BBC film spotlights adventurous life of Robert Campbell, Irish farm boy turned St. Louis fur trader
A love story, expeditions full of danger and discovery, unimaginable tragedy – the life of Robert Campbell (1804-1879), a prominent resident of early St. Louis, pretty much has it all.
“In 40 years of making documentaries I have rarely found a story that has so many aspects, that has so much adventure … it’s just an incredible story,” filmmaker Michael Beattie said on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. “And to have the opportunity to tell it was just too good to miss.”
Beattie’s new hour-long BBC documentary, “Robert Campbell, Mountain Man,” will celebrate its North American premiere in the Public Media Commons during an outdoor screening and discussion Monday evening.
Joining Beattie and host Don Marsh for a conversation in advance of the event was Alan McFarland, the film’s presenter.
McFarland is a great-great-great-great nephew of the 19th-century fur trader, and several years ago he began taking a closer look at his ancestor’s travels in the American West.
“[He] left a journal, and I spent a month in Wyoming and Montana and Nebraska following his trails up through the Rockies,” explained McFarland, who, like Beattie, still resides in Campbell’s native Northern Ireland.
“[Campbell] left the fur trade in 1835 before the journalists arrived, so people are familiar with Jim Bridger and Kit Carson, but Robert Campbell is largely forgotten, and so I thought really it was time this story was told,” McFarland continued. “And I approached Michael [Beattie] … and I think people will be pleasantly surprised.”
During the interview, Beattie and McFarland shared a variety of biographical highlights – and lowlights – that they said particularly stood out to them while working on the film. For instance, Campbell, who became one of St. Louis’ leading entrepreneurs in the years following his emigration from Ireland as a teenager, gave Mark Twain his first riverboat job. And Campbell’s first business headquarters were located on the grounds where the Gateway Arch stands today.
His prominence, wealth and handsome St. Louis estate (now preserved as the Campbell House Museum, located in downtown St. Louis at 1508 Locust Street) stand in contrast to other remarkable aspects of his life, such as the hunger he experienced during his travels.
He was at points reduced to eating his own dog and mule in order to stay alive, the filmmakers said. Campbell also interacted frequently with Native Americans, sometimes in positive ways – such as the time he wintered with a Pawnee tribe – and at other times on far less friendly terms.
On the home front, Campbell and his wife, Virginia, tragically lost 10 of their 13 children to illnesses that were common in St. Louis at the time.
The film is scheduled to air on the Nine Network at 8 p.m. July 2. It will also re-air at 2 a.m. July 7.
What: Outdoor film screening and discussion
When: 7 p.m. Monday, June 18, 2018
Where: Public Media Commons (3653 Olive St., St. Louis, MO 63108)
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.