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Robert Redford

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Emotional Appeal and Religious Symbolism in American Film Director/Actor, Robert Redford

It can be noted that in the majority of all the films directed by Robert Redford, there is a strong resemblance between the films and the characters he creates. Redford is strongly opinionated on politics and ethical rights. Political and religious symbolism can be found in almost all of his films. One of the most notable hallmarks of Robert Redford’s work, A River Runs Through It, is a profound example of the raw emotion Redford instills within his character that resonates so well with a wide range of audiences. Within the films he directs, Robert Redford’s characters seem to harbor emotions that bleed through the screen and into the viewer’s home because—much like the filmmaker himself—Redford’s films truly wear their heart on their sleeves. The films themselves seem to creep into the audience’s minds, leaving viewers longing for more or to simply be there in that moment feeling just like the characters Redford creates on screen. Born August 18, 1936, in Santa Monica, California, Robert Redford has proved to be one of the greats in American filmmaking; starring in classics such as The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Robert Redford is also notably known for helping kick-start The Sundance Film Festival in 1978, which has since evolved into one of the film industry's most prominent affairs. However, before experiencing success within the American filmmaking community, Redford started out as the son of an oil company accountant and a doting mother. As a child, Redford excelled in athletics and after graduating high school he received a baseball scholarship to the University of Colorado. His stay at the university did not last long however as he eventually dropped out of his studies after becoming what you might call a ‘campus drunk’. Redford recalls leading a tough childhood and troubled youth, especially following the death of his mother in the midst of his teenage years. Possibly running from his past or maybe just searching for a new beginning, Redford moved to Europe after dropping out of college with the hopes of becoming an artist. According to Redford his time in Europe opened his eyes to many things while living the life of a Bohemian and picked up a love of art, politics, and culture. After he returned to the United States, Redford met Lola Van Wagenan; who later became his bride in 1958. Trying his hand once again at academia, Redford enrolled in the Pratt Institute where he studied design until he ultimately shifted his focus towards acting and enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1959, after the loss of the couple’s five-month old son to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Redford began to pour himself into his acting and began his career in the theatre ( In the beginning of Redford’s acting career he was primarily cast as a “pretty boy” in most of the films he was in. Redford didn’t like this stereotype though and sought out for more challenging films with more complex roles, wanting to shift the focus away from his sex appeal. With 1980's Ordinary People, Redford showed that he was more than just a handsome movie star. The film provides a heartbreaking look at a family torn apart by loss and grief. It served as his directorial debut and starred Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, and Timothy Hutton. This drama brought Redford his first Academy Award—one for Best Director. Around this time, Redford helped establish the Sundance Institute. The Institute was created to help and support independent filmmakers through workshops and other means. He later launched the Sundance Film Festival, which has showcased independent films for more than 20 years. ( In the book, Robert Redford: The Biography, not only gives readers an inside look into the renowned filmmaker’s career, but also includes a multitude of insight provided by various individuals that had the pleasure of working with Mr. Redford over the years: one of whom he acted under and worked with, director Sydney Pollack. She directed The Way We Were, which starred Redford and over the years, together they made some of the greatest movies of their time; from (again) The Way We Were, to Out of Africa, to Three Days of the Condor, Jeremiah Johnson, to Havana (McCabe, Journal of Books). Pollack gives a telling account of her friend and colleague: Redford stands for the industry itself, in all its California dreaminess. . . . He was this phenomenon who satisfied everyone’s dream of rebellion, and then he settled down to make cozy movies. He was never forgiven.
Take Stallone. He tried comedy and he made a good fist of it, but they threw it out. Take Woody [Allen]. He’s allowed to make a certain kind of movie, but dare he move out of the box? Same with a star like Bob. It’s a deal with the devil.
He will always be thirty, blond. Perfection. There will be moments when smart critics will cut through it, but even the best of them want the idealized actor. They want the continuance, but no one wants the death of fantasy, no one can stand too much reality.
With Pollack’s statement acknowledging that at a point in Redford’s career he “then settled down to make cozy movies” fans saw a change in Redford’s work; but nonetheless, the critically acclaimed filmmaker has remained successful in his own right. In his entire career, Redford has never ceased to infuse the films he has chosen to come to be a part of with his beliefs and deep-rooted, raw emotions—this is what makes him truly one of “the greats”.
Largely based in the fact that he possessed an ever-growing interest in politics and ethics, Robert Redford conveys his emotions by embedding them into each of his characters and attaching himself to the films he chooses to direct. He uses profound experiences and storylines within his films to capture the audience’s attention while relaying a deeper message to the world. Some of his notable films that embody this technique include: The Legend of Bagger Vance, A River Runs Through It, and The Conspirator. In all three of these films you see a resemblance in the characters and the emotional up-stir of emotions on screen. All three of these films are each telling a different story, but Redford is sending across a message with the same emotions attached to them. Like Redford said when speaking of directing films, “Lastly get emotionally connected to your story so you can deliver it, you know, if you can't deliver the emotions to your script there's no point to your story. Story is the key” (Redford).
