The Ripple: Short Guide to River Movies

Rivers in Reels: Short Guide to River Movies

A classic film set on the Potomac River…a river mighty enough to hold two film icons.

Witch hazel crane over Halloween rivers, their branchtips glowing with yellow blossoms—tassled tiny chandeliers of color, calling for sensitive notice. Catch one in the sunlight; examine the blaze that pops vibrant against the drab of forest dun and river dark. Rivers seem darker when leaves have fallen down. Soon the tiny chandeliers of the hazel will drop, too, into the flow to spin and drift and sail away deep into the frosty months of winter. Soon enough, water will show us its sterner self, as snow and ice will be with us.

Still a few weeks where we might catch some peace in a warm little microclime beside a Hilltown river: yet there’s no fighting it; it’s time for us to retreat from the outdoors a bit, and pull back into our shells of home and work. And imagination.

When it gets cold in the coming weeks, light a fire and let yourself go on a voyage on a river—at least, a voyage of imagination and feeling. Rivers are real as the rain, but they are also imagined. I love imagining rivers, and of experiencing what others have imagined, too. Rivers are always apparent; they don’t hide. But they are inscrutable and relentless, always a mystery.

Here are a few of my favorite river movies, starting with the child friendly titles then moving into PG13-land: 

Plan for a free family movie night at home, as many of these are available through your local library CWMARS interlibrary loan.

Huckleberry Finn
Twain’s masterpiece has been filmed several times, but I think the 1993 version
is extra- entertaining, perhaps because Huck is played by little Elijah Wood (who would become famous acting the part of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings). The genius of Twain’s tale is that it entertains families with a simple forward moving plot that forces viewers to contemplate the great & troubling questions of United States history. The best river movie (whatever version).

Steamboat Willie Jr.
A public domain title available for free streaming, this silent 1928 Buster Keaton vehicle is pure family fun, and features great big river scenes and Keaton’s extraordinary physical comedy. (Note: there are scenes that can be considered racist or homophobic.)

Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie
Also made in 1928.

Watch Paul Robeson sing “Old Man River” in this 1936 version, screenplay by novel’s author Edna Ferber and music by composers Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Or watch the 1951 Hollywood version in technicolor.

The African Queen
John Huston’s adaptation of the novel by C.S. Forester ranks as one of the best movies ever made, period, and features classic performances by Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. The plot is exciting (the convict and churchmouse turn the rickety African Queen into a torpedo, knocking out a German man-o-war) and, shot in the People’s Republic of the Congo, the whitewater river scenes are riveting and set the standard for all filmmakers who follow Huston into the furious flow.

Antic froth about a widower (Cary Grant) who hires a nanny (Sofia Loren) to keep his family together as they live on a houseboat on the Potomac River.

A River Runs Through It
Brad Pitt’s performance as the blacksheep son of a Montanan minister made him a star, so there’s that going for this title. What is really special about this movie, though, is that it reveals the romance of trout-fishing to audiences who will never step into waders. Wild trout are prized for their wiliness, and for the absolutely gorgeous places they live. We here at the Ripple, who volunteer with Hilltown Families to collect and count benthic macro-invertebrates (bugs that live in the river and that trout eat), know that trout-fisherman have to know a lot about—and love— the river they fish in, or they’ll catch nothing. This movie lets us imagine what it means to know a river as being alive, a living being that we share the vitality of.


How quickly we move out of the safer PG movies into those are probably left to audiences of teen and older. From here on, we see rivers imagined as places where the wild things live—not so child friendly.

Aquirre, the Wrath of God
Werner Herzog’s movie about an insane conquistador in Peru on a quest to find El Dorado is his masterpiece. From a purely aesthetic perspective, it features some of the most awe-inspiring river footage ever filmed. The scenes of Spanish nobility crashing down river canyons is thrilling, and their gradual dissolution as the raft slows and whirls in interminable slow water, is meant to symbolize the character and fate of European colonization of the New World.

The River Wild
Meryl Streep plays a former whitewater river runner who becomes a supermom when two criminals (one played by a extremely creepy Kevin Bacon) attack her while she’s with rafting her family on the Rogue River in Oregon. Perfectly filmed whitewater adventure scenes and a mom who knows how to wreak justice—why not settle down and enjoy the ride? MOMPOWER!

I have a few other favorites, but I have learned in the writing of this very post that, by-and-large, rivers are seldom filmed as I imagine rivers to be—as fluid places of peace, beauty, nourishment, empowerment and scientific and spiritual enlightenment. Are movies such as Deliverance, The River’s Edge, and Mystic River so dark and violent because our globalwarmin’ culture, electronic and insular, is so removed from them? Day by day, we treat our rivers like we aren’t connected to them, like we do not share their vitality; we send emissions downstream to the same dark place we imagine our monsters will grab us.

And so, the tassled chandelier of witch hazel, hanging over the cold and flowing waters… desires your sensitive notice, asap. Get out for a few more river walks!


Kurt Heidinger, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Biocitizen, non-profit school of field environmental philosophy, based in the Western MA Hilltown of Westhampton, MA where he lives with his family.  Biocitizen gives participants an opportunity to “think outside” and cultivate a joyous and empowering biocultural awareness of where we live and who we are. Check out Kurt’s monthly column, The Ripple, here on Hilltown Families on the 4th Monday of every month to hear his stories about rivers in our region. Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: