Twenty years later, anglers still divided over Redford’s ‘River’
(This year marks two decades since the release of Robert Redford’s burnished fly-fishing classic “A River Runs Through It.” With Lasse Hallstrom’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” on the banks awaiting a March 9th release, with the recent DVD debut of “The River Why,” and with the growing success of the national Fly Fishing Film Tour, angling on the big screen seems to be enjoying a renaissance. So it’s a good time to revisit the granddaddy of angling cinema on its 20th anniversary. Following is the reprint of an essay that appeared in the April 2008 issue of “Gray’s Sporting Journal” that tackles the prickly love-hate relationship that anglers continue to have with Redford’s film.)
IN DEFENSE OF “THE MOVIE”
BY DENNIS KING
I am haunted by movies.
For 20 years, when I was full-time film critic at the daily newspaper in Tulsa, movies were my passionate vocation. And since fly fishing and reading were my equally passionate avocations, it came by grace that one particular movie – drawn from a stately novella sacred to trout fishers all – should stand out among the thousands I waded through and reviewed.
“A River Runs Through It,” director Robert Redford’s elegiac 1992 adaptation of Norman Maclean’s beloved book, strikes me as literally the only time Hollywood has ever gotten it right when it comes to angling with a fly rod. Cast over a hundred-plus years of movie history and you’ll be hard pressed to find any other literary narrative film that touches on fly fishing in such a substantive, authentic way.
Although image-conscious Hollywood has always had its fair share of off-screen fly-fishing movie stars – from Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable on up to Liam Neeson and Michael Keaton – for the most part cinema has never really gotten this most visually graceful of sports.
Which is why it puzzles and pains me that Redford’s film is viewed with such knee-jerk scorn by so many anglers. Merely speak of “the movie” in the company of fly fishers and a united sneer goes up with lemming-like certainty. To many trout anglers, Maclean’s book is the sport’s holy writ, but the film adaptation is viewed as a pox.
It’s a paradox, really.
Fly fishing on film has largely been relegated to the obscure documentary tributaries, which run rich with arcane how-to titles, fly-tying instructionals, travelogue pieces to exotic locales and storied rivers, boisterous chronicles of trout bumming and macho collections of “fish porn.” But the thrust of these is reportorial, not literary. Odd for a pastime that’s inspired such a fertile tradition of the written word.
Narrative storytelling on the big screen, the character- and plot-driven kind practiced by mainstream theatrical movies, rarely ventures into trout waters.
And when feature-length movies do go a-fishing, they seem to pay little heed to the niceties of detail or distinctions in angling styles.
Director Howard Hawks’ 1964 “Man’s Favorite Sport?” – featuring Rock Hudson as a vaunted angling expert for the venerable old Abercrombie & Fitch – is a miscast romantic farce filled with rich old fogies chunking hardware in a fishing tournament. And with leggy Paula Prentiss in the picture, the question mark in the title more than implies that man’s favorite sport is not about catching fish at all.
The mirthless comedy “Gone Fishin’ ” from 1997 features two hapless Mutt-and-Jeff yahoos from Jersey (Joe Pesci and Danny Glover) hauling a bass boat to the Everglades. En route they encounter purloined jewels, murder, slapstick mayhem and hippie-dippy bass master Willie Nelson, but they never get around to any actual fishing.
And from 2006, the romantic trifle “Catch and Release” aims for a Rocky Mountain high and briefly co-opts fly fishing as a saccharine metaphor for love and loss. And in the process it takes a snarky, wrong-headed swipe at the sport’s most successful philosophy of resource conservation.
Anywhere else fly fishing shows up in the movies, it’s usually as background filler to paint some character as a robust outdoorsman – most likely one who rigs his reel upside down and flops his line around like a soggy noodle.
So if anglers have a collective gripe to level at the movies, it should be over such sloppy slights and misrepresentations. That and the overall lack of attention paid by feature filmmakers to the inherent art, drama, comedy and beauty of angling.
Those are not sins you can pin on “A River Runs Through It.”
TAKING POETIC LICENSE
Certainly Redford and company took literary license in bringing Maclean’s story coherently to the screen. They nipped some text, expanded some characters, shifted some events and created new dialogue and scenes to channel the contemplative plotline into a visual flow. All those artistic liberties served to underscore in tangible ways the book’s deeply internal themes of Scottish Calvinist reserve, of the painful complexity of family communication, of brotherly love and competition and of the poetic tragedy of the doomed.
With the picturesque Gallatin and Yellowstone rivers subbing for the Big Blackfoot (which the filmmakers found visually marred by mining and timbering scars and commercial development), the film looks gorgeous. And with real-life guide John Dietsch and rod artist Jason Borger standing in for the actors, throwing lovely backlit loops and performing those magical shadow-casting maneuvers, it often resembles one of those glossy magazine ads for high-end fly rods. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, in fact, won an Academy Award for the film’s ravishing composition. And among skeptics, writer Jonathan Raban observed that the film looks like “a feature-length Ralph Lauren window display.”
Sure, Redford’s film is dressed in period finery and populated by impossibly handsome movie stars (hunky Brad Pitt reportedly had never touched a fly rod before taking the role of Paul, Norman’s fated brother, despite being raised in some pretty prolific trout country around Springfield, Mo.). And certainly the film is painted in soft sepia tones of nostalgia and dreamy earnestness that might appear decidedly quaint in this age of glaring irony, when fly fishing seems mired in a contentious environment of politics, commercialism and competition.
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