A River Runs Through It

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There are three stages in a person's life, birth, their life and death. They are not conscious of birth submit to death and forget to live.
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A River Runs Through It is a 1992 film written by Norman Maclean (author) and Richard Friedenberg (screenplay).

Directed by Robert Redford, it is based on a Maclean's 1976 novella of the same name, published in A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards and Philippe Rousselot won on Oscar for his cinematography.

Opening scene: "Start"

As the film begins, we see the rippling water of a river, and then the hands of an old man tying a fly:

  • Older Norman - [narrating]:
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, "Someday, when you're ready... you might tell our family story. Only then will you understand what happened and why."

We shift to a montage of old photographs, first of young Paul and Norman, then the entire family, and finally of Missoula, Montana:

  • Older Norman - [narrating]:
In my family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.
We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in Missoula, Montana.
Where Indians still appeared out of the wilderness to walk the honky tonks and brothels of Front Street.

"Minister & Fisherman"

  • Older Norman - [narrating]:
As a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a damn mess. And that only by picking up God's rhythms, were we able to regain power and beauty. 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.

  • Older Norman - [narrating]:
And I knew just as surely, just as clearly, that life is not a work of art, and that the moment could not last.

  • Older Norman - [narrating]:
It is those we live and love should know who elude us.

"Return to Graciousness"

The three Maclean men go fishing together after Norman and Paul get into trouble for chuting the rapids in a "borrowed" boat. After Norman puts down his fish, and then Paul puts down a bigger one, and finally the Reverend John puts down one bigger still.

  • Reverend Maclean:
They're both marvelous.

He nodes and snickers, then continues:

I'd say Lord has blessed us all today...

He rises and walks away and with his back to them continues:

It's just that he has been particularly good to me.

He laughs.

"Dear Jessie."

Jessie sits in a rocking chair by the window reading a letter from Norman after they have had their first date.

  • Older Norman - [narrating]:
Dear Jessie,
As the moon lingers a moment over the Bitterroot's, before its descent into the invisible, my mind is filled with song. I find I am humming, softly, not to the music, but to something else, some place else. A place remembered. A field of grass where no one seemed to have been, except the deer, and the memory is strengthened by the feeling of you, dancing in my awkward arms.

The Bitterroot's are in reference to the Bitterroot Mountains of Western Montana.

"The Burns Family"

Norman goes to the train station to meet the Burns family as they await the arrival of the oldest son, Neal, who is arrive from Hollywood.

  • Older Norman - [narrating]:
The Burns family ran a general store in a one store town and still managed to do badly.
They were Methodist, a denomination my father always referred to as Baptist who could read.

"Double Dating"

From the scene "Double Dating":

Norman Maclean:
My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night. But ah my foes, and oh my friends - it gives a lovely light.

"Black Jack's Bar"

Jessie's mother asked Norman to take Neal fishing, the set a time for 6:00 AM on Friday, but Neal shows up, with "Old Rawhide" him, closer to midday. Paul and Norman are obviously furious:

Norman Maclean: You're late, Neal.
Neal Burns: Yeah, yeah, I didn't get in until late.
Paul Maclean: Well, I didn't get in at all but I was here.
Norman Maclean: Neal, Paul. Paul, Neal.

Neal goes to introduce Rawhide:

Paul and Norman [in uncaring unison]: We've met.
Paul Maclean: Neal, in Montana, there's three things we're never late for: church, work, and fishing.

After Paul goes off fishing by himself, he finds Norman napping alone in the afternoon shade by the bank of the river:

Paul Maclean: Couldn't you find him?
Norman Maclean: The hell with him.
Paul Maclean: Well, I thought you were supposed to help him.
Norman Maclean: How the hell do you help that son of a bitch?
Paul Maclean: By taking him fishing.
Norman Maclean: He doesn't like fishing. He doesn't like Montana and he sure as hell doesn't like me.
Paul Maclean: Well, maybe what he likes is somebody trying to help him.

Paul and Norman go in search of Neal and Rawhide only to find them asleep on their stomachs in a small clearing, completely naked and sun burnt to a red crisp. Norman gets the sunburned Neal into the Burns family car to drive Neal home, and the looks at Paul:

Norman Maclean: I'm in deep trouble.
Paul Maclean: Yep. Want me to come over and protect you?

Since Norman drove Neal home in the Burns car, he needs a ride home. Jessie gives a ride home and when the get there Paul arrives in his car.

