Robert Redford directed “A River Runs Through It,” a film based on the story by Norman Maclean who is also the main character in Redford’s film. The story is largely autobiographical and is about Norman and his brother Paul who both grew up in Missoula, Montana under their father, the reverend John Maclean, a Presbyterian minister and fly fisherman.
The film works as a fantastic model for a specific theme found in the journey of authentic manhood. For those of you who have not seen the movie or read Maclean’s story, this article has spoilers. For those who have seen the film, we can start by viewing the story as a picture of the father’s blessing. This article focuses on the reverend Maclean’s blessing over his son Paul. See “The Journey of Authentic Manhood: Norman is Blessed” for a look at the reverend’s blessing over Norman.
Mike Haddorff, director of Christ in the Rockies, defines the father’s blessing in a particular way. “The blessing is something real that resides in the heart of the father,” he says, “it’s made up from the father’s experiences, memories, thoughts, and feelings from his own experience.” A father’s blessing, by this definition, is an extension of the father’s own identity and life experience. This pattern is apparent in the blessings the reverend Maclean gives to his sons.
The two boys, Norman and Paul, each experience their father’s blessing differently and each son has a unique blessing of his own from the father. The blessings that the reverend Maclean gives to his sons are never directly expressed. However, as we watch both Paul and Norman step into their respective callings, their father blesses them in the continuation of their own journey of authentic manhood.
In the film, the boys have their misadventures of adolescence, but fly fishing is a constant and it connects them to their father. For Paul specifically, fly fishing in the Big Blackfoot River is where his journey and calling start to become distinguished from Norman’s journey and calling.
There is a scene where the two boys are fishing with their father and Paul breaks away from Norman and the reverend. He heads up river and begins fishing in a rhythm that his father had not taught him. “He broke free of our father’s instruction,” says Norman, “and into a rhythm all his own.” This is the moment that differentiates Paul from Norman and their father. Paul begins a journey that will define him. It is part of his own journey of authentic manhood. He becomes a master fly fisherman, an artist, as Norman later describes.
Paul eventually moves to Helena and works as a newspaper reporter. We are told that Paul’s choice to stay in Montana was also so that he could pursue his fly fishing “calling” when he was not working at the newspaper. Later, Norman comes back from Dartmouth College and he, Paul, and their father go fishing. In the scene, Paul decides to wade further into the river and cast into the deeper waters.
He casts his line and then hooks a gigantic trout. The fish leaps from the water and carries Paul’s line down river. In his struggle with the fish, Paul is pulled underwater and is carried downstream. Norman and the reverend are watching the event from the hillside. A hand holding a fishing rod emerges from the river, then a hat, a torso, and legs walking toward the shallower water to land the fish by the shore. Norman and the reverend run down to the bank shouting in excitement over what Paul had just done. Paul holds the giant fish high in the air. “You,” says the reverend, “you are a fine fisherman.”
In this moment we a shown the father’s blessing over Paul. It is a blessing that had existed since before this moment, but it is expressed here. It is the explicit declaration of something the father has carried with him as part of his own journey of authentic manhood and is now passed on to his son Paul. Paul becomes a continuation of his father’s calling, but for Paul it is now a calling that is “all his own.” This moment is the dramatic expression of Paul’s own calling, and the father who blesses him in it.