Water is a theme that runs through all forms of popular culture, from books to myths to Hollywood and international films, with a growing number of shorter video pieces posted online at YouTube and similar sites. Having trouble keeping your Netflix list populated? Below are some classic (good and bad) movies – good and bad – with some kind of water theme: conflict over water in classic western movies; science-fiction thrillers with a water component; visions of the apocalypse where water access or contamination plays a role; and more. (An early version of this list was published in the last volume of our biennial water book “The World’s Water Volume 7.” [The opinions and comments on the films below are my own. I know people have strong feelings about movies…]
A later blog post will offer some of the many water documentaries and videos out there, and some interesting TV episodes as well.
Feel free to add other suggestions in the comments, and I’ll update my list!
- Three Word Brand (1921): Paul and Brand (twins separated at birth, played by William S. Hart) become, respectively, governor of Utah and a partner in a ranch where neighboring ranchers are trying to get control of local water rights.
- Riders of Destiny (1933): Government agent Saunders (John Wayne) fights a local rancher who controls the local water supply and is trying to force other ranchers into contracts for water at exorbitant rates.
- King of the Pecos (1936): John Wayne stars in a classic battle over western water rights and land in the Pecos River country.
- Law of the Ranger (1937): Another western with a monopolistic rancher claiming local water rights. Bill Nash (John Merton), owner of the local water company and town boss, tries to control the valley’s water rights by building a reservoir, but he must get control of the key property and murders the rightful owner to do so.
- Oklahoma Frontier (1939): A land rush leads to an attempt to control the water rights in the Cherokee Strip (with Johnny Mack Brown).
- Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948): Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston seek their fortune in gold in Mexico. In one of the most important water-related movie quotes: around the 28-minute mark, Huston says, “Water is more precious than gold.” Winner of three Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Walter Huston), Best Directing (John Huston), Best Screenplay.
- Stampede (1949): Brothers Mike and Tim McCall (Rod Cameron and Don Castle) own a large ranch in Arizona. Stanley Cox (John Eldredge) and LeRoy Stanton (Donald Curtis) sell land to settlers, who arrive to find that the McCalls control all of the water. Fights ensue.
- The Big Country (1958): Retired, wealthy sea captain Jame McKay, played by Gregory Peck, arrives in the west to marry fiancée Pat Terrill. Pat’s father, Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), is involved in a ruthless civil war over watering rights for cattle.
- Wild River (1960): The drama about TVA dams and progress and the destruction of societies, communities and traditional ways of living. With Montgomery Cliff, Lee Remick. Directed by Eli Kazan.
- Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964): U.S. Air Force general Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) goes off the deep end and sends bombers to destroy the U.S.S.R because he suspects that the Communists are conspiring to pollute the water supply and the “precious bodily fluids” of the American people. Also starring, of course, George C. Scott and Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers, and Peter Sellers. Nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Peter Sellers), and Best Director (Stanley Kubrick).
- El Dorado (1966): John Wayne plays Cole Thornton, a gunfighter for hire who joins forces with an old friend, Sheriff J.P. Hara, played by Robert Mitchum, to help a rancher and his family fight a rival rancher trying to steal their water.
- Deliverance (1972): John Voight, Burt Reynolds. A last river trip on a river to be destroyed by a dam goes very bad. Squeal like a pig.
- Chinatown (1974): This is perhaps the classic water movie: a murder mystery centered on the political manipulations of water and land in turn-of-the-20th-century Los Angeles, with Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston, directed by Roman Polanski. Nominated for ten Oscars. Won for Best Original Screenplay. Want to see only one water movie? This is the one.
- The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976): David Bowie and Rip Torn in a brilliant and strange sci-fi story of a humanoid alien who comes to Earth to get water for his dying planet. The alien’s story is complicated by love and the ruthlessness of the business world.
- The Crazies (1978): George A. Romero’s low-budget film of a town affected by the accidental dumping of bio-weapons in their water supply, leading to murder, crazy psychoses, and a military crackdown.
- Dune (1984): Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi story of the desert planet Arrakis and the fight for control of the drug melange. Has a strong underlying ecological story about the control of water and other resources.
