Academy Award Winning Rivers


Tom Skerritt, Actor and American Rivers Board Member

With the Oscars coming up this weekend and all the stars donning their gowns and bow ties, we thought it would be fun to highlight some popular, Academy Award nominated river films from over the years.  Whether the river is used as a scenic setting or a dangerous challenge, here are our top five river movies.

A River Runs Through It 

A young, rebellious Brad Pitt spends his days enjoying the rugged beauty of rural Montana while his conservative minister father, Tom Skerritt, and his studious brother, Craig Sheffer, lecture him about being a responsible adult.  This 1992 river movie set in the 1920’s is about conflict and tension between father and sons who struggle to live up to family standards.  Thankfully the men have their love of fly fishing to bring them together. 

The film is set around the Blackfoot River in Montana, but scenes were actually shot on the Madison and other Montana rivers. 

A River Runs Through It won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 1993 with its beautiful sun-lit scenes of rivers and natural Montana. It was also nominated for Best Music and Best Adapted Screenplay. Actor Tom Skerritt is a member of the American Rivers board of directors and is a passionate supporter of river conservation.


The music of dueling banjos is the one bit of joy the viewer takes away from this otherwise grim and intense film about the dangers of leaving one’s comfort zone and entering into an unknown and wild land.  Released in 1972, Deliverance stars Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox and a sans-mustache Burt Reynolds who fight for survival against rapids and toothless hillbillies with shotguns and no respect for city boys.  The dramatic story set along the fictional Cahulawassee River in rural Georgia shows what can happen when urbanite men set aside their golf clubs in favor of canoe paddles. They progress into a world where primal instincts of survival override their civilized ways and ghastly confrontations with locals haunt the men’s trek downriver.

The film was shot on the Tallulah Gorge in Georgia and the Chattooga River that runs along the South Carolina-Georgia border and is popular for whitewater rafting.  While the events and setting of the film are entirely fictional, jokes abound about intimidating strangers lurking on the river banks.   

This film was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Picture, Directing, and Film Editing.

Show Boat

A classic, whether you’re a fan of the 1951 version starring Ava Gardner or the earlier 1936 film with Irene Dunne, this musical is a charming movie perfect for reminding you how good old movies can be.  Set in the 1880’s upon the Mississippi riverboat Cotton Blossom, Show Boat is about a young Gardner falling in love with a dashing but compulsive gambler who—can you believe it—runs out on her once he’s lost all the money on their insanely extravagant honeymoon.  Not to worry, by the end of the film everyone is back in love and shedding a tear of romantic joy as the riverboat paddles away into the sunset.

While the Mississippi River is the setting, most of the film was shot in Hollywood in controlled, manmade lakes.  Apparently the mighty Mississippi was too strong to effectively film the exterior scenes.  After production the Cotton Blossom was auctioned off and became part of an amusement park. 

The film was nominated for two Academy Awards for Photography and for Musical Adaptation.   

The River Wild

Starring Meryl Streep as an expert whitewater rafter and Kevin Bacon as a dangerous armed criminal, this 1994 thriller is about a family rafting trip gone horribly wrong when Streep is forced to guide Bacon and his fellow bank robber down a treacherous river.  “The vacation is over”—the film’s dramatic tagline—rings true when watching the transition from scenic-river-bonding-trip to punching/threatening/OH NO THEY’RE GOING OVER THE FALLS gasping-for-life-trip. 

The film is set on the Salmon River in Idaho (appropriately called “The River of No Return”), but was actually filmed on the Kootenai River in Montana.  The ever-strong Streep did many of her own stunts and almost met disaster one day when exhaustion from a long shoot overtook her and she plunged into the river and had to be rescued. 

While The River Wild didn’t earn any Academy Awards, it is a thrilling movie with dramatic performances by Streep and Bacon.  Streep remarked that being on the river was a powerful experience and her character exemplifies a heroine with a mastery of rafting, but still great respect for the river and its power.                

The African Queen

Set during World War I in remote Eastern Africa, an English spinster played by Katharine Hepburn barely survives a German attack on the village she is working in as a missionary before a gin-drinking riverboat captain played by Humphery Bogart arrives to save her.  Surrounded by hostile jungle, the duo has one option to reach safety: sail down the near impossible Ulanga River past rapids, man-eating beasts, and a German gunship to reach the sanctuary of Lake Victoria and the English forces.  Hepburn’s character is an independent woman and Bogart is a grumpy boorish captain — this 1951 river movie has ‘adventure love story’ written all over it.

Parts of The African Queen were filmed on location in Uganda and the Congo where the actors experienced spartan living conditions and regular bouts of sickness.  Bogart, true to his character, was spared any illness due to the fact that he never drank the water and relied on the copious amounts of whiskey he brought with him.  Scenes where the actors are actually in the water were filmed in a controlled tank in England since the rivers of Africa were deemed too dangerous for submersion.   

This film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Director and won an Oscar for Best Actor. 


So that’s our list of top river movies.  What are some of your favorites? Share on the American Rivers’ Facebook page!