In 1992, Robert Redford directed one of his more well-known films, A River Runs Through It, where the symbolism between the river and the difficult relationship between the two brothers both play into one heavily. One of the most beautifully written lines that lead character Norman Maclean says, “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 the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters (A River Runs Through It).” The river is always weakest when it forms, and for the majority of the film the Maclean brothers are always in the river fly fishing or close by its banks. The river seems to represent some sort of freedom and just as the current starts to pick up and flow with conviction, the river swells and gets stronger. Fly fishing can be understood as a metaphor for finding different rhythms in life- which Paul and Norman both do throughout the film; they were different. Norman was rigorously home schooled while Paul seemed to escape most of the torment. Their father, a reverend, used fly fishing as a religious symbolism;” My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things, trout as well as eternal salvation, came by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy...(A River Runs Through It).”
Much of the symbolism throughout the film is about looking at life as an art form; it’s about seeing the patterns and beauty in life, even when one might not necessarily understand it. Towards the end of A River Runs Through It, Norman finally comes to terms with being able to cope about the passing of his life and other’s lives—trying to live within the world's pattern rather than fighting it; which can be seen through the metaphor of the current in the river almost drowning him. When asked about the creation of the film and directing process, Redford said: A River Runs Through It was the first movie that really taught me about the power of film. As the credits rolled and I reflected on what I had just witnessed, I just remained in my seat, silent… waiting… for what I could not say.
I have never fly-fished. I have never been to Montana. I am a child of the 70’s and 80’s. Yet this film did something profound that really shook something inside me awake. And it is still awake. Much of the power of this film, I believe, lies in the bookend monologues Norman offers as he reflects on his life. He concludes with, “I am haunted by waters.” I am haunted by A River Runs Through It.
Taking a turn, not only do Robert Redford’s films he directs say a lot about his beliefs, but the characters he gravitates towards when choosing a part to act in a film, say a lot about the emotional connection Redford wants to convey on screen to the audience. The Natural is still known as one of the best portrayed baseball films out there still today. This film has religious symbolism pouring out it. In the film, the tree the was struck by lightning and then Roy making his bat from that very tree is seemingly like, in a religious sense, sometimes you are tested through fire in order to become better. God will test you to see how strong you are, hitting your rock bottom, only to see what can be built anew; hence the tree being struck and Roy carving his bat out of wood. The lightning bolt is a symbolism of wearing your scars on your sleeve; a reminder of what has happened. This is similar to when Roy Hobbs was shot—he was a good pitcher but when restricted after his injury, his talented came out as a batter; and it’s where the legend of Roy Hobbs is established in the rest of the film. If all he had ever been was a pitcher then his hitting would have been restricted to every time he pitched. It seems like it can be said that in his overcoming the adversity of getting shot, he reinvented himself as an even greater ballplayer—thus compared to religion; being born again and building yourself back up. Another symbolism that can relate to religion would be the reoccurrence of water. The water can be, again, seen as a symbolism for strength and growth. Redford’s character, Roy Hobbs in the film says, “Wouldn’t you think I could get a fresh drink of water after all the years that I have been in this game” (The Natural). This symbolizes Hobbs want and need for growth and a change; just like people talk to their God asking for something more or repentance. Film critic, Roger Ebert, from the Chicago Sun-Times, says “The message is: Baseball is purely and simply a matter of divine intervention. At about the 130-minute mark, I got the idea that God's only begotten son was playing right field for the New York team” (Ebert, The Natural Review). A River Runs Through It, directed by Redford, and The Natural, which stars Redford, both have a strong resemblance through religious symbolism. Robert Redford himself said, “A lot of what acting is paying attention” (Redford). This statement could metaphorically be speaking from inside of Redford as an actor and creator of his own form of art; paying attention to what the actors are trying to reveal of themselves, while remaining true to telling a story, such as Redford. The religious symbolism resemblance of A River Runs Through It and The Natural are overwhelming alike. Fly fishing in A River Runs Through it can be understood as a metaphor for the different rhythms of life, while the lightning striking the tree can be understood as a test of life thrown at you. Norman and Paul in A River Runs Through It are brothers who constantly are have inner battles amongst themselves in the river, symbolizing the struggle of differences; The Natural and Roy Hobbs’ need or want of water symbolizes he wants a change and a chance at growth of becoming better because he has been tested so much—hence the lightning bolt on his bat to show the trials of his past. The Legend of Bagger Vance is another film that caught the attention of Redford and truly spoke to him. The film is about two people, who accomplish great things against all odds. Bagger possesses a profound amount of insight into life and human nature and the modest humility and equality of a spiritual master. Randolph Junuh is a young and very talented man. He then leaves for World War 1 and doesn’t come back the same; he turns to drinking heavily and then he meets Bagger to help him through his journey of getting back. At one point Junuh is searching for the true meaning of the game and the pure pleasure and then he turns into an over-confident and very proud player. Much like life, people fall off track unknowingly. Junuh forgetting how much Bagger’s knowledge has been helping him with his accomplishments rather than his own wisdom, he ignores Bagger’s advice. Junuh forgets that golf, like life, is only a game and he feels all the temptations that bring him away from the true meaning of the game; life. And then his success vanishes, bringing him back into a hole, wanting to get out (The Legend of Bagger Vance). The religious symbolism speaks for itself here, and Robert Redford when asked about the making of this film and his interest said, “I'm not interested in a film about golf but I am interested in golf as a metaphor” (Redford). The metaphor that is found in his film is, yet again, religious symbolism: In Christian symbolism, Bagger (Will Smith) is the incarnational presence of God. As the caddy of a former golf star who has been devastated by World War I, Bagger can be seen as a Christ figure who comes in physical form, teaching, healing and modeling the life of faith. Bagger can also be viewed as the Holy Spirit who is with us in spiritual form to be our counselor and guide.
