What are the best river movies of all time, and why do rivers make such great metaphors?

The river in <i>Apocalypse Now</i> led into the heart of darkness.

The river in Apocalypse Now led into the heart of darkness.

Back in the 1950s, the long-forgotten Broadway musical Say, Darling had a hit song called “Somethin’s Always Happenin’ on the River.” The song is as forgotten as the show, but the very title has a powerful resonance. Something is always happening on the river—or under, in or around it.

Rivers have flowed, swelled, raged and eddied throughout human history. They serve as sources of food and drink, as highways for trade and transportation, and as powerful metaphors for the passage of time itself—ever-changing, yet always the same, rushing ceaselessly to the sea, that source of all life.

With all their metaphorical significance, rivers have been a powerful motif in literature, and their natural scenic qualities have ensured that the metaphor would translate easily to the screen. Whatever a river can be made to represent, there are memorable movies to illustrate the point. Here are some of my favorites:

The River As a Source of Wisdom and Strength

Show Boat (1936). No one who sees it can ever forget the great Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River” in the 1936 film of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s landmark musical. As he sits whittling by the waterfront and the camera swoops around him in almost a full circle, moving in to show the sunlight off the Mississippi sparkling in his eyes, it’s the perfect melding of subject, singer and song. Never mind that the “river” was really a tiny lake in the Universal Studios backlot; the film crystallizes the theme of the unchanging, all-knowing river that the stage play (and Edna Ferber’s inferior novel) can only suggest. There were other films of Show Boat, but only this one showcased the Mississippi as a major character in its own right.

A River Runs Through It (1992). Again, the river is a major character in director Robert Redford’s reverent filming of Norman Maclean’s novella. If anything, it’s a more interesting character than the two brothers (Craig Sheffer, Brad Pitt), whose lives diverge except when they pull on the hip-waders to go fly-fishing together. In Philippe Rousselot’s Oscar-winning cinematography, the waterways of Montana shimmer brightly as the golden, life-giving conduit from Mother Earth to puny humankind.

The River As Bringer of Peril

Deliverance (1972). In John Boorman’s classic (from James Dickey’s haunting novel), the vigorous euphoria of “Dueling Banjos” and a weekend with four middle-class good ol’ boys degenerates into rape, murder and a reckless flailing for survival on a wild Georgia river. Those who live through it (Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty) are changed forever by their glimpse into the churning whitewater abyss of malignant nature.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Don’t laugh. We’re back on the Universal lot, this time doubling (quite creditably) for the Amazon, in the quintessential ’50s monster flick. This one’s worth seeing for the superb underwater photography (originally in 3-D) and the atmosphere of fetid tropical menace.

The River As Fountain of Self-Discovery

The African Queen (1951). Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn discover adventure, romance, one another, and their own deeper natures in a voyage down the treacherous Congo in the early days of World War I, battling rapids, natural pests and bellicose Germans in one of the most exhilarating and entertaining movies of all time.

The Mountains of the Moon (1990). Bob Rafelson’s saga of Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke’s 19th-century quest for the source of the Nile was shamefully ignored in its day, but it still shines on video. It’s a fascinating adventure of two intrepid explorers plumbing the limits of their own endurance—movie adventure at its best, with the amazing virtue of being true in almost every detail.

The River As Seed of Obsession

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). A British POW in Burma (Alec Guinness) oversees the building of the title bridge, not realizing that his single-minded drive to preserve discipline and prove his superiority is aiding the Japanese war effort. A great action epic and a subtle psychological drama, this is one of the jewels of 1950s cinema.

Fitzcarraldo (1982). Was obsession ever more naked or horrifying than in the face of actor Klaus Kinski? Here, directed by Werner Herzog, he’s fixated not on spanning or navigating a river, but on simply reaching it, dragging a massive ship through the Peruvian jungle to bring grand opera to the natives. It’s a bizarre, enthralling journey.

The River As Open-Air Living Room

Steamboat Round the Bend (1935). Humorist Will Rogers’ last movie is supposedly about a steamboat race, but its main virtue is its relaxed bucolic ramble down the Mississippi (actually the Sacramento), with birds twittering, steam whistles mooing, and Rogers scratching behind his ears as he dispenses homey little sermonettes. Look for the Delta King as the rival steamboat, and Old Sacramento standing in for Memphis.

L’Atalante (1934). Frenchman Jean Vigo made only three films, and only this feature, before succumbing to leukemia at age 29; it’s sad to think what marvels he might have achieved. This one, about a barge captain and his new bride cruising the Seine, seems slow-moving, even boring—but wait, and be patient. The lyrical beauty of Vigo’s images gets under your skin, and the film stays with you long after you’ve forgotten how bored you thought you were.

The River As Highway to Hell

Apocalypse Now (1979). Orson Welles always wanted to film Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but never did. Updating the story to the Vietnam War, with Martin Sheen journeying up the Mekong to “terminate” the command of renegade Marlon Brando, Francis Ford Coppola gave a hint of what Welles might have accomplished. Half masterpiece, half ungodly mess, it’s a spellbinding, surreal excursion into paranoia and dread that collapses midway (as Sheen and Coppola did in real life) but remains unforgettable.

There have been dozens of other river-themed movies over the years, from Wild River (1960) to The River Wild (1994) and everything in between. We can’t get enough of them and, like Ol’ Man River himself, they just keep rollin’ along.