Based on the biographical book by Bill Bryson, it was purchased by Robert Redford in hopes that he and Newman would star in a film adaption. Over the next decade the film passed through many writers and directors before emerging in 2015 as a Redford-Nick Nolte pairing.
The story involves the real-life Bryson and his friend Stephen Katz who decide to hike the Appalachian Trail. Bryson is a travel writer who became interested in the trail, which was close to his Georgia home.
In the book, Bryson is in his forties but clearly Redford and Nolte are much older, which makes the struggle of the trail even greater. The actual trail is 2200 miles, and Bryson and Katz quit after 800 miles.
The story is about two senior citizens embarking on an expedition that less than 25 percent of hikers actually complete. Neither men are conditioned or experienced in such endeavors, but that’s part of the story.
Redford and Newman were lifelong friends who hoped to work together again after The Sting, but neither could find a project that worked for them. As I was watching the film I thought about a geriatric version of Butch and Sundance. Instead of wondering the back trails of Bolivia, they were in Appalachia. I only read about the intent of a Redford-Newman pairing after I saw the film a second time. Reportedly, it was Newman’s declining health that didn’t make the film possible, and after he died, Redford shelved the project for a number of years
In the film, Bryson and Katz hadn’t seen each other for many years and Bryson was running out of people to ask for the journey. All of his other friend quickly declined, but Katz jumped at the chance. The film leaves out some of that backstory, as well as Bryson’s marriage to a British nurse. I’m not versed on Bryson’s books so I’m not very familiar with his life.
I wish the film had focused more on their reconnection, but maybe that’s in the book. Bryson and Katz hadn’t seen each other for years, with the running joke that Katz still owed Bryson $600 from the old days. Katz seemed to represent the younger, shelved memories of Bryson’s youth, a time he seemed satisfied to leave on the shelf. During a pre-departure dinner at Bryson’s house with his family, Katz volunteered some stories of their youth that Bryson wished had remained in the past.
The journey seemed as much about testing their senior meddle as it was about exploring the essence of their old relationship.
It’s a popular notion that men stay engaged in childhood relationships and never quite grow up. I find it more the opposite. Bryson, like many men, store away old relationships as life move them into relationships and off on their careers.
There seem to be more books and films about men who think back on days of future past, wondering where the years went and what happened to old friends. Stand By Me, Gross Pointe Blank, The Big Chill, My Dinner with Andre, Soul Men, Last Orders, Last Flag Flying and El Dorado all come to mind about men exploring old relationships.
A Walk in the Woods is far from Redford’s best work. Many of his lines feel like they were written by Neil Simon for the stage, not real responses. In his older years, Nick Nolte has a gravelly, squeaky voice that is ravaged by age, smoking and drinking. Despite my criticisms, I liked the film and any effort to present senior citizens as real people and not just grandparents or part of the scenery.