The River Wild is a 1994 American adventure thriller film directed by Curtis Hanson and starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Bacon, David Strathairn, John C. Reilly, Benjamin Bratt, and Joseph Mazzello as Roarke.[2] It is about a family on a whitewater rafting trip who encounter two violent criminals in the wilderness.

The River Wild
River wild movie poster.jpg
Original theatrical poster
Directed byCurtis Hanson
Produced by
Written byDenis O'Neill
Music byJerry Goldsmith
CinematographyRobert Elswit
Edited by
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • September 30, 1994 (1994-09-30)
Running time
108 minutes
CountryUnited States
American Sign Language
Budget$45 million[1]
Box office$94.2 million


A Boston couple, Gail (Meryl Streep) and Tom Hartman (David Strathairn), are having marital problems, due to his inability to spend time with his family because of his work as an architect. She, a history teacher and former river guide, decides to take their son, Roarke (Joseph Mazzello), on a holiday rafting trip down the Salmon River in Idaho, along with their dog, Maggie. Their daughter, Willa (Stephanie Sawyer), accompanies them to Gail's parents' house in Idaho. At the last minute, just when they are about to leave for the almost week-long trip, Tom joins them. As they are setting off, they meet a trio of other rafters, Wade (Kevin Bacon), Terry (John C. Reilly), and Frank (William Lucking), who appear to be friendly. Thus they leave for the trip, leaving Willa behind to be taken care of by her grandparents.

The Hartmans catch up with the trio during a day break, and notice that Frank is no longer with Wade & Terry. They explain that Frank decided to hike out after an argument. Unfortunately, Frank was their guide, and Wade & Terry lack any experience on the river. In the spirit of cooperation often found in the backcountry, Gail offers to lead them down the rest of the river. Before getting back on the water, Maggie is found barking and digging at something buried farther up the canyon wall - presumably Frank's body. Tom interrupts Maggie before she discovers the body, and brings her back to the boats. Tom is startled by Terry, who was sent by Wade to ensure Tom didn't learn what had happened to Frank.

After a day's rafting, they make camp for the night, but Tom continues to work on his renderings rather than entering fully into the experience, which agitates Roarke. They are joined by Wade and Terry, who help to celebrate Roarke's birthday that night. Gail becomes friendly with Wade. However, after a while he begins acting suspiciously, and she decides it would be best to part ways. During the morning's rafting, he reveals to Roarke that they have a gun with them. As they raft down the river, Gail and Tom discuss a strategy that will allow them to leave Wade and Terry behind, and at lunch they attempt to leave on their raft and get away before Wade and Terry realize what is going on.

The attempt fails, and Wade pulls the gun on them and assaults Tom. Maggie runs off during the melee, avoiding a shot by Wade. Gail then realizes that an armed robbery she had heard about was carried out by Wade and Terry, and their rafting trip is actually a way for them to get away. Having found out that they are criminals, the Hartmans are forced down the river at gunpoint before they set up camp for the night.

During the night, Tom attempts to steal the gun from Terry while he sleeps but is heard and has to run into the bushes and to the river. Wade gives chase and believes he has shot Tom when he hears a loud splash into the water. A park ranger named Johnny (Benjamin Bratt), who knows Gail, is whitewater canoeing down the river. He bumps into them. Wade holds the gun to Gail's back, and they pretend everything is okay.

Wade and Terry plan to escape by rafting a set of rapids named the Gauntlet, where rafting is no longer allowed because in recent years one person was killed and another was left paralyzed. Aware that Gail is one of only three people to have ever survived it, they force her to raft down it despite her repeated declarations that she can no longer navigate such big water, especially not with novices and Roarke. Johnny returns, trying to warn them off going on the Gauntlet, which has been made illegal. Wade shoots Johnny and throws his body into the rapids.

Unbeknownst to anyone Tom has been racing on foot along the canyon rim to get ahead of the raft, in a desperate attempt to save his family. After a harrowing ride in which Terry is nearly drowned, they manage to make it through the Gauntlet. Tom reappears, and manages to flip the raft. As he struggles with Terry, Gail is able to get the gun.

Wade tells Gail there is no need to kill him, and that if she does, it will haunt her because she will never have a way to know if she truly had to. She, knowing Wade believes the gun has only one round, points it into the air to fire it, but it only clicks on an empty chamber, after which Wade orders Terry to kill Tom and Roarke, and Wade goes after Gail. Gail opens the gun, sees the remaining cartridge, chambers the last round, and fatally wounds Wade, who is dragged off with the money by the current. The film ends with the Hartmans and Terry, who has been arrested, being helicoptered out.


Pre-production and filmingEdit

Kootenai River valley used in the film

In June 1993, Universal Studios began considering locations along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River and the Kootenai River in Montana. They also began to seek permits from the forest service and permission from private landowners to film near the falls and nearby West Glacