Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Paddle to the Sea of Memory
One spring afternoon sometime in the mid-1970s, one of my grade-school teachers rolled a film projector into our classroom in Leaf Rapids. He darkened the lights and turned on the projector, flecks of dust visible in the cone of light. The projector’s fan whirred to life and film clattered from front reel to back, unspooling the beautiful and gentle tale of a young boy’s dream and his wooden creation’s incredible journey from Nipigon country to the Atlantic Ocean. The film was “Paddle to the Sea,” Bill Mason’s 1966 adaptation of the 1941 children’s book by Holling Clancy Holling. Another timeless gem from the National Film Board of Canada, the film was nominated for an Academy Award.
Over the years two or three other teachers played this film for my classmates and me; I probably saw it for the last time in grade seven or eight. Perhaps because I grew up in a remote wilderness very similar to that portrayed in the film, the story of Paddle-to-the-Sea’s improbable trek fascinated me. Like the boy who carved the little man and his canoe, I grew up surrounded by vast forests interrupted only by remote streams and rivers. And like the young carver, I dreamed of what wonders the world beyond might hold.
I love this film for a number of reasons: the beautiful colour cinematography, the whimsical sense of humour, the gentle, evocative narration, the understated but genuine performances of actors human, animal, and inanimate. (Paddle-to-the-Sea himself expresses a wide range of emotions thanks to Mason’s clever direction.)
But most of all, I love the film’s faith in the essential goodness of human nature. “Please put me back in the water,” reads a plea carved into the bottom of Paddle-to-the-Sea, and this plea is duly obeyed by all who read it, even though the beautifully crafted toy is a unique and wonderful treasure. Those who discover the little man and his boat are compelled by empathy for the boy; they help fulfill his dream that Paddle should reach the sea.
Whenever I feel disappointed in humanity’s foibles – our rush to war, our careless destruction of our environment, our everyday cruelty to each other – stories like this remind me that we are just as capable of greatness and good. I’m grateful to Holling C. Holling, the NFB, Bill Mason and my teachers, who all helped me see some of the beauty in man and the world.
After you’ve watched the film, be sure to read the original book. It’s just as wonderful as the film, with an expanded storyline and beautiful illustrations.