A Movie Ran Through It

Twenty years after release of “The Movie,” Montana can never be quite the same again.

American Angler
September/October 2012

The worn paperback’s cover showed a river bisecting a valley with snowcapped mountains in the distance, its very title suggesting more than the average fishing primer. This purported to be an actual story, a work of literature, and my former college roommate had sent me his copy because, years previously, I had expatriated to Montana.

I remember pacing the larch floorboards of our first house out there, paging through the slim volume and wondering what credible piece of fiction could possibly be contrived from fly fishing; the same wood-heated living room where, a few years later, I read in the local newspaper—with palpable disdain—that the movie version of A River Runs Through It was going into production.

Adding to my self-absorption was the fact that I’d spent an endless summer fly fishing everywhere from New Mexico to Banff before finally settling in northwest Montana, and the fact is I kind of felt like I owned the Big Sky, not simply with the crass zealotry of an immigrant elitist, but in the way that one owns a place by heart, through personal discovery. So a Robert Redford movie about my favorite part of the world was not welcome news. Besides, near as I could tell, Hollywood rarely got anything right, let alone Montana and fly fishing.

The movie debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in September 1992—20 years ago this month—and almost overnight fly fishing became the darling sport of yuppie outdoorsmen everywhere. In an interview with the Bozeman Daily Chronicle earlier this year, John Maclean, son of the novella’s author, stated that the fly fishing industry grew by 60 percent in the first year after the movie, and 60 percent again the year after that. But by the end of the decade the film’s spell had waned. By 2005, the year I attended my first fly fishing trade show, the “We need another movie” lament had long since become an industry refrain.

The closest that fly fishing boosters have come is a 2010 movie version of David James Duncan’s The River Why, which most anglers probably never saw because of its limited distribution, and a fall 2011 release of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which most have probably never heard of.

Yet, lacking in those unrequited-movie laments is not only some acknowledgment of an industry riding a tide of false ambition among dabblers and dilettantes, but also a proper valuation of the sport itself. Never mind that the movie depicted a kind of Hallmark vision of fly fishing in suspenders and snappy fedoras, or that at the time of filming, Maclean’s Big Blackfoot River was so polluted that it needed a stunt double, or that fish in the film were raised in a hatchery and strung by the lip for jumping scenes, or that Brad Pitt’s shadow cast ultimately seemed a silly affectation, or that the movie was filmed in Livingston and not Missoula. Such corruptions are what one expects from Hollywood.

Consider, instead, that fly fishing isn’t supposed to be a mass consumable, like white bread or golf. If fly fishing were for everyone, there would be no pride of discovery, no learning curve, no paying of dues that ultimately brings personal satisfaction and, for many of us, leads literally to new worlds.

To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace
and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.

The movie was no less impactful on its setting, for if Norman Maclean’s novella was an elegy for his brother, then the film serves as an elegy for a pre-movie Montana. Twenty years on, thanks in part to interest generated by the movie, developers have turned “The Last Best Place” into the last best chance to cash in on Creation.

As good as the film turned out to be, there is still something bittersweet about Hollywood touching home, no matter how deftly handled.

The other side, of course, is that people who once struggled to survive can now make a living as guides, fly shop owners, restaurateurs, artists, and fedora sellers. Others with greater resolve found a way to stay when I could not, although in some measure I probably owe having a job in the sport to the movie that immortalized it. A River Runs Through It, which won an Academy Award for best cinematography, also helped established a film industry in Montana. And Robert Redford held screenings to raise awareness of the environmental plight of the Blackfoot River, which helped lead to its ongoing recovery. It’s a viable fishery once again, and down on its stand-in river, the Gallatin, you can hire a guide to let you cast right off of Brad Pitt Rock. A few hours north, my little rental house is worth five times what I paid for it in 1989.

Maclean wrote his classic novella at the age of 70 to reclaim “the Montana of my youth.” Thanks in part to the film, which Maclean never saw and which his daughter has said would have left him “ambivalent,” the Montana of my youth is also gone forever, just like Maclean’s Montana was long gone before I ever got there. As good as the film turned out to be, there is still something bittersweet about Hollywood touching home, no matter how deftly handled. It’s human nature to want everyone to love the same things you love, and yet want them to have a quick look and then, well, just keep moving. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to work that way.

I am haunted by movies. ✦