An orphan boy during the Depression learns to live in harmony with nature when he goes to live with his grandfather and his Cherokee wife. Sincerely indulging all the usual cliches about the superiority of nature over the ways of the white man, THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE is a pleasant
enough family film despite its libertarian leanings.
Tennessee, 1935. Eight-year-old Little Tree (Joseph Ashton) goes to live in the Smoky Mountains with his grandparents (James Cromwell, Tantoo Cardinal). Marriage to a Cherokee woman, Grandpa says, has shown him the evils of civilization. He has tried to learn what the Cherokee call "The Way," and
hopes to pass this approach to life onto his grandson just as he did to his son, Little Tree's father. Because their mountain cabin is too far from the nearest settlement with a school, Grandma teachers Little Tree by reading to him from a dictionary. Grandpa teaches him the beauty of nature, as
well as the "family trade"--making whiskey at a still in the woods. Little Tree learns about his Cherokee heritage from Willow John (Graham Greene), a shaman.
Although Little Tree comes to love life with his grandparents, state welfare agents insist that they are not fit guardians and send the boy to a boarding school for Indian children. Grandma tells him he can always communicate with them at night by speaking with the Dog Star. Although he tries,
Little Tree is unable to adjust to the harsh life at the school, where he is treated as if guilty of some unknown crime. One night he tells his troubles to the Dog Star. Soon after, grandpa appears and helps him escape. They return to the cabin in the mountains, successfully evading welfare agents
when they come looking for the boy. Grandpa injures himself and dies, content in the knowledge that he has lived a good life. Grandma also dies soon after, leaving Little Tree a message that they will always be with him. Willow John becomes Little Tree's guardian and teacher.
THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE was brought to the screen by the same team responsible for A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT (1992), and shares much of that film's perspective toward nature. Filmed in North Carolina and Montreal, it is a gorgeously photographed tale that will make most anyone want to move to a
cabin in the woods and learn to catch fish with his or her hands (as does Little Tree). Still, this sentimental tale is a bit tarnished by its origins. According to Richard Schickel's book Clint Eastwood, author Forrest Carter, who also wrote the basis for THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976), "was in
fact Asa (Ace) Carter, a virulent segregationist who had organized a particularly vicious subgroup of the Ku Klux Klan and had been an anti-Semitic and Red-baiting radio broadcaster as well. Before that he had also been a speechwriter for George Wallace...though he later broke with the Alabama
governor because he became, in Carter's warped view, too liberal on the race issue."
Although Carter initially published The Education of Little Tree as a memoir, it wasn't until it was republished in 1986 (seven years after his death) that it was discovered to be a work of fiction. While it certainly wouldn't be fair to hold this against this adaptation, it does give the film a
rather different subtext. Like JOSEY WALES, the story rails against government at every chance, taking the libertarian attitude that everyone would be better off if they were just left to their own devices. Like any fairy tale, it's seductive but not as innocent as it seems. (Profanity.)
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- Released: 1997
- Rating: PG
- Review: An orphan boy during the Depression learns to live in harmony with nature when he goes to live with his grandfather and his Cherokee wife. Sincerely indulging all the usual cliches about the superiority of nature over the ways of the white man, THE EDUCATI… (more)