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The Green Life: Movie Review Friday: John Muir in the New World

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April 15, 2011

Movie Review Friday: John Muir in the New World

Escape to the movies with one of our Movie Review Friday selections. Each week we review a film with an environmental theme that's currently in theaters or on DVD---or in this case, on TV.

John Muir in the New World (2011)

Premiers Monday, April 18 on PBS; check your local listings for broadcast times.


Just in time for John Muir Day (Apr. 21), this reenactment documentary by Catherine Tatge follows the life of the pioneering environmentalist and Sierra Club founder from his arrival in the U.S. from Scotland to his peaceful death at a ripe old age. And if you thought Muir was an eccentric loner who wasn’t comfortable unless he was lost in the woods, well, you’re about right.

That isn’t to say his story isn’t truly inspiring. We watch a ginger-haired young Muir escape the clutches of his hard-line Calvinist father, for whom nature is the work of the devil and something to be conquered. Muir then goes to college, attempts to walk from Wisconsin to the Amazon, sleeps in a Savannah graveyard, and works in a factory. Along the way, his environmental ethic develops at approximately the same rate as his legendary beard.

Reenactment documentaries can suffer from leaning too much to the “reenactment” side of things, but John Muir in the New World sidesteps that pitfall by having been shot mostly on site in Yosemite and Alaska, where Muir did the bulk of his famous wanderings. Moreover, the only time we hear Muir’s “voice” is via his actual letters and writings. The result is a tantalizing and envy-inspiring view of what Muir’s life was really like.

Unfortunately, that life is reflected upon by a panel of somewhat dubious experts. Hearing about Muir’s revelries from a stodgy, office-bound history professor seems antithetical to Muir’s philosophy, the first tenet of which was to be outdoors at all times. Excerpts from Muir’s letters and the “footage” of Muir walking amid the redwoods say far more about his life than any book-learned scholar ever could.

The Sierra Club doesn’t make its appearance until late in the film, when Muir is engaged in the doomed battle to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley. But the Club seems to represent the sum total of Muir’s life experiences, and the film should bring a warm spot of pride to any Club member.

Muir was a man perfectly suited to his time, and we wonder whether his experiences would have been possible today. Probably not, but that doesn’t change the fact that watching him in action makes us want to strap on our boots, grab a canteen and a sack of rice, and head for the mountains.

--Tim McDonnell

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