"Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after." So said Henry David Thoreau, and filmmakers have tended to agree with him. On screen, the art of fishing has been used as a backdrop to explorations of friendship, political strife, romance and general knockabout silliness. You'll find examples of each of those and a few more in Empire's chosen ten below.
1. A River Runs Through It
Director Robert Redford pestered author Robert MacLean for years for the rights to his autobiographical novella. The eventual film – with Brad Pitt in the role Redford might once have taken for himself – was worth the effort. Elegiac, measured and beautifully shot by cinematographer Philippe Rousellot, it presents fly fishing not jjst as a pastime, but also as an important bond between its characters. And as an art. For many, this remains the fishing movie.
2. Alamo Bay
Not as renowned as it should be, this powerful drama stars Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, was directed by the great Louis Malle, written by Alice Arlen (Silkwood) and has a soundtrack by the legendary Ry Cooder. Its blue-collar drama involves Harris' Vietnam veteran being insensed by the encroachment of Vietnamese immigrants on the fishing industry in his small town. This is no foot-stomping, right wing send-em-back fest, however: it essentially boils down to immigrant fishermen vs. the KKK. Fictional in its specifics, it's inspired by real events that took place along the Gulf Coast in the early 1980s.
3. Gone Fishin'
Somewhat lighter than the above, Gone Fishin' is about two accident-prone buddies who manage to get away for a few days' quiet fishing but trail chaos in their wake. What elevates this (slightly) above the level of a sort of Ernest Goes Fishing is the casting of Lethal Weapon veterans Danny Glover and Joe Pesci as the hapless duo, lending the material better performances than it probably deserves (although John Candy and Rick Moranis were earmarked but "unavailable"). It's probably most fun if you ignore the actual set-up and try to pretend that this really is Roger Murtaugh and Leo Getz on a weekend without Martin Riggs.
Irish trawlerman Colin Farrell here catches a beautiful woman in his nets and gets ensnared in the mystery of whether she's a refugee or a mermaid (or "Selkie" in the local parlance). Neil Jordan's modern fairytale is warm and wry, with great performances.
5. Salmon Fishing In The Yemen
Not much actual fishing here, admittedly, but a likeably oddball, political, satirical rom-com nonetheless. Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) adapted Paul Torday's novel, with Lasse Hallström behind the camera for the tall tale of a sheikh who wants to import fly fishing to the deserts of western Asia. Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Amr Waked star, but the performance its especially worth turning out for is Kristin Scott Thomas as a British government spin doctor straight out of The Thick Of It.
6. The Perfect Storm
A dour, protracted portrait of a struggling fishing community takes up the first hour of this film, adapted from Sebastian Junger's rip-roaring bestseller. But this is a Wolfgang Petersen film, so you know there's spectacle on the way. It arrives in the form of the titular meterological phenomenon which batters our manly-man crew – George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, William Fichtner, Allen Payne, John Hawkes) into soggily dire straits.
7. Towed In A Hole
This classic Laurel & Hardy short sees the boys as fish sellers who hit upon the bright idea of doing their own fishing, negating the need to deal with suppliers. A boat is purchased as a fixer-upper. Needless to say, the work descends into extreme violence and the boat ends up destroyed. Still, it was a nice idea, eh?
8. The Old Man And The Sea
Ernest Hemingway's slender masterpiece has been filmed several times – including as a 1990 miniseries with Anthony Quinn, and a beautiful 1999 IMAX animation by Aleksandr Petrov. But we'll be controversial and claim John Sturges' 1958 adaptation as the one to pick. On the downside its fishing action is lacking and the film was clearly shot in a tank, rather than at sea. But the upside is Spencer Tracy, in large part performing an impressive one-man show. Hemingway himself apparently declared it worthy. We'll take that.
9. Low & Clear
Kahlil Hudson's wonderful documentary shares some ground with A River Runs Through It: it's about the beauty of the American landscape and the bond between fishermen. The difference is the contemporary setting, which encompasses the gradual erosion of the American West's wilderness and, in the specific friends at the film's centre (J.T. Van Zandt and Alex "Xenie" Hall), a melancholy realisation that they may well be growing apart.
Not exactly about fishing per se, but definitely about trying to catch a big fish. Ergo, concordantly, Jaws concludes our list with a deafening explosion and a rain of shark meat.