Norman and Reverend Maclean). In “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth contemplates multiple visits to Tintern Abbey, with and without his “dearest friend,” his sister, and the beauty that comes from not only from nature but the memory of sharing that beauty with her.

Brad Pitt, A River Runs Through It (1992)

“At that moment, I knew, surely and clearly, that I was witnessing perfection. My brother stood before us–not on a bank of the Big Blackfoot River–but suspended above the earth, free from all its laws, like a work of art. And I knew just as surely and just as clearly that life is not a work of art and that the moment could not last.”

While the theme and symbolism of fly fishing is moving, the more poignant–and, I would argue, more signifcant–theme of the film is that of love, encapsulated in one of Reverend Maclean’s final sermons:

“Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question. ‘We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed?’ For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them. We can love completely without complete understanding.”

The Maclean men had a common bond in fly fishing, but we constantly see their personalities and ways of life clash. We see Reverend Maclean fail to understand Norman’s uncertainty about which direction he wishes to pursue in life after six years of college. We see Norman fail to understand Paul’s resistance to accept help. And we see Paul fail to understand that you don’t always have to be toughest one. Yet they love one another completely, without complete understanding.

“Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood, and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops, under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

Redford tried for years to gain the rights to Norman Maclean’s autobiographical novella, even going so far as to promise Maclean that he could watch the film as it progressed and completely reject it if he didn’t like it. He died before the film was completed. I think, though, that he would have enjoyed it.

It is all too beautiful: the score, the cinematography (which won an Academy Award), the story, the acting, even Brad Pitt’s face–which I’ll begrudgingly (really begrudgingly) admit almost bares a slight resemblance to Redford when he smiles, but most of all the language. (I’m prompted to read the book, which was rejected by countless publishers because it had “too many trees.”)

Now excuse me while I wallow in this film’s beauty again and again and again.

(And yes, that is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, perhaps best remembered as the devious David Collins in the 1991 reboot of Dark Shadows, as Young Norman.)

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2 thoughts on “Redford’s Fishing Movie: A River Runs Through It (Robert Redford, 1992)

  1. Pingback: Favorite Book-to-Screen Adaptations | The Hand of Count Petofi

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