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. A surprising number of popular movies, going back almost to the first days of movie-making, have incorporated the issue of water disputes, contamination, conflicts over water rights and allocation, scarcity, and lots of sci-fi apocalyptic futures as central themes. Below is a list of some of these classic (good and bad) films. I first posted this in 2013, updated it in 2015, and this is a new 2020 update. Feel free to send me other suggestions 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).
- Adventures of Red Ryder (1940): An evil banker plans to profit from the Santa Fe Railroad's acquisition of right-of-way by gaining control of the land and intimidating local ranchers. During the fight to drive gunmen and outlaws out of the territory, Red Ryder learns of a plan to dynamite a dam providing water supply.
- Back in the Saddle (1941): Gene Autry heads west to reclaim his ranch only to discover a new copper mine is poisoning the water supply and killing all the cattle.
- 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.
Cowboy G-Men (TV): Beware! No Trespassing (1952): In this TV series, Russell Hayden, Jackie Coogan are two G-men ordered to bring law and order to the lawless west. In this episode, they discover a tungsten mine closed, the wells all poisoned, and the town overwhelmed by a malaria outbreak, while four evil gunslingers are looking for trouble.
MacKenzie’s Raiders (TV): The Poisoners (1959): A cattle baron on the Texas range tries to run off his neighbor by persuasion, running off his stock, poisoning the waterholes, and murdering his men.
- 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.
Hard Rain (1998): With Morgan Freeman and Christian Slater, thieves trying to rob an armored car and bank in a small town face a devasting flood caused by massive rainfall and a dam failure.
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. (See also Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009) – pretty much the same bad movie, but now bottled water is the culprit).
- 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.
- Batman Begins (2005): Christian Bale, Michael Caine, and Ken Watanabe in one of the better Batman movies. Terrorists try to destroy Gotham by introducing a vapor-borne hallucinogen into the water system.
- Waterborne (2005): Ben Rekhi’s remarkable independent film, which follows the fictional aftermath of a bio-terrorist attack on the water supply of Los Angeles.
- V for Vendetta (2006): Hugo Weaving, Natalie Portman, and Rupert Graves in a dark story about corrupt government leaders contaminating London’s water supply in order to kill people, spread fear, and consolidate power.
Night of the Living Cat Girl (2007): The evil Parasol Corporation 'accidentally' releases a virus into Ferret City's water supply, killing most of the Cat Girls... except a Zombie Cat Girl who takes over the city with an army of evil bunnies. The last three Cat Girls must make it alive through the night in a combination anime, horror movie, video game.
- Quantum of Solace (2008): James Bond fights terrorists working to gain control over Bolivia’s water resources. With Daniel Craig as James Bond; directed by Marc Forster.
Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009): Sequel to the first one in 2002. A high school prom faces a deadly threat: a flesh-eating virus that spreads via a popular brand of bottled water. Classic high school prom horror movie.
- Well Done Abba (2009): A satirical look out of India at corruption rampant in Indian government departments, with a focus on water. The film tells the story of Armaan Ali, who takes a leave from work to build a well in his backyard to make life easier for his daughter and relatives, only to get trapped in a world of government corruption, bribes, and scandal.
- The Crazies (2010): A remake of the 1973 version: The inhabitants of a small Iowa town are plagued by insanity and death after a mysterious toxin contaminates their water supply.
- The Book of Eli (2010): Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman star in another post-apocalyptic world where the control of water is a plot element.
- Rango (2011): Johnny Depp voices Rango, the out-of-place chameleon in the West who takes on the evildoers in the town of Dirt who have manipulated water shortages for their own ends.
- Battle for Los Angeles (2011): Aliens invade earth in order to take its water. A squad of heroic Marines including Aaron Eckhart, save the day.
Promised Land (2012): Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski in story about a small town fighting a large corporation over fracking and the town’s water supply.
Interstellar (2014): Climate change has destroyed Earth’s food supply causing permanent drought. Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain must find a planet that can sustain life.
Water Wars (2014): (Warning, viewer beware: this movie is a low-budget, sexist disaster.) Catastrophic war, destroyed ecosystem, brink of extinction. War for the most valuable treasure of the time: water.
Automata (2014): It’s the year 2044. Climate change and solar storms have turned the world into a desert and killed 99.7 % of Earth's population. Everyone left lives in a single city covered by artificial clouds to make rain. With Antonio Banderas.
- Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): Continuation of the Mad Max saga, where control of water in a post-apocalyptic world means control of people.
- The Last Survivors (2015): A teenage girl fights to protect the last working well in a drought-stricken Oregon valley from a greedy water baron, claiming the last groundwater in a post-apocalyptic world.
- Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018): Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and the Mission Impossible team have to find three plutonium cores that can be used to make nuclear bombs. They discover a plot by the bad guys to detonate them in the Himalaya mountains to contaminate the water supply for China, Pakistan, and India in order to starve a third of the world’s population, cause global chaos, and take control of a new world order.
- Frozen II (2019): Anna and Else of the kingdom of Arendelle must journey with their friends to the kingdom of Northuldra where their grandfather built a big dam to steal the area’s resources and magic. They discover their family’s role in this evil act, destroy the dam, restore the river, and establish peace between the kingdoms.
- Paani (2020) (In Hindi) .Set years in the future when the earth's water supply has run-out, bad events unfold including wars.
Note: Thanks to my many fans who have contributed suggestions… There are a lot of movie fans out there. Thanks especially to Eric Meliton for his recent contributions. New suggestions always welcome: pgleick @ gmail.com