This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Robert Redford classic, which was based on the novella of the same name written by Norman Maclean and set in Western Montana and Missoula (although many scenes were shot in Bozeman and Livingston. The story follows the family of a Presbyterian minister, whose two sons were brought closer through their love of fly fishing.
The movie, starring Brad Pitt as “the fly fishing newspaper man,” won the Academy Award for best cinematography in 1993 and not only changed Hollywood but changed the fly fishing landscape in Montana and beyond.
According to the Internet Movie Database, “A River Runs Through It,” debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 13, 1992, and finally opened in the U.S. on Oct. 9, 1992.
By 1993, fly fishing – not to mention real estate and tourism -- was booming again in Missoula.
But with that uptick in fly fishers and attraction to Western Montana came overfishing and environmental strain.
“From a retail shop point of view, it was a great thing for business,” Justin King, owner of Montana Troutfitters in Bozeman, tells the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “From the viewpoint of being a local kid that grew up on the river, it went from being able to find anyplace to fish by yourself to having to get up early and get out there before everyone else.”
But before “A River Runs Through It,” the river that was supposed to be the setting of the movie (Blackfoot River) was already going through hard times because of grazing, logging and mining. So, while few outsiders might even realize, much of the movie wasn’t even filmed in Missoula or on the Blackfoot.
Instead it was filmed in Livingston and on the Gallatin River in many cases.
Today, thanks in part of conservation efforts and support that likely came about because of the movie, the Blackfoot River is a free flowing river again and has started to turn the corner in terms of its overall health.
“Now it’s a viable fishery again,” Patrick Markey, a co-producer of the film, told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “The film was maybe the impetus to get that done.”
So did a “River Runs Through It” actually make Montana a better place for outdoors fans and fly fishers, or did it take away from its charm and wealth of fishing opportunities?
Depends on your perspective, really.
If you’re a longtime fly fisherman from Montana, it probably made things tougher on you. Unless you were a fly fishing guide, of course, and were able to fly fishing for a living thanks to the renewed interest the movie brought about.
So for better or for worse, it’s hard to argue another movie has had a bigger impact on Western Montana. And 20 years later, it’s amazing to see “A River Runs Through It” still has an effect on Big Sky Country.
Let’s hope that impact continues to be a positive one for the Blackfoot and other rivers that have been plagued by logging, overfishing, mining and grazing.