Made in 1966 by filmmaker Bill Mason, Paddle to the Sea is a short film based on the award-winning children's book by Holling C. Holling. Its narrative is simple, as are its pleasures. One winter a sick boy in the mountains of Ontario carves a canoe out of wood, a Native American stridently riding in its belly. On the bottom of it he christens it Paddle to the Sea and adds instructions that whoever finds the boat should put it back in the water.
The boy leaves the boat in the snow, to be taken down the hillside by the thaw. The thaw plants it in a mountain creek which then takes it to Lake Superior, and through a course of many more rivers and lakes, eventually spits the little boat into the Atlantic Ocean. Part nature film, part travelogue, Mason and crew chronicle the boat on each step of its journey, its encounter with fish and fauna, as well as calamities both natural and manmade. There is no dialogue or conventional story, just the journey, given a sense of wonder by the continuous narration. The voiceover makes the tiny object seem like something grand, making all creatures that see it a part of the trek. To lay your eyes on Paddle to the Sea is to become invested in his journey.
Paddle to the Sea works on multiple levels. The beautiful photography and the adventure inherent in the story act as a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. Only the most astute or cynical of children will realize that all of this is merely an excuse to teach them a thing or two about nature and possibly inform them of the dangers of pollution. Older film fans will enjoy imagining the crew getting the various shots. How silly they must have looked dropping this tiny boat in the way of an ocean liner, and I'd love to have heard them convincing canal operators to open the locks to let Paddle to the Sea slip through.
There is a beautiful lack of fuss around this story and the dreams that fuel it, and I wonder how apropos it would be today. I know similar fantasies were fairly universal when I was young. I invented my own plans to build tiny boats and send messages out to sea, hoping beyond hope that someone would find my vessel and send me a greeting from somewhere far beyond my crappy little suburb. My boats were mainly cardboard or uncarved wood, with rudimentary sails that had my address scrawled on them. When you're young you skip over pesky science, never once considering that paper gets wet and turns soggy or that water makes ink run. Never mind, too, that I was dropping my schooners into a larger sewer canal that ran through Canoga Park in the San Fernando Valley in California. Who knows what kind of gratings and pipes they ended up in.
Today, Paddle to the Sea would be fitted with a GPS and he'd have his own url carved on the bottom so people who find him could log on and track where he's been, like those stupid "Where's George?" rubber stamps that deface many a dollar bill. The very thought kind of sucks the magic right out of it, doesn't it? As an uncle myself, I charge my brethren with getting this film in the hands of their nephews when they are still young enough to be captured by the Luddite wonder of it. Jack London's stories are persevering through the technological age, there's no reason that Paddle to the Sea can't, as well.
Because when you sweep up the wood shavings and look at the man in the boat, he really sits in that canoe for all of us. To get caught up in his wanderings is to look at the larger struggles of man himself. At one point, as Paddle to the Sea circles a man-made whirlpool, the narrator wonders if he will get out of this pickle. For, as he has pointed out, Paddle to the Sea has no paddles, nor the arms to paddle them if he did. It's a feeling everyone has at one time or another: life is looming large before us, and we have not been given the tools for which to deal with it. Do we give in? No, we stick to our mission and sail on. There's a big ocean out there, and there is no telling where the currents may lead.
This DVD will be released on April 29, 2008.