Like the Good Shepherd, Bagger’s affirmation, challenge and support bring about a transformation of reconciliation in Randolph Junuh’s (Matt Damon) life. Like the Jonah of biblical time, Junuh is running from God, and therefore from himself, and is living in a perpetual “storm” of his own creation.
In the film, Bagger says to Junuh that he can win the game if he finds his authentic swing. This can be understood as a metaphor of ‘finding your way’ or getting on the ‘path to righteousness” in order to become the person you are meant to be and to allow yourself to do great things. Redford really brings to light the religious symbolism through the story of a film about golf, and just as he said when asked about the creation of this film—it isn’t a story about golf; it’s about life and religion and finding your way. It’s applying what you know about life and using your mistakes and rock bottom falls to get back up; whether it be through praising your God or having the right person come along, such as Bagger, to show you who you are meant to be. Redford created such imagery in this film to really understand his message. As a creator and artist in any form, it is a so important for your audience to interpret what they want to get out of it and Redford really brought the imagery to light and sent the message clear across.
Lastly, The Conspirator, is another film of Robert Redford that can be compared to religious symbolism with a twist of political reference. In this film, Redford pulls out more of his political beliefs, but still can be related with A River Runs Through It, The Natural and The Legend of Bagger Vance. The characters in each of these films are all working towards something or running from something. Whether it be religion, themselves, or even guilt; Robert Redford’s work can be noted as a fine imagery towards religion and politics. The Conspirator is centered on the real-life trial of Mary Surratt, who ran a Washington boarding house that was frequently visited by men involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Among these men were: the assassin himself, John Wilkes Booth and Surratt's son. The government charges Mary, for believing she was in participation of the plot to kill the president; a crime if proven guilty, you are punished by death. But in this particular instance, only the military tribunal will hear her case instead of her peers—meaning that normal rules do not apply in this case. It comes down to Surratt's lawyer, Frederick Aiken, to argue, unwillingly for his client but also for a principle: ‘that the U.S. Constitution must apply to everyone, guilty or innocent, in times of peace or peril’ (The Conspirator).
According to film critic Roger Ebert:
Redford could have vulgarized this material. He and Wright certainly have the skills to make Mary Surratt a passionate, heroic victim. They choose not to. They require us to think our own way through the case and arrive at our own opinions, and that is the value of "The Conspirator." In most historical dramas, the opinions are already in and the conclusions already reached. Redford and his producers, the American Film Co. of the Ricketts family, show respect in their treatment of a little-known footnote to a well-known story.
( – Need to put correct citation.
The Conspirator is about innocence and going about things the right way in determining guilt or innocence. Obviously, the film is a political reference for Redford to bring out to the audience, but again, it can be understood as a symbolic reference towards religion. Mary Surratt stood by her conviction, wanting to protect her son in court saying; "You're so blind with hatred, Mr. Aiken, you can't even see the truth. Yes, my son hated the North. We all did. How can a Southerner feel anything but bitterness toward your side? But my son did not conspire to kill your President. He conspired to kidnap him."(Surratt, The Conspirator). In this reference, there’s a symbolism of religion of God protecting his people; dying for his people’s sins so ‘that we can have everlasting life’. The struggle between Mary’s lawyer and his obligation of protecting her in court while having to put aside his beliefs against her since Mary is a southerner, is much like the struggle between Norman and Paul Maclean and their differences in A River Runs Through It; the struggle between Junuh and Bagger and staying on the path to being better In The Legend of Bagger Vance and the struggle of Roy Hobbs and his past in The Natural. “It's an honor putting art above politics. Politics can be seductive in terms of things reductive to the soul” (Redford).

The Natural. Dir. Barry Levinson. Perf. Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Robert Duvall, Wilford Brimley. TriStar Pictures, 1984. Film

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