Paddling is surprisingly scarce in Hollywood films. We had to scrape the bottom of the boat, so to speak, to make a list of 10 flicks that revolve around paddling to some degree. Some of them are a stretch. The African Queen isn’t really about paddling, for example, but it is about running a river, and it’s a really good movie. Whitewater Summer isn’t really a good movie, but it’s about paddling.
Why so few? To be fair, paddling is still at the periphery of mainstream America—something most people did once at summer camp in a beat-up Grumman—hardly the plot driver that, say, a bank robbery is. That lack of profile accounts for most of it. But what about whitewater—as classic a man-versus-nature device as can be found? Why hasn’t Hollywood embraced it more often? Because it’s hard to make work on film.
Former raft guide and filmmaker Scott Featherstone (Same River Twice ) explains, “We were told that to produce an independent film on the river was ambitious, if not flat-out nuts.” It’s just logistically difficult, and it can’t be faked on a stage like, say, a cliff face. Most of the whitewater films on the list portray it poorly either because it’s too hard to do (Up the Creek, River of No Return ), or else the director ignores the reality of river running (Whitewater Summer, The African Queen ) to the point that a hallmark of paddling films is laughable whitewater sequences.
Another hallmark to watch for is the against all odds run down the notorious and unrunnable rapids cliché (The River Wild, River of No Return, African Queen ). Another, stranger hallmark is the casting of Kevin Bacon (The River Wild, Whitewater Summer. ) That guy is everywhere.
The hallmark that weaves every film on the list together, though, is the theme of “the journey.” Every paddling trip is an adventure that changes the participants, sometimes bringing us closer, sometimes revealing our true natures. It’s a theme that goes all the way back to Huck Finn—the ultimate river story—and a theme every paddler knows personally.
With that, here are our top picks, in order:
Top 14 Paddling Feature Films
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1. The Undamaged
This movie is all about protecting the last remaining free-flowing rivers of Europe. The protagonists decided to do something to protect the fragile ecosystem of the Balkans by staging a protest against the plan of the government to set up more than 2700 dams to generate hydropower. A motley crew of photographers, filmmakers, and whitewater kayakers decided to paddle from Slovenia to Albania to show their unwavering support for the locals who are dead against the idea of setting up so many dams that will decimate the free flow of the last untamed river of Europe.
2. Chasing Niagara
This is not a film that centers around kayaking rather it is basically a colorful and eventful journey of some like-minded kayakers who decided to paddle over Niagara Falls. Rafa Ortiz was definitely behind this grand idea but later he was joined by world-renowned paddler Rush Sturges and a team of professionals to make it happen. It took almost three years but it definitely worth it.
Klown shows how things can turn horribly wrong even when you have the best intention. It all started when the main protagonist of the movie – the hero decided to prove to his would-be wife that he has all the characteristics of a great husband. He decided to take his girlfriend on a canoe trip. But things did not go as planned as his best buddy decided to use this opportunity to bed as many girls as possible.
4. Paddle To The Ocean
What are you going to do if one of your buddies happens to die in an accident? Well, you will definitely feel devastated right? Of course, you will but Musician Zac Crouse decided to do something in memory of his best friend Corey. Zac Crouse decided to go on a journey from Ottawa ON to Halifax NS that involves kayaking and biking. This is more than a journey rather a kind of catharsis. Paddle To The Ocean is basically a documentary that demonstrates the power of physical activity and music to overcome post-traumatic distress.
5. Deliverance (1972)
A classic in any genre. The writing and directing are masterful, and the story is wholly original. Deliverance is the top paddling film, though, because before things get scary, it captures the feel and spirit of a paddling adventure better than any movie ever has. Lewis (Burt Reynolds) and his pals set off down the never-been-run fictitious Cahulawassee to get a look before it’s flooded under a reservoir. Their simple exhilaration upon rounding turn after unknown turn and shooting dozens of thrilling rapids in the achingly-tippy canoes is an adventure we can all relate to. This river journey changes the characters forever—but not in a good way. Adapted from poet James Dickey’s novel—indisputably the best fiction ever written about a canoe trip—Deliverance is spare, raw and continues to resonate 30 years later. Plus, it contains the four most notorious words in the history of film: “Squeal like a pig.”
6. The African Queen (1951)
Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn. ‘Nuff said. Despite the fact that there isn’t a stroke of paddling in this movie (our intrepid heroes descend the unrunnable rapids of the Ulonga-Bora in a steam-powered launch), those two superstars pilot this movie squarely into the number-two spot. Bogey won his only Oscar as the weak-willed captain of the tramp steamer African Queen, and Hepburn’s turn as the spinster Rose Sayer shows the remarkable range she’s known for. The odd couple’s rogue mission down the notorious rapids (filmed on the Zambezi) during WWI to blow up a German warship is a classic river-romance: A bold and tumultuous first descent pitches the couple together into an unlikely love affair (much like many a Grand Canyon float trip). Though the whitewater sequences are as canned as you’d expect from a movie made in 1951—you can see the dummy tied to the tiller flopping around as the boat careens down the rapids—this movie captures the spirit of a river trip (into the unknown, the bonding of participants), and they kick a little Kaiser butt to boot. Oh, yeah, the famous “whitewater rapids” exchange may be the best thing ever written about the frothy stuff.
