Whether you’re traveling down the mighty Mississippi or coming to the water to reflect, it’s easy to see why a river is an enduring symbol in film. Films featuring rivers carry stories full of drama and thrills, with breathtaking visuals and a tremendous sense of thoughtfulness or danger.
The following ten movies (plus honorable mentions) might inspire you to take your own adventure downstream. Or maybe you’ll stop a while to ponder life’s questions on the quiet shore. The list is not in any particular order: these are just the first ten river movies we think of.
Everything you will learn here
- Top 10 River Movies
- A Few Other River Movies Worthy of Mention
Top 10 River Movies
Starring: Elijah Wood, Courtney B. Vance, Robbie Coltrane, Rob Perlman
One would never expect Disney to produce a thought-provoking and even entertaining rendition of Mark Twain’s classic American tale, but it’s a surprising accomplishment. The film features fantastic visuals of young troublemaker Huck Finn and his slave friend Jim crossing the Mississippi River to deliver Jim to freedom. Gorgeous sunsets, terrible storms, and river-going bandits are only some of Mississippi’s adventures.
The film features incredible performances from a young Elijah Wood as Huck Finn and Courtney B. Vance as Jim, telling the extraordinary story of a boy learning to love a slave man like a brother. It’s a movie the kids might enjoy alongside the adults and get them excited to read the book.
Starring: Irene Bedard, Mel Gibson, David Ogden Stiers, Russell Means
Our second Disney entry shows a young Native American woman who gets told that, in order to find her place in the world, she must be steady, like the river. Pocahontas doesn’t know what lies “just around the riverbend,” but she knows that it’ll be something exciting. And exciting it is, with superb animation and Academy Award-winning songs from Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.
The film also poses a question we should all ask ourselves: should we choose the smoothest course, like a river does, or do we take the rockier, riskier course? Take a canoe ride with Pocahontas and find out.
Starring: Mel Gibson, Sissy Spacek, Scott Glen, Don Hood
The River features Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek as a Tennessee farm couple who faces the possible destruction of their home as a nearby river rises with rain. The farm has been part of their family for generations, so the couple must swallow their pride and find a way to save their home before the river destroys everything, including their beloved family.
Although the river is a destructive force of nature in this film, it forces a family to remember their love and strength in the face of danger. Even if Mel Gibson’s character is almost unbearably stubborn, it’s worth watching for a harrowing rainstorm scene and Sissy Spacek’s incredible acting.
Starring: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox
After watching this movie, you’ll think twice before going camping in the woods. Four suburban men go on a canoe trip to see the river before it is dammed. They run into all kinds of dangers in the Appalachian backwoods, starting with their canoes separating and breaking on some dangerous rapids. They even run into some savage and sadistic mountain men (even if their portrayal is somewhat stereotypical and over-the-top).
It’s a truly horrific story of survival, but it’s remarkably filmed. All four of the main actors turn in stirring performances, especially Burt Reynolds as a manly man who hunts with a bow and arrows. If you’re squeamish about man-on-man rape scenes, though, it’s probably best to beware.
Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Harrison Ford
Several American soldiers make a harrowing journey down the river to Cambodia in this Francis Ford Coppola epic. If you’ve ever listened to Richard Wagner’s classic “Ride of the Valkyries” music or heard the phrase “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning,” you’ll immediately think of this movie. Of all the entries on this list, Apocalypse Now has some of the richest, most profound filmmaking (Coppola is a giant in Hollywood for a reason).
Rather than a thought-provoking river adventure, you’ll see plenty of machine guns, blood, and some epically delivered lines by the likes of Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, and Robert Duvall. Maybe when you’ve finished the film, you’ll pick up Heart of Darkness, the Joseph Conrad novel that loosely inspired this film.
Starring: Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, William Holden
How can we resist another epic war movie featuring a famous river? We have another impressive crop of actors, led by Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi, anyone?), playing British POWs tasked with building a bridge over the River Kwai after Japanese forces take them prisoner in World War II.
Although it is a Hollywood-ized version of a true story, this film has stayed on several top-film lists for its charismatic, endearing characters and incredible action. It may be a war film, but you’ll see a much more quiet focus on individual characters than the grander right-or-wrong conflicts of other war films. Plus, the filmmaking and set design were way ahead of their time.
Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Bacon, John C. Reilly, David Strathairn
Less thought-provoking and more thrilling, The River Wild shows Meryl Streep as a mother and guide struggling to protect her family when two violent criminals commandeer their raft on the dangerous Salmon River. If you don’t get ominous goosebumps when Meryl Streep describes her most harrowing adventures on the river, you may need a doctor.
Although Meryl Streep helms this film’s cast, you’ll probably enjoy Kevin Bacon’s slimy performance as the criminal who commandeers the raft, alongside the bumbling weak-willed John C. Reilly. A few plot holes may mar the screenplay, but watching Meryl Streep face dangerous people on a hazardous river still makes for a fun time.
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull
When a movie stars Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, you can be sure there’s no shortage of romance and adventure. It’s 1914, with World War I raging on. Katherine Hepburn’s missionary has to convince Humphrey Bogart’s gin-swinging captain to convert his riverboat, the African Queen, into a warship to attack an incoming German warship.
You can anticipate much screwball bickering with two such different characters at the helm (no pun intended) of this movie. Some of the effects, like a “swarm” of attacking flies, are a little dated. However, all the dangerous fights, close calls, and adventures they have on their mission to stop the Germans should make up for those small flaws. Plus, Hepburn and Bogart play off each other wonderfully, inspiring several other adventure-romances after.
Starring: Craig Sheffer, Brad Pitt, Tom Skerrit, Emily Lloyd
Unlike the harsher, more thrilling movies on this list, The River Runs Through It is a much gentler, more thoughtful picture about a 1930s American family living in the unsullied Montana wilderness. Brad Pitt and Craig Sheffer play two brothers who lived on a great river, where their minister father taught them to fish and canoe, and where they grew into two different men.
It’s one of the more sentimental pictures on this list (the tagline IS “The Story of an American Family”), but no less heartwarming and gut-wrenching. The cinematography is breathtaking, and the acting excellent. Plainly put, you can never go wrong when Robert Redford is in the director’s chair, and what’s wrong with good old-fashioned American sentimentality now and then?
10. Mud (2012)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepherd, Tye Sheridan
The Mississippi River has its share of river-bound adventures, including this hidden gem starring Matthew McConaughey. Two teenage boys happen upon a strange man named Mud, living in a treetop boat deep within a Mississippi River island. When they learn that he is running from the law and trying to reunite with his lost love, they agree to keep his secret in exchange for ownership of the treetop boat.
Mud combines several Southern Gothic, neo-noir, and melodrama elements, but it still has a lot of heart. You’ll root for Mud to return to the life he lost without feeling like the film is trying to wring tears out of you. Matthew McConaughey has made quite the comeback in recent years, so if you’re a growing fan of his, you’ll like this one.
A Few Other River Movies Worthy of Mention
- Into the Wild (2007)
- A Goofy Movie (1995)
- Return of the River (2014)
- The Good Dinosaur (2015)
- White Water Summer (1987)
You might be interested in reading about the other best related movies:
While we cannot guarantee that everyone will enjoy the movies we’ve listed, we still think they’re an impressive crop of films. You have all kinds of genres on here: comedy, drama, adventure, and even some horror. Several of them are based on books if you care to give those a read too.
Whatever genre you enjoy, we hope you have fun checking out these films and have an excellent river-going adventure!
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