Paul Maclean: Hello, Jess.
Jessie Burns: Hey, Paul.
Paul Maclean: How's your brother?
Jessie Burns: You both left him alone.
Paul Maclean: Well, I'm sorry about that. That was my fault.
Jessie Burns: Well, you're not forgiven.
Paul Maclean: Was Norman forgiven?
Jessie Burns: Norman's not funny.

"Letter from Chicago"

After Norman gets his job offer letter from the University of Chicago, he goes into the house to find his father reading aloud in his study. Norman and Reverend John Maclean recite various excerpts strung together from the poem "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" by William Wordsworth:

(Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,)
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."

"Sending Neal Off"

From the scene "Sending Neal Off", after the see Neal off on the train back to Hollywood, Jessie laments that her brother is a lost soul, and she and Norman take a quite walk in the woods:

Jessie Burns: If he came back next summer, would you try and help him?
Norman Maclean: If you wanted me to.
Jessie Burns: Well he's not coming back.
Norman Maclean: Well, at least he's got friends out there.
Jessie Burns: Who Ronald Coleman?
Jessie Burns: Why is it the people who need the most help... won't take it?
Norman Maclean: I don't know Jess.

Jessie starts to cry.

Jessie Burns: Well, I don't cry Norman.

Norman takes his handkerchief and drys her eyes.

Norman Maclean: Can I show you something?
Jessie Burns: Only if it's something good
Norman Maclean: Read

Norman hands the Jessie his letter from the University of Chicago:

Norman Maclean: So, what do you think?
Jessie Burns: What do I think? I think it's the berries!
Norman Maclean: You do?
Jessie Burns: Yeah, to get away, Chicago, God it's haven.
Norman Maclean: Have you ever been?
Jessie Burns: No, not anywhere. Helena.
Jessie Burns: Congratulations Norman!
Norman Maclean: Truth is, I'm not sure about I want to leave.
Jessie Burns: Montana? Why? It'll always be here.
Norman Maclean: Not Montana.
Jessie Burns: Then what? What!
Norman Maclean: I'm not sure I want to leave you.

They pause looking at each other, looking for reaction that goes unspoken, she flings her arms around him, and they both know that they are in love.

"Wrong Crowd"

From the scene "Wrong Crowd". After Norman's profession of love over Jessie to Paul, Paul takes Norman to illegal drinking, gambling, and brothel establishment at Lolo Hot Springs. After Paul gets kicked out once from trying to get in the game, Norman and Paul go outside. After Norman gets in the car, thinking that both of them are leaving, Paul throws Norman the keys, Norman nods at Paul as if asking 'what are you doing'?:

Paul Maclean: I'm not leavin'.
Norman Maclean: What?
Paul Maclean: These hands are hot, Norm. I can feel it.
Norman Maclean: What are you talking about? You can't go back in there.
Paul Maclean: Norman, it's fine. I'll be fine.
Norman Maclean: But they won't even let you play.
Paul Maclean: Oh, yes they will.
Norman Maclean: With what? Your own debt up to your God damned neck.
Paul Maclean: Norm, it's my debt. OK, it's my debt.
Norman Maclean: Jesus Christ.

"Last-Minute Attempt"

From the scene: "Last-Minute Attempt". As Norman and Paul fish, for what would be the last time, Norman in attempt to save his brother, asks Paul to come with Jessie and him:

Paul Maclean: Oh, I'll never leave Montana, brother.

"Paul's Fate"

After Paul's death, the Reverend John Maclean searches for answers that he seems unable to find in his beliefs:

Reverend Maclean: Is there anything else you can tell me?
Norman Maclean: Nearly all the bones in his hand were broken.

The Reverend Maclean rises from the table to leave, digesting what Norman has told him, then pauses and continues:

Reverend Maclean: Which hand?
Norman Maclean: His right hand.

After some time has gone by:

  • Older Norman - [narrating]:
As time passed, my father struggled for more to hold on to, asking me again and again: had I told him everything. And I finally said to him, "maybe all I know about Paul is that he was a fine fisherman." "You know more than that," my father said; "he was beautiful." And that was the last time we spoke of my brother's death.

Final scene: "A River Runs Through It"

First we see young Norman and Paul fishing, then older Norman remembering as he fishes alone:

  • Older Norman - [narrating]:
Like many fly fishermen in Western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being of my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
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 those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.

Main cast

Actor Role
Craig Sheffer Norman Maclean
Brad Pitt Paul Maclean
Tom Skerritt Reverend Maclean
Brenda Blethyn Mrs. Maclean
Emily Lloyd Jessie Burns
Edie McClurg Mrs. Burns

External links