The Definitive List of River Movies

Lousy weather for a day out on the river? Stay home and watch these river related movies.

With the 90th Academy Awards quickly approaching and our Board member Jimmy Kimmel hosting again, why not take a break and spend a few days lounging on the couch watching some of the best river movies out there? Our staff has put together a list of their favorite river movies for you to enjoy, no scrolling through Netflix needed.


Despite outdated stereotypes of mountain people, and in addition to being an awesome thriller of a movie, this incorporates a bunch of relevant river issues. From the power of free-flowing rivers, the importance of wilderness to our souls, and the destructive potential of dams. American Rivers founder Claude Terry was also a consultant for the river scenes and a “river double” during filming.

The Good Dinosaur

Kid friendly, the importance of river safety (specifically heeding flash flood warnings), and dinosaurs – what’s not to love?

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Did you know this 2002 Tolkien masterpiece features a dam removal scene? It’s when the Ents – along with the Hobbits we know and love – attack Isengard. Our dam removals aren’t as dramatic, but still cool nonetheless.

A River Runs Through It

Or as our Northern Rockies Director said, “Montanans simply call it, “the movie.” The film follows the complicated relationship of two brothers and the magic of fly fishing for trout in the Blackfoot River. We highly recommend it, especially for a young Brad Pitt and for the acting of our former Board member, Tom Skerritt.

Cape Fear (1991 remake)

While most of this thriller was filmed in Florida, it’s supposed to take place in Essex, NC and along the Cape Fear River. The Cape Fear was named one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2017. We’re not sure Robert DeNiro would want to cruise down the Cape Fear in a boat if he knew how threatened the river is from industrial agriculture waste.

Red Gold

Love a good documentary? This one follows the subsistence and commercial salmon fishermen of Bristol Bay, Alaska, as they work tirelessly to make their living off the land and water, and combat the proposed open pit gold and copper Pebble Mine.

Ola i ka Wai: Water is Life

As the opening line of the movie says, “fair access to water is going to be one of the pivotal issues of our time.” The short film looks into Hawaiʻi’s water resources and whether the state is following the laws written into its constitution.

The Memory of Fish

One man, the wild salmon he loves, and his fight to free a river. This beautiful, award-winning documentary follows the fight to remove dams along Washington’s Elwha River. Who doesn’t love a good dam removal?


The 1974 Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway classic was inspired by the California water wars, a series of disputes over southern California water at the beginning of the 20th century, by which Los Angeles interests secured water rights in the Owens Valley.

African Queen

With a 100% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, this movie follows a riverboat captain who’s convinced by a missionary to attack an enemy warship during World War I. The film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1994, with the Library of Congress deeming it “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

This RomCom-Drama is about a fisheries expert who is recruited by a consultant to help realize a sheikh’s vision of bringing the sport of fly fishing to the Yemen desert. Will the river be suitable for salmon populations and who ends up with Emily Blunt? You’ll have to watch to find out.

Ocean’s 11

Our Communications Director in the Colorado River Basin recommended this one “since it is set in Vegas and as we know, that is 100% Colorado River water.”

The River Wild

A family on a whitewater rafting trip encountering two violent criminals in the wilderness which also includes Meryl Streep whitewater rafting? Count us in. It also includes Kevin Bacon, since we all have some six degree connection to him. Spoiler alert, the “Salmon River” they’re rafting is actually parts of the Kootenai, Colorado, and Rogue rivers.

White Water Summer

An even younger Kevin Bacon in the wilderness with teenage guys (including Sean Astin), and of course something will go wrong. Please take notes on canoe safety during this film.

The Bridge of the River Kwai

With the most Academy Awards of any on this list, The Bridge on the River Kwai, is a true classic. In 1997, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress. It is included on the American Film Institute’s list of best American films ever made. Go. Watch. It.


If you don’t sing ‘Just Around The Riverbend’ while canoeing/kayaking, you’re doing it wrong.

6 responses to “The Definitive List of River Movies

  1. So glad that you included 2 documentary films: The Memory of Fish & Water is Life. Independent documentary film makers need to receive greater opportunity to distribute their message. Thank you for including them on your list.

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