"A FILMMAKER'S JOURNEY," an eloquent tribute to a father from his son, is far more than a documentary about the life of the late George Stevens. It packs the emotional wallop of fiction as it observes the human condition.

The biography of the Golden Age director also shows that they don't make movies like they used to: The proof's in excerpts from Stevens' classy comedies -- Fred and Ginger shining like light beams in "Swing Time," or Tracy and Hepburn sizing each other up in "Woman of the Year."

George Stevens Jr., founding director of the American Film Insitute, has compiled a dozen or so tributes for AFI, but none so fine as this. Here he uses the tried technique of splicing talking heads between these shimmering sequences and other memorabilia. Usually a trite and tiresome process, it's done so artlly here that we get more than a sense of the father, we get a sense of the son.

Of course, Stevens Jr. had a grand hero to work with, a father who was bigger than life, like some of his films -- "Giant," "Shane" and "Gunga Din." The man, in his younger days, had a face as handsome as any of his leading men. He also had a way with dialogue: "Life is a journey," he wrote, "and it is always most interesting when you're not sure where you're going."

And what a supporting cast: Hepburn, Rogers and an aging, craggy Fred Astaire playing opposite his debonair, dancing shadow of 50 years ago, an easy reminder of celluloid posterity twinkling up there perhaps forever.

As much as anything, "A Filmmaker's Journey" is about change and about growing, the way it shows in a face or even a waist: There's Elizabeth Taylor, trim and tiny in "A Place in the Sun," and a boyish, eternally rebellious James Dean in "Giant." Both were stars of the elder Stevens' dramatic post-war work. In 1942, the filmmaker went to war, and when he returned he would direct comedy no more.

Of all the scenes and memorabilia, the most revealing is the never-before-seen color footage Stevens shot as Eisenhower's combat photographer -- the visual paradoxes, liberated mam'selles with flowers in their hair in Paris and the shuffling skeletons, dazed that they still lived, at Dachau.

These memories inspired Stevens Sr. to make "The Diary of Ann Frank" with young Millie Perkins, who remembers a stern, cold man. The sociable man who had once enjoyed laughing with his stars becomes a loner behind dark glasses, as the on-set footage shows.

Through his life's journey, a little boy watched the process and was proud. George Stevens Jr., like the kid calling after Shane, clearly wishes that his dad had never ridden off into the sunset. He leaves us with a sense of longing for all the fine people we have lost in our lives. This is what they mean when they say moving picture.

GEORGE STEVENS: A FILMMAKER'S JOURNEY (Unrated) -- At the Outer Circle.