Filmed in Montana: A River Runs Through It, Montana’s Prestige Picture

“Filmed in Montana” is a new recurring column that focuses on movies that you guessed it were filmed in Montana. Future editions will focus on more obscure features, but for the inaugural piece, it made the most sense to tackle a Montana classic: “A River Runs Through It.”

Montanans, take a moment to thank Robert Redford, if you haven’t already. In 1992, he unleashed “A River Runs Through It” onto the world, and no matter how many fly-fishing tourists the film brought into the state, it’s difficult to be too harsh on a movie that puts Montana in such a beautiful light. In cinema, it’s not uncommon for locations to be described as a character (think of all the times you’ve read something along the lines of, “But New York is the real star of the show…”), but it’s difficult to think of a film that puts Montana front and center quite as dramatically as “A River Runs Through It.” Whereas other films merely use Montana as a pretty backdrop, “A River Runs Through It” channels the spirit of the state and the way it shapes the hearts of those who grow up here.

“A River Runs Through It” is based on a collection of semi-autobiographical stories by Norman Maclean: “A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.” The film focuses on Norman’s relationship with his brother Paul and their Montana upbringing, which was intertwined with two things: church and fly-fishing. Their father, a stern Presbyterian minister, teaches his sons the art of fly-fishing, linking the practice to his faith, as older Norman details in voiceover narration: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” As Norman and Paul grow into adults, Norman remains a responsible, dutiful son, whereas Paul was born with a stubborn, rebellious streak that he never loses — which leads to trouble and, ultimately, tragedy.

“A River Runs Through It” takes place in Missoula, but was mostly filmed in Bozeman, Livingston and the surrounding area. Many of the iconic fishing scenes were shot in the Gallatin Canyon on the Gallatin River, as well as on parts of the Upper Yellowstone. (And if you’ve ever heard a campus tour meandering through the SUB, you’ll probably know that a scene from the movie was filmed in Leigh Lounge — so, yes, Brad Pitt has been on our campus.) “A River Runs Through It” won the Academy Award for best cinematography, and one can see why: Montana’s natural beauty is treated with reverence by the camera, juxtapositioning the landscape with its importance to the characters. Though human problems are the backbone of the story, one thing remains constant: Montana. And specifically, how living here can shape a person. It doesn’t matter that the movie takes place in the early 20th century. With an authenticity unmatched by any other film (the little details are stunning), “A River Runs Through It” can resonate with born-and-raised Montanans of any age. When Maclean exclaims, “The world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana!” and his friends hoot and holler, you don’t feel sad for these young men who’ll never leave their hometown. You just kind of agree with them.
Talking about “A River Runs Through It” and the stunning portrayal of Montana is nothing new. But just because it’s been said a thousand times before doesn’t mean it’s been said enough: when it comes to Montana, this movie delivers. It paints a portrait so beautiful — both of the landscape and of the people — that if some poor soul’s only knowledge of Montana came from “A River Runs Through It”… well, there are worse covers to judge this book by, aren’t there?