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Under the Great Oak  cover image

Under the Great Oak 2018

Not Recommended

Distributed by Passion River Films, 154 Mt. Bethel Rd., Warren, NJ 07059; 732-321-0711
Produced by Debra Higgins
Directed by Michael Reynolds
Streaming, 53 mins

General Adult
Documentaries; U.S. History

Date Entered: 07/22/2020

Reviewed by Russell A. Hall, Reference and Instruction Librarian, Penn State Erie

Under the Great Oak relates the story of the Great Oak of Basking Ridge, New Jersey and what its demise meant to the local community. The Great Oak was estimated to be 619 years old when it was taken down in April of 2017. The Great Oak was older than the town of Basking Ridge and of course, older than the United States. Located in the cemetery of the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church, the Great Oak was the figurative center of the town.

Under the Great Oak is clearly a labor of love for the director Michael Reynolds, who is a resident of Basking Ridge. On the website for the film, he writes of being stunned when the tree was declared dead. His thoughts ran to the constant presence of the tree in his memory and the memory of the town. He was also taken by the beauty of the tree and the art it inspired.

The film is mainly comprised of lovely visuals of the tree along with interviews of community members, many from the local historical society and/or members of the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church. Most of the interviewees shared Reynolds’ love of the tree and based at least some of their personal memories and memories of the town around the Great Oak. One of the interviewees speaks of the Old Guard (meaning those who grew up in Basking Ridge) as trying to hold on to the history of the town (embodied in the Great Oak) because the New Guard doesn’t know or understand what the tree means to the history of the town. Cursory mention of demographic change is made in expository slides interposed between interviews. One such mention is that Bernards Township (where Basking Ridge is located) had to come to a settlement with the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and the Department of Justice in 2017 due to the planning board rejecting a proposal for the building of a mosque. This would have been a wonderful thread to chase, but the filmmaker stayed on theme with the Oak. Also, no one from the so-called “New Guard” was asked about their opinions of the Great Oak. The movie remains focused on the nostalgia that the long-established members of Basking Ridge felt towards the tree.

For all the talk about history and local history, the film deals more with nostalgia rather than history. The interviewees speak of their memories the Great Oak and their family memories of the Great Oak. The filmmaker, on the website, speaks of the Oak being around when Joan of Arc was alive. However, this isn’t an historical connection, it is simply a chronological co-occurrence. This film might be useful if an instructor wants to have examples of nostalgia or how an object can become important to a community. Otherwise, there probably is not much interest in this film outside of New Jersey. Unfortunately, this film is not recommended , except for the very limited audiences mentioned above.