- Pale Rider (1985): Directed by and starring Clint Eastwood as a mysterious preacher who comes to a gold-mining camp near a small town in the mountains. The miners are facing a ruthless landowner who cuts off the water to drive them from their land and their gold claims. Eastwood kicks their butts, of course.
- Water (1985): A tiny poor Caribbean island (the island’s governor is played by Michael Caine) is completely forgotten by its British colonial masters, until an oil well strikes mineral water. Suddenly, the British, French, Americans, Cubans, and an incompetent local rebel are struggling for control.
- Solarbabies (1986): Another in a series of apocalyptic sci-fi stories with a water theme. In the future, a nuclear war has left the Earth a desert wasteland where the oceans have dried up. Most of the water supplies are controlled by the elite corporation E-Protectorate, which takes children away from their families.
- Jean de Florette and its sequel, Manon of the Spring (1986): Movies from Marcel Pagnol’s famous novel L’eau des Collines (or, The Water from the Hills, 1963). In a rural French village, an old man and his only remaining relative try to steal the waters of a spring from a neighbor. They block up the spring and watch as their neighbor struggles to water his crops. Starring Gerard Depardieu.
- Steel Dawn (1987): A post-apocalyptic world where a group of settlers are threatened by a murderous gang that wants the water they control. Featuring Patrick Swayze as the warrior who helps them. Swayze kicks their butts, of course.
- Milagro Beanfield War (1988): Milagro, a small town in the American Southwest, experiences conflict between developers and local Hispanic farmers over land and water. When one farmer diverts water to irrigate his beanfield, trouble arises. Directed by Robert Redford, with Rubén Blades, Richard Bradford and Sonia Braga. Won an Oscar for Best Music, Original Score.
- Xian dai hao xia zhuan (1993): Another post-apocalyptic story, set after a city has been devastated by nuclear attack. An evil villain controls the city’s scarce water supply, and three heroes fight to prevent a military takeover and to find clean water for the people of the city.
- Tank Girl (1995): Based on a British cult comic, a tank-riding anti-heroine (Lori Petty) fights a mega-corporation called Water and Power, which controls the world’s water supply. With early performances by Ice-T and Naomi Watts.
- Waterworld (1995): Kevin Costner in, uh, another post-apocalyptic world, where the land has disappeared and control of freshwater is a key plot element. Check out the opening scene where Costner (on a boat in an endless ocean) pees into a little distiller, filters the water, and drinks the output. You’ll get the idea. From a geophysical perspective (and many others), however, this film is classically bad.
A Civil Action (1998). John Travolta plays a lawyer who agrees to represent the families of children who died from leukemia after two large corporations dumped toxic chemicals into the water supply of Woburn, Massachusetts. Based on a true story involving the 1981 case of the People of Mass. vs. W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods
Erin Brockovich (2000): Julia Roberts stars as Erin Brockovich, a mother who becomes concerned about water pollution and challenges powerful corporations to stop the contamination of hexavalent chromium. This story is from real events and led to one of the largest class-action lawsuits in history.
- Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (2000): Johnson and Bent’s film about a disaffected man who starts to revenge himself against society for perceived slights, escalating to environmental terrorism and poisoning London’s water supplies.
- Oh Brother Where Art Thou (2000): George Clooney et al. and the flooding of a Tennessee valley as a metaphor for progress and the Age of Reason from Homer’s the Odyssey.
- Sabaku no kaizoku! Captain Kuppa (2001): Japanese anime. Sometime in the future, the world is completely dried up and water has become the most valuable commodity. Whoever controls water will control the world.
- Cabin Fever (2002): Pulp horror movie about a group of college friends vacationing in a cabin in the woods who become infected with a flesh-eating disease spread through contaminated water.
- The Tuxedo (2002): Jackie Chan costars with an animated tuxedo. People who watch this movie forget that the bad guy is a power-hungry bottled-water mogul trying to destroy the world’s natural water supply to force everyone to drink his bottled water.
- Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002): Part of the epic trilogy directed by Peter Jackson. In this, the second film, water is used as a weapon by the Ents, who destroy a dam in order to destroy and symbolically cleanse the stronghold of Isengard. Nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Picture); winner of Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects.
The Ents destroy the dam at Isengard from The Two Towers, directed by Peter Jackson.