10 great river films

From Deliverance to Embrace of the Serpent. Come on in, the water’s fine.

17 March 2022

By Trevor Johnston

River (2021)
© Yann Arthus-Bertrand

It’s one of the most thrilling single-take moments you’ll see on screen this year. In Jennifer Peedom and Joseph Nizeti’s doc-essay feature River, a drone camera hovers over the surface of an ice-field at altitude before picking up a trickle of running water that emerges, skimming just above the surging flow as it tumbles down a rocky slope before a plunging waterfall drop. 

Here’s the mystery of creation unfolding to breathtaking effect before your very eyes, while the rest of the film offers a beautifully shot meditation on man’s relationship with rivers – how they hydrate the landscape and support our communities, just as we divert and dam them, more often for our benefit than the life in the rivers themselves. 

It’s a captivating and meditative piece, which can’t help but prompt thoughts on how cinema has elsewhere treated the river on screen. As the dynamic, ever-changing setting which Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe navigate by raft in Otto Preminger’s River of No Return (1954), for instance, or the frame (well, strictly, it’s a northern French canal) for one of celluloid’s most delirious love stories, the barge-set amours of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934).

That said, it’s not perhaps the most obvious filmic choices which get into the nitty gritty of what a river can represent in social or historical terms, or as the lifeblood of a human community. Ponder the subject a bit further and the standout river films aren’t primarily those which take astute advantage of their watery locations – whether it’s the Conradian upstream odyssey of Apocalypse Now (1979) or the southern-gothic anxieties haunting both versions of Cape Fear – but those where the very idea of the river is front and central to the story, and thematically embedded in the weft and weave of the narrative. 

From 1930s Tennessee to China’s Three Gorges, 16th-century Amazonia to frontier-era Oregon, modern-day Seoul to the Montana of yesteryear, the selection below takes you to some of the world’s great river systems. In each case the ultimate destination is always a deeper understanding of how mankind’s ambitions and failings play out through our complex and often compromised stewardship of the natural world.

River is in cinemas and on BFI Player from 18 March 2022.

The River (1951)

Director: Jean Renoir

The River (1951)

Having moved to the US to escape war-torn Europe, Jean Renoir had a troubled career in Hollywood before he got together with culturally ambitious Los Angeles florist Kenneth McEldowney and set in motion this astute adaptation of Rumer Godden’s memoir of growing up in colonial India. It was the first time Technicolor cameras had visited the country, and while the documentary-style coverage of lives on West Bengal’s river tributaries is highly valuable, this is unashamedly an outsider’s view. Still, Renoir’s characteristic compassion for and understanding of all his characters shines through, as an exquisitely calibrated passage of events through jealousy and desire, birth and death see Patricia Walters’ sensitive teenager observing the river’s ebb and flow as a key to understanding the widening complexities of life. 

Reportedly Renoir’s favourite among his own films, it makes a remarkable complement to Ritwik Ghatak’s 1973 class-conscious Bangladeshi melodrama A River Called Titas, listed below, which views a similar long-established river community from a very different starting perspective.

Bend of the River (1952)

Director: Anthony Mann

Bend of the River (1952)

Made for a variety of studios, Anthony Mann’s 1950s westerns represent the connoisseur’s choice for many genre aficionados. This marvellous early offering features his signature actor James Stewart in an archetypal role as the former outcast gunslinger trying to integrate with honest society. Mann then threads this through genuine history as frontier folk seek to settle in the Pacific Northwest. 

Hence it’s the river valleys that facilitate Stewart and his wagon train of eager settlers to make the daunting trek from Missouri to Oregon, and it’s the Columbia River that enables them to travel upstream to claim new pastures in the mountains. Hostile attacks from native tribes notwithstanding, they’re making good progress until the Gold Rush throws the local economy into greed-fuelled chaos. Stewart has to call on his special skills, without alienating the kindly farmers who don’t know how bad he really is. This is classic storytelling, meshing pin-sharp dramatic instincts with a fascinating slice of 1850s America – all shot on real river locations.

