— Story by NICK CARLSON
Filmmakers have had a fascination with using rivers as a location throughout cinematic history. They have woven timeless stories around these waterways that have both enthralled us and haunted us. How can we ever forget classics like The Bridge of the River Kwai, Cape Fear, Apocalypse Now, and A River Runs Through It?
These flowing streams not only serve as daunting obstacles in the struggle between man and nature, but also as stunning backdrops. They showcase our leading star’s perilous journey through rough and churning waters on a voyage that will lead them to either triumph or transformation.
Humphrey Bogart, who won his only Oscar for his role in The African Queen, uttered one of my favorite river movie lines: “I don’t blame you for being scared – not one bit. Nobody with good sense ain’t scared of whitewater.”
But we’re glad to be aboard this trip. We have enthusiastically embraced the river, just as Katharine Hepburn’s character did when she replied: “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!”
So as the 91st Academy Awards are quickly approaching, here is a list of my favorites, involving some action-packed whitewater scenes and of course plenty of river time.
The African Queen (1951)
Arguably one of the greatest river movies of all time, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn take on the jungle, rapids, and the German Navy in this classic movie adventure. Filmed on the Ruiki River, in the heart of the Belgian Congo at Murchison Falls near Lake Victoria in Uganda, just making this movie was a monumental test of endurance for both the cast and crew. They endured sickness, spartan living conditions and even brushes with wild animals and poisonous snakes while on location.
The African Queen deck was tight and too small to shoot on, given the size of the bulky Technicolor cameras. While on the river, most of the filming had to be done on a sprawling raft mock-up in order to shoot the close-ups. The cumbersome raft (built over three large canoes) would get stuck on submerged logs, while cameras and lights would get caught in the overhanging foliage of the jungle.
“The hysteria of each shot was a nightmare,” wrote Hepburn in her 1987 memoir The Making of The African Queen. "The engine on the Queen would stop. Or one of the propellers would be fouled up by the dragging rope. Or we would be attacked by hornets."
The scenes considered too dangerous to shoot on the river were shot in studio water tanks in Isleworth Studios, Middlesex. And in the days before CGI, the dramatic sequence of the African Queen going over a waterfall and through rapids was actually an eight-foot model boat shot through a telephoto lens. Filmmakers layered their footage, incorporating the location sequences with the miniature boat careening over a waterfall.
The River of No Return (1954)
Riding the wave of success from The African Queen, moviegoers returned to theaters to journey downriver again, but this time with blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe rocking the boat.
While trying to start a new life together with his son after being released from prison, Robert Mitchum works his farm along the river, only to have Monroe and her low-life gambler fiancé wash up along its shores.
On the run, the gambler knocks out Mitchum, steals his horse and rifle, and leaves the three stranded and surrounded by hostile Native Americans, with only one escape.
“The Indians call it the River of No Return,” Mitchum’s character says as they head into a series of treacherous rapids. “From here on, you’ll find out why.”
Including the raft trip down the river, the film is an action-packed Western with mountain lions, ambushes and gunfights, but Monroe is still given time to serenade us with four songs, including the movie’s willowy title tune.
Filmed in British Columbia on the Bow River, the production was plagued with problems, with insistence from the director that the cast would perform many of their own stunts. In one incident, Monroe’s hip waders filled with water, dragging her under and nearly drowning her after slipping on a rock in the river. Mitchum and others jumped to her rescue, but her ankle was injured as a result.
Another mishap occurred when Monroe and Mitchum’s raft became broached on the rocks in the middle of the river, nearly capsizing before some quick-thinking stuntmen saved the day and pulled them off the rocks.
It was much safer but not much drier for them while filming the remaining scenes indoors in Los Angeles. Onboard a hydraulic platform in front of a giant screen, Monroe and Mitchum clung to rafting props, while men stood to the sides and splashed them with buckets of water.
Even people who have never seen the film have encountered the legacy of Deliverance, especially those who are connected to the paddling community. From bumper stickers and T-shirts reading, 'Paddle faster, I hear banjos,' to hearing the iconic movie line “squeal like a pig," the film will forever cause us to “squirm with angst.”
It’s a Heart of Darkness-like voyage into the rural backwoods of the south, as four suburban Atlanta men take a weekend canoe trip down the fictional Cahulawassee River in the Georgia Mountain’s wilderness. Burt Reynolds’ character calls it the "the last wild, untamed, unpolluted, unf*cked-up river in the South.” But time is ticking. In a short time the river, the rapids, and even the town will be flooded over with the imminent construction of a dam.
After a bumpy ride through rapids, the light-hearted adventure turns to horror when they encounter a pair of dangerous mountain men. Separated from the others, John Voight’s character was tied to a tree and could only watch helplessly as his canoe partner Ned Beatty is violently raped by one of the men. That attack sets off a chilling sequence of events, including a disastrous turn through whitewater that challenges the canoeist’s moral codes as they fight to survive.
Filmed on northern Georgia’s Chattooga River, the actors who performed their own stunts spent two weeks learning to canoe the rapids.
“We rehearsed for quite a long period,” director John Boorman, told The Guardian in a 2017 interview, “Because we had to get the actors up to scratch in archery and canoeing. I had already been down the Chattooga, a ferocious river, to make sure it was safe.”
