The West Runs Through It

A River Runs Through It

Directed by Robert Redford

Columbia Pictures

When Paul Newman and Robert Redford went out together in the vintage Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, twin six-guns smoking, under the rifle-sights of a well-uniformed Bolivian rifle company, it seemed like the hole-in-the-wall gang was gone for good.

But Newman, with that solid physique and those ozone-blue eyes, was built for reincarnation, appearing in a succession of fine films that culminated in the masterpiece Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.

As for Redford, the “pretty boy” adored by the women, it seems that despite that Bolivian fusillade fired that morning, old “Sundance” would never go down. After Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Redford followed up with a series of acting hits, like The Great Gatsby, Jeremiah Johnson, Downhill Racer, and that safari with Meryl Streep, Out of Africa.

And as for those obstinate Redford detractors, still claiming he was all “cutes” and no brain, Redford’s directing successes in Ordinary People and The Milagro Beanfield War laid his detractors out cold. And if there were any surviving Redford vilifiers, they clammed up quick when the Sundance Institute was mentioned. Headed by Redford, it’s dedicated to fledgling writers and important scripts that would otherwise go ignored, producing films like A Dry White Season and Desert Bloom. Of course, Hollywood could use the competition.

Redford’s most recent directorial effort, A River Runs Through It, is set in Missoula, Montana, on the Blackfoot River, 1910 to 1935. It hits like a heart-shot from fifteen paces.

The story is about two brothers Norman and Paul Maclean (Craig Sheffer and Brad Pitt), the older brother Norman growing up to be a professor of English at the University of Chicago and also the story’s narrator (read by Mr. Redford), while the doomed younger brother Paul, a newspaper writer, charmer, and Indian lover, winds up pistol-whipped in the end, dead in a dark alley.

The credit for Norman and Paul’s relative successes goes to their mother (English actress Brenda Blethyn), a lady of wisdom, beauty, and infinite patience. A family-type, you might say.

Credit also goes to Norman and Paul’s father (Tom Skerritt), a rock-hard, small town preacher who quotes like a double-barrel shotgun—Scripture out one barrel and Shakespeare out the other. Reverend Maclean is also a master of fly fishing, a meditative art he teaches Norman and Paul when they’re young. Next to the Bible, fly-fishing is the foundation of education for these men. That is, education in manual skill, nature, artistry, and sportsmanship.

Sheffer, Pitt, Blethyn, and Skerritt’s performances are first-rate, but whether the credit goes to their experience and acting training, or to Mr. Redford’s direction is an unanswerable question. But there’s no denying that the supporting performances, nurtured by Mr. Redford, are superb.

Perhaps the highest caliber of these, Academy-Award-winning stuff, is actress Susan Traylor’s performance as Rawhide, a windblown redhead, whiskey-slugging “Queen of the West.” With a heart of lead.

Another bulls-eye is Nicole Burdette’s role as a half-Cheyenne knock-out, Mabel, a haunting beauty whose honor Paul defends with a fist through a bigot’s mouth—a drunken escapade that lands Paul and his princess for a night in jail, only to be bailed out by older brother Norman.

And Emily Lloyd as Jesse Burns, the Gatsby-esque bob-cut blonde who steals Norman’s heart (again “family-style”) is a jewel. When Jesse takes Norman for a bumpy ride in her open flivver down the railroad tracks—over a dizzying trestle bridge and through an interminable tunnel, with an unseen locomotive bearing down— it’s enough stress on the audience to make the James gang themselves, masters of the art of train robbing, quiver in their boots. The scene is remarkable, a sure cinematic classic.

Mr. Redford’s cameo performances also glint. Edie McClurg, Steven Shellen, Michael Cudlitz, Bob Cox, Buck Simmonds, Fred Oakland, David Cramer, Madonna Reubens, John Reubens, Arnold Richardson, and Maclntyre Dixon (the police sergeant with a rose on his heart), to name only a few, shine like quartz, rare in the Badlands.

Also not to be overlooked is actor Stephen Shellen’s self-demeaning, though brilliant performance, a parody of the blow-hard Easterner, all charm, handsomeness, and washed-out.

The only Americans not fully represented in Mr. Redford’s sage of his idyllic vision of white America are the Africans. But a second viewing shows them appearing in flashes. If you miss them it’s not really your fault. Mr. Redford, though aging well, remains very fast. Sundance fast.

A River Runs Through It is a fine addition to the line of classic American westerns.

By

H. Edgar McCloud is a poet and playwright.

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