Wild River (1960)

Director: Elia Kazan

Wild River (1960)

While the 2021 doc River expresses some scepticism on the value of dams, which filter out the valuable sediments in the water, this New Deal drama takes the opposite view. We open with terrifying 1930s flood footage of the Tennessee River bringing death and destruction. Enter Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority with powers to buy up land to be flooded for a new dam to tame the river. Thoughtful Montgomery Cliff is the latest agent to come up against the final hold-out: Jo Van Fleet’s determined old lady, who refuses to give up her island home for any damn government. 

Massively altering the Tennessee landscape may yet prove an easier task than winning over one dogged individualist, even if her values (Black labourers work the soil in near-slavery) are a toxic reminder of times past. Ultimately, Kazan delivers a paean to the power of positive intervention, but Clift’s sensible do-good attitudes struggle to make an impact on the emotive arena of land ownership and its associated capacity for economic exploitation. A gnarly and intriguing confrontation.

Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

Director: Werner Herzog

Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

Peru, the 1560s. Spanish conquistadors venture upstream in the Amazon in search of El Dorado, their desire for financial gain and national glory contending with the challenging river conditions and the ever-present threat of poisoned darts from local tribes. Werner Herzog’s first collaboration with compellingly unhinged lead Klaus Kinski displays the director’s characteristic gambit of disrupting you-are-there doc-style conviction with surreal interjections, thus achieving a kind of celluloid dream state. 

It’s historical drama as philosophical essence, real-life individuals in a story exemplifying man’s futile quest to own every single tree and drop of water. Where the river in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is definitely Vietnam, there’s a sense here that the river is somehow all rivers. As his expedition’s prospects go from bad to worse, the power of Aguirre’s delusion only intensifies. He declares independence from his colonial masters to crown himself the Emperor of New Spain, the contours of the endless river expressible only in terms of dominion. Eventually, the camera circles his stricken raft, inscribing an inescapable vortex of ego-fuelled oblivion.

Deliverance (1972)

Director: John Boorman

Deliverance (1972)

Another huge dam project in the deep south, but whatever social benefits it might bring, it also impinges on leisure opportunities for a quartet of white middle-class Atlanta males, who decide to take a canoe trip down the (fictional) Cahulawassee River before it’s swallowed up by the new development. For these four, everything is about consumption, the river experience a product to be enjoyed. Less so for the local underclass about to have their meagre livelihoods affected by a dam representing remote government policy. 

The latter’s attack on the puffed-up interlopers has a horror-movie ferocity about it, putting the audience on the side of the movie stars (Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds) in jeopardy. Yet Boorman refuses to endorse the rich guys’ entitlement to treat the raging tides as their plaything, or indeed the vengeful yokels as mere collateral damage in their deliverance from an unfolding nightmare. They would never make this today, not least for the sheer white-water peril to which the A-list cast are exposed, but also the uncomfortable moral lessons to which our ‘heroes’ are unflinchingly subjected.

A River Called Titas (1973)

Director: Ritwik Ghatak

A River Called Titas (1973)

Restored in 2010 with the involvement of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, this unique amalgam of documentary realism and hyper-emotional melodrama exemplifies the characteristically confrontational cinema of Ritwik Ghatak – who operated in a different stylistic register from fellow Bengali, Satyajit Ray, but also deserves to be considered a giant of his national cinema. Dedicated “to the myriad toilers of everlasting Bengal”, it focuses on the women who are lowest in the social hierarchy of already poverty-stricken fishing communities, particularly when early widowhood limits their chances yet further. 

While the plot involves almost hallucinatory levels of misfortune, Ghatak’s fiercely individual editing style leaves you in no doubt of his dedicated empathy in the face of their suffering. Where Renoir in The River sees the rise and fall of tides as a measure of certainty underpinning human lives, there’s no such reassurance for Ghatak, whose eponymous river mysteriously runs dry. Terrible news for the fishermen, yet Ghatak also reads such ecological volatility as a metaphor for the possibility of social change, however remote it might seem.

A River Runs Through It (1992)

Director: Robert Redford

A River Runs Through It (1992)

A great fly-fisherman can read the river, the fish and the weather to act in complete sync with all of creation. Norman Maclean’s revered 1976 semi-autobiographical novella A River Runs Through It aimed to pass on his stern Protestant minister father’s teaching that whoever could master such moments would be equipped for a good life. On screen though, this family drama set in 1920s and 30s rural Montana, also suggests that fly-fishing prowess can be squandered as well as learned. 

Craig Sheffer gets the unshowy part as the decent brother who says all the right things but is a bit dull, while fresh off Thelma & Louise, a youthful Brad Pitt is devil-may-care dashing, cataclysmically handsome, a poet of fly-fishing, and irritating beyond words. The film’s dramatic outcome is no surprise, yet when Redford himself delivers Maclean’s pellucid prose in voiceover, Philippe Rousselot’s camera captures magic hour on the Big Blackfoot River, and the fishing-line cuts a cursive trajectory before catching the water, everything really is right with the world.

The Host (2006)

Director: Bong Joon Ho

The Host (2006)

Before the Oscar-laden triumph of Parasite (2019), Korean maverick Bong Joon Ho lifted his game from arthouse mainstay to purveyor of multiplex-friendly fare thanks to this intelligent take on monster-movie mayhem. The river Han, which passes through Seoul, is certainly an imposing waterway, and delivers quite a shock when a flying, leaping, swimming, schoolgirl-chomping hybrid creature emerges from its steel-grey depths, spawned by a chemical spill at a secret US-funded lab. 

At a basic level, this is an ecological cautionary tale, perhaps also questioning South Korea’s reliance on US support. Yet the operation to reassert control over the river flags up the shadows of the country’s authoritarian past, barely a couple of decades after it was still under military government. Bong’s treatment also exposes Korea’s defined social hierarchy (as in Parasite), with the loafer dad and his former student activist brother proving just as valuable in the tussle against the slimy predator as the champion archer sister, doyenne of the national sport. Not just a creature-feature then. What emerges from the river is state-of-the-nation drama.

Still Life (2006)

Director: Jia Zhangke

Still Life (2006)

Finding dramatic avenues to enhance his doc-influenced recording of China’s epochal social changes at the start of the 21st century brought director Jia Zhangke deserved recognition from international critics. Winner of the Golden Lion at Venice, this languid slice-of-life shows human lives displaced with barely a second thought by the Three Gorges Dam project, a huge infrastructure project emblematic of the state’s power and ambition. With the water level rising in stages as the dam expands, it means demolishing whole communities and moving on the population, with unfortunate consequences for estranged partners like the central characters here, who are left bereft when attempting to relocate their exes. 

As the title suggests, Jia captures a moment in time here, moving through semi-ruined towns about to disappear for good beneath the river. As a visual document it’s incredibly valuable, yet while the story isn’t exploited for melodrama, as the characters’ fates unfold they too must decide what they can leave behind, and what they can take with them, as they emerge from this traumatic period of national transition.

Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

Director: Ciro Guerra

Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

If Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God folds historical facts into a metaphorical dream state, this acclaimed Colombian feature delivers an equally complex perspective on Amazonian exploration and its disastrous effect on native cultures. Moving back and forth between the 1909 and 1941 journeys of two different foreign arrivals each seeking a mythical rare plant with reputedly extraordinary medicinal powers, the film shows how the Amazon became an object of fascination for western academics, even as their rubber barons and errant clerics brought exploitation and suffering to the innocent tribes. 

Gorgeous black-and-white cinematography delineates every ripple on the water and gently wafting foliage, creating an imposing vision of a verdant realm visited by such iniquity. In both narrative threads, however, a reflective shaman maintains the river is but a gateway to the secret native hallucinogens granting some (but not all) partakers privileged access to the hidden truths of creation. In the end, the visitors have brought despoliation to this landscape, but, frankly, we still don’t know the half of it.

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