In the scene where the canoe broke in two (five were actually destroyed during filming), Boorman coordinated a release of water from the upstream Tallulah Falls dam.
“I got them to close all the sluice gates upstream, so only a trickle came down,” Boorman recalled in the interview, “That let us build rails on the riverbed, so we could mount the canoe on them, and trigger the breakup later. When we came to shoot, I was down at the bottom of the cataract on the phone to the dam. But I got impatient and got them to open all the gates. We just about survived the avalanche of water.”
While Boorman was down below, tough-guy Reynolds (who nixed using a dummy in the shot because the stunt coordinator thought it looked too phony), requested to have the scene re-shot with himself going over the falls instead.
“I dream sometimes of the water coming,” years later Reynolds told the Hollywood Reporter, “I looked around and there was a tidal wave coming at me. I went over the falls and the first thing that happened I hit a rock and cracked my tailbone, and to this day it hurts. Then I went down to the water below and it was a whirlpool. I couldn't get out and a guy there said if you get caught, just go to the bottom. You can get out but you can’t swim against it. So I went down to the bottom. What he didn't tell me was it was going to shoot me up like a torpedo. So I went out.”
Years before the phrase “wardrobe malfunction” would become popular, Reynolds would have one while caught in the force of that churning whirlpool.
“They said later that they saw this 30-year-old guy in costume go over the waterfall and then about fifteen minutes later they saw this nude man come out,” Reynolds recalled in the interview, “It had torn everything—my boots and everything off.”
River Wild (1994)
We don’t think of Meryl Streep as an action star, but when she says “We’re are risking death a number of times on this trip”, we know we’re in for a wild ride. She stars as a suburban mom and former whitewater rafter who, while trying to save her marriage, battles wits with an evil Kevin Bacon and runs a dangerous stretch of river called the Gauntlet.
“It’s off the scale,” Streep’s character says. “One man was killed, and another one paralyzed for life. The Rangers no longer allow anyone to try it.”
Many of the movie’s whitewater scenes were filmed on Montana’s Kootenai River, while other scenes were shot on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, the Colorado River in Utah, and Oregon’s Rogue River.
While most of the dangerous river scenes did require expert stunt doubles, Streep did several of her own stunts in the film on some milder river sections, but even those had some peril when the star was swept off the raft into the river.
“Actually, I was really very quiet and not scared, which is not at all how I thought I’d react under these circumstances,” Streep told The New York Times in 1994. “I remember sinking down to the bottom with this powerful and freezing water pulling me in deeper.”
Wearing a PFD, she was rescued by a hired kayaker after the river pushed her 500 yards downstream.
The White Mile (1994)
Like Titanic and The Perfect Storm, we have no doubts about the fate of the rafters. But it’s hard to look away as we watch their misguided steps that lead to disaster. Loosely based on a true story, the movie depicts an advertising agency taking 11 executives rafting on Canada’s Chilko River. On a Class V section of the river known as the White Mile, the rafters suffer catastrophe after their raft capsizes, tossing them all into the raging current. In the end five men are killed, setting up moral crisis within their corporate world when the surviving relatives file a liability suit against the firm.
A not-so-nice Alan Alda stars as a hard-charging and unrepentant advertising executive who bullies not only his colleagues and clients into the male-bonding trip, but also the raft guide by piling too many men into the raft.
During filming however, California’s South Fork of the American River (standing in for the Chilko River) dished out more than a few licks on Alda.
In a 1994 interview with St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Alda discusses how he and co-star Robert Loggia were struggling to stay afloat in the rapids while shooting one of the extremely edgy and authentic whitewater sequences above a big drop in the river.
“We didn’t go over, but we came close enough I remember thinking to myself,” recalled Alda “When the hell are they going to come out here with one of those kayaks?’ Everybody thought the scene was going great and they weren’t going to interrupt it. We had gone twice as far they said we would before they stopped us. And we were heading for the waterfall!”
Without A Paddle (2004)
While Deliverance and The White Mile made us all cringe, the trio in Without A Paddle can only make us smile at their awkward ineptitude on the wild river.
When asked if he had done any paddling before, Dax Shepard’s character boasts with confidence. When pressed by the outfitter, “So… are you a Class… 4, 5?”, Shepard’s character gloats, “Why don’t you try to put those numbers together. Yeah. I shot a Class 45, and haven’t lost a man yet.”
In search of legendary skyjacker D.B. Cooper’s loot in the Oregon wilderness, the three childhood buddies encounter a bear, a pair of sexy treehuggers, a couple of bumbling but well-armed pot farmers and, with a nod to Deliverance, even wild-bearded Burt Reynolds.
Shot in New Zealand, the producers use sections of the Waikato River and Wellington's Hutt River for the boating scenes and South Auckland's Hunua Falls for our hapless canoeist’s trip over the falls. The actors performed many of their own stunts, including paddling their canoe through some hurtling rapids.
“We capsized that boat more times than I care to relate to you,” actor Seth Green told The Morning Call in 2004 interview.
Some of my other favorite whitewater flicks include: Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, Whitewater Summer, The River Why, Rooster Cogburn and The Lady, A River Runs Through It and Black Robe.
— Read more from Carlson’s Outside Adventure to the Max blog, plus previous work that’s appeared on C&K, including his op-ed reflecting on the 2018 kayaking tragedy on Lake Superior.