This Distracted Globe random header image

A River Runs Through It (1992)

September 22nd, 2008 · 7 Comments

river-runs-through-it-1992-poster.jpg river-runs-through-it-dvd-cover.jpg

As an old man threads a fishing line on the Big Blackfoot River, a narrator (Robert Redford) begins: “Long ago, when I was a young man, my father said to me, ‘Norman, you like to write stories.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ Then he said, ‘Some day when you are ready, you might tell our family story. Only then will you understand what happened, and why.’” Moving back in time to 1910 and the town of Missoula, Montana, the Reverend Maclean (Tom Skerritt) teaches his sons fly fishing the Presbyterian way, against a metronome. Seven years later, the strong willed Norman (Craig Sheffer) and the charismatic Paul (Brad Pitt) test their mortality by shooting a rowboat down the local falls.

Graduating from Dartmouth six years later, Norman returns to Montana. His mother (Brenda Blethyn) apologizes for his brother’s absence from the homecoming, while his father presses Norman for details of what he plans to do with his life. Norman seeks out Paul, now a reporter with a taste for staying out late, drinking and gambling. Though his brother is perilously in debt, Norman seems unsure how to best extend help. They bond over a shared love of fly fishing. When his relationship with a feisty Methodist named Jessie (Emily Lloyd) turns serious and he accepts a teaching job in Chicago, Norman asks Paul to come with them. His troubled brother makes the decision to stay.

Production history
Retiring from teaching English literature at the University of Chicago in 1973, Norman Maclean wrote a book that had been gestating for thirty-eight years. Titled A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, it wasn’t fiction – tracing Maclean’s relationship with his brother Paul between 1910 and 1935 in Montana – but it wasn’t quite a memoir either, devoting more print to the art of fly fishing than to family history. Published in 1976, the book was embraced by critics. Four years later, author Tom McGuane sent a copy to actor Robert Redford, citing the book as an example of fine western writing. Redford recalled, “I read it, and the arrow went in right away. I thought, ‘I really want to do something about this.'”


“There were such deep parallels to my own life. And the ethic that shaped these people’s lives shaped early America’s life. It was a sort of Christian ethic of stoicism in the face of adversity, a sense of honor and grace, not asking for help, not complaining. This was a slightly troubled family that, like so many others, dealt with silence as a virtue and strength as a weapon. They had enormous difficulty expressing feelings and emotion.” Despite winning an Academy Award in 1981 for directing his first film – Ordinary People – Redford discovered that Maclean had no intention of seeing his book turned into a movie.

Redford recalls, “I think the reason Norman resisted for so long was that he was fearful the book would be turned into pornography, a story of a brother going bad, gambling and whoring and then getting killed. He also was afraid that his deeply loving family would be portrayed as disturbed. I assured him that was not my intention.” Redford offered to come to Chicago on three occasions – letting two weeks pass between each visit – to talk to the author. “He kept challenging me. Asked me how I could really understand the Scots ethic since I was really Scots-Irish.” Maclean ultimately agreed to option film rights for A River Runs Through It to Redford.

Following a pass by William Hjortsberg – a literary contemporary of Tom McGuane’s – Redford turned to Richard Friedenberg to adapt a screenplay. Friedenberg had won an Emmy in 1986 for scripting the Hallmark Hall of Fame production Promise, which also dealt with brothers whose relationship is forged by fishing. Friedenberg moved some of Maclean’s events up ten years to when the brothers were becoming men, while strengthening the character of Jessie, whom the screenwriter saw as a strong-willed, Roaring Twenties flapper. Maclean’s daughter Jean Snyder recalls, “Friedenberg worked very hard to get real events into the film. He drew on other writings of my father and on research into my mother’s family as well.”


A five year struggle to secure financing ended when Columbia Pictures agreed to a reduced budget of $12 million. With Redford in the director’s chair, shooting commenced June 1991 in Montana. The fishing scenes were filmed south of Bozeman on the Gallatin River, south of Livingston on the Yellowstone River, and south of Big Timber on the Boulder River. The film premiered quietly at the Toronto Film Festival in September 1992. Opening in theaters the following month, critics responded favorably, while word of mouth among moviegoers unaffected by the film’s measured pace propelled A River Runs Through It to grosses of $43 million in the U.S.

As a filmmaker and as a chairman of the Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford has been called out by the left as being stodgy and attacked from the right as being self-important, and while A River Runs Through It did little to silence his critics, the film remains Redford’s finest work as a director, rising to the status of a classic for its pure storytelling craft, which is as natural and deeply affecting as the Big Blackfoot is to the Macleans. With a meager budget (by Hollywood standards,) it’s also more majestic in its design and far richer in its humanity than Redford haters may have wanted to admit at the time.

It can be said that neither Craig Sheffer or Brad Pitt – who doesn’t look a day older than the 27 years he was here – ever break out and make these roles their own, but stillness and the space between words is what Maclean’s book was all about and what makes the film so powerful. Both actors are superb in their performances. There’s a great deal of wit here, namely during a disastrous fishing expedition Jessie pressures Norman to take her vain Hollywood brother (Stephen Shellen) on. The film captures all sorts of natural moments that pass between families through the years, while cinematographer Philippe Rousselot won a well deserved Academy Award for his pristine outdoor lighting.


Don Willmot at writes, “A River Runs Through It is part travelogue and part tragedy, and running right through the middle of it, of course, is the river, a painfully obvious yet still touching metaphor for time’s inexorable flow. The impact does build, and no one will mock you if you find yourself in floods of tears as Redford reads Maclean’s final haunting words and gives us one final sparkling river vista. It’s beautiful, it’s sentimental, it’s nostalgic, it’s the West. Just let it wash over you.”

“The on-location filming in the Montana wilderness is breathtaking, and the scenes of the fly-fishing were exceptional. However, partial nudity, an overabundance of profanity, and an excessive amount of drinking and smoking ruin this film. A River Runs Through It is based on a true life story, but it isn’t even exciting. The movie drags is in many parts, just plain boring,” writes Ryan Kelly at Christian Spotlight In Entertainment.

Margo Reasner at DVD Verdict writes, “The slow pace of this film is going to lose some viewers looking for more action and the middle part of the film dealing with Norman’s love interest may lose viewers that like the rest of the film. However, if you like drifting down a river and watching the scenery float by on a warm sunny afternoon then this film will be for you; if you like shooting the rapids while hanging on for dear life then you might want to pass on this one.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on book · Brother/brother relationship · Coming of age · Father/son relationship · Master and pupil · Small town · Sports · Train

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mark Skurnik // Dec 4, 2008 at 6:22 am

    One of my favorite movies. One can define it and redefine it and break it down and put it back together, but, essentially, it is an historic slice of life that is shared with many films. I enjoy it for what it is and whenever I can catch it on one of the cable stations I am glued to the screen. Like most good movies frequently I find something in it that is new, that I did not notice before. That may be a hallmark of a well told and well presented story.

  • 2 Theresa Nys Strack // Dec 7, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    This is one of our families favorite movies of all time. It captures the beauty of fly fishing, and makes one long to be on the river. It wonderfully captures and portrays the simplicity and complexity of families and the mere moments of life that glue them together.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Dec 7, 2008 at 10:15 pm

    Mark: Your comment about the film’s depth is spot on when you consider how well A River Runs Through It could figure into a classroom discussion of any number of subjects: American history, ecology, family psychology, religion. Most movies are lucky to touch on one subject.

    Theresa: A great movie you can watch with your grandparents is not easy to find; it’s like a standup comedian killing with a clean act. However, I agree that this is not only one of the great “family” movies, but one that actually spurs thought on how important communication is within a family. Asking for help or expressing feelings is not the sign of a weak family but quite the opposite.

  • 4 Craig // Jul 29, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    A River Runs Through It is an excellent movie.One of the best of all time.Redford is excellent at narrating.The story has meaning and attachment.The serenity of the movie is unmatched.A reason I avoid critics is I seldom agree with them so I do not ever take their opinion.This movie should be seen by everyone.

  • 5 Sam // Aug 2, 2010 at 2:05 am

    I grew up and still live in Bozeman, MT. I spent much of my childhood and am in the process of spending much of my adulthood fly fishing the same runs of the Gallatin River that ‘A River Runs Through It’ was filmed on. I can say as a local and as a storyteller that whether or not Redford had the foresight to plan it out, he captured a slice of growing up and fishing the rivers of the Rocky Mountains of Western Montana. Between Maclean’s words and the film’s cinematography, somebody who lets the film roll over them just might be able to catch a glimpse of what it’s been like. The film captures a bit of the feeling of standing waist-deep in the lower Gallatin – lost in thought – and catching a glimpse, right before the take, of a Cutthroat rising to your Yellow Caddis #12.

  • 6 Denise Sellers // Jul 21, 2012 at 12:49 am

    I grew up in Missoula and we attended the Presbyterian church where Rev. Maclean served until 1938. My brother was born in 1935 so must have been baptized by him. He remembers that Indians were not allowed to walk on the sidewalks and had to use the alleys. The problem with ‘firewater’ that continues to devastate the Native Americans. My other brother was a fisherman and bow hunting guy. He died in 1970 in the Blackfoot when an avalanche knocked cars and people into the river. He was 29. Significant to me about the movie is how subtle the problem of alcohol with 4 of the characters was presented and how disrupting and baffling it was to the families. I start crying at opening credits. It’s a masterpiece. Beautiful.

  • 7 Don Gilder // Mar 23, 2016 at 7:27 pm

    Denise, I also grew up in Missoula also, as did my dad and a grandfather. Denise, I remember the incident you refer to on the Blackfoot in 1970. I think it occurred a few miles above Johnsrud Park where you drive under a cliff. A friend knew one of the people killed. I was told that it happened there anyway. I have some things to say about Paul Maclean on my website My parents went to the Presbyterian church there also. I went to every church in Missoula at one time or another. Take a look.

Leave a Comment