7. Black Robe (1991)
This grim flick about French Catholic missionaries traveling in the Great Lakes region during the 17th century features some stellar canoeing. The missionaries make a long journey through the Great Lakes with their Algonquin guides in birch-bark canoes at the onset of winter, displaying absolutely believable paddling form. You just know these characters have paddled all their lives and would easily kick even modern canoe-racing legend Serge Corbin’s ass in a race. The stunning cinematography of the Great Lakes region is a fitting tribute to the cradle of canoe country, but the movie is basically depressing. A classic of the ’90s White Guilt School in the style of The Mission, Black Robe chronicles the moral battles of the pathetic and utterly un-likeable lead missionary against the backdrop of a tragically doomed people. It’s hard to feel good about being a European in North America after watching this film, but the documentary-quality reconstruction of the Lake tribes’ way of life alone makes this film well worth watching.
8. The White Mile (1994)
This sleeper was made by HBO but nevertheless features some big names (Alan Alda, Peter Gallagher) and the most authentic whitewater sequence of any movie ever. The details of the ill-fated raft trip are so dead-on you’d swear it was written by a salty river guide. The doomed characters use real river commands (“all back, forward, stop”), hold their paddles correctly and the ensuing courtroom sequence even features a cameo by river safety expert Les Bechtel. Though it’s basically a made-for-TV movie, The White Mile succeeds because it doesn’t try to be something more than that. With the disaster sequence filmed in an extremely edgy style largely on the American River in California, this is one whitewater film that will impress even pros. Indeed, the liability issues it raises make The White Mile a good film to show at a guide school.
9. The River Wild (1994)
Even Meryl Streep couldn’t guide this leaky story through the Hollywood gauntlet. The story is basically unbelievable—a pair of outlaws (one of whom is Kevin Bacon!) hijack a former raft guide’s family raft trip in the hopes that she can row them away from The Law. Streep’s character steps up and makes the clichéd against all odds run down the unrunnable falls even though she hasn’t run rapids in a decade descent at gunpoint. The falls take care of the bad guys and Streep’s heroics galvanize the shaky family situation. It could happen. (No, really.) Though Streep immersed herself in the art of rowing and graduated to running Class IV in preparation for the role, and thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent to make the whitewater sequences seem real, they don’t quite make it. The best thing about this movie are the dramatic exchanges between Streep and Bacon, two very fine actors.
10. Grey Owl (1998)
Only the fact that the canoeing in this film is secondary to the story puts this fine film this far down on the list. Crafted in classic Hollywood style by director Richard Attenborough, Grey Owl is a classic feel-good. Based on the amazing true story of Archie Belaney, an Englishman who secretly transformed himself into first an Indian and then a best-selling author and visionary voice for conservation, the movie’s strong writing and acting (surprisingly, by Pierce Brosnan) make it a joy to watch. The movie puts a pretty fine polish on Belaney, who, in reality, was a womanizing alcoholic whose last wife ultimately left him. Nevertheless, the film has a terrific conservation message. On the paddling side, Brosnan does some convincing paddling—even mastering the J-stroke and stepping in and out of the canoe like an old hand.
11. River of No Return (1954)
Marilyn Monroe does whitewater! Though River of No Return isn’t a good film, it’s fun to watch the bombshell prance around on a classic lashed-log sweep-raft. Filmed in British Columbia on some pretty big whitewater, River of No Return is a classic bonding-on-the-river story in the style of The African Queen, but (despite the presence of Robert Mitchum) without nearly the chops. Cabaret singer Monroe’s gambler husband steals farmer Mitchum’s horse and rifle and the unlikely partners are forced to pursue the bandit downstream through the, surprise, un-runnable gorge. The stuntmen do admirable work getting their craft down rapids that would make many hairboaters blanch, but the problem is you have to sit through Marilyn’s singing to watch it.
12. The Same River Twice (1996)
Though an extremely accurate portrayal of a multi-day float trip, The Same River Twice tries a little too hard. Without the star power of Marilyn or Streep, and in the hands of a mediocre film editor, it falls down the list. Filmed by avid river-runner Scott Featherstone, who worked very hard to capture the feel of running rapids and the mystical bonding that happens on river trips, the film’s strong suit is the cinematic treatment of Idaho’s classic rivers. The story follows a group of former guides now grown up who land a Middle Fork of the Salmon permit to rehash their glory days, facing the reality of their lives and a shared emotional scar. While the characters succeed in the film, mostly hitting their lines, the film falls into some pretty sappy holes.
13. Up the Creek (1984)
Possibly the worst movie of all time. The Hot Dog of whitewater films will not disappoint if you can’t get enough of deplorable ’80s frat-house comedy (and there’s plenty of you people out there—I have a friend who can recite lines from Up the Creek ). Tim Matheson and Stephen Furst of Animal House fame (Greg and Flounder) stagger through the debauched inter-collegiate raft race, displaying disregard for rafting technique and reality so emphatically that it pretty much works in its own context. It’s generally not very funny, but where else can you see evil preppies make a dozen rafts actually explode in fireballs? Consummate line from the film: “Are you ladies here for the raft race?” “No, we’re here to get laid.”
14. Whitewater Summer (1987)
This movie doesn’t work on any level (except for the Kevin Bacon axiom), but by virtue of its title, must be included on the list. The plot is that four teenage boys sign up for a wilderness trip with Bacon as their leader. Bacon leads them on a team-building experience that turns dangerous when his leadership goes awry. The humble runt of a hero suddenly pulls incredible wilderness skills and fortitude out of his butt and singlehandedly saves the day. The acting is awful, the writing worse and the ’80s soundtrack will drive you nuts. What’s worse, the Class IV-V whitewater run by the total novice teenager in a Coleman canoe is so far-fetched it will make you cringe. The bright spot: some impressive stunt paddling work in the canoeing sequences on some fantastic New Zealand rivers. Don’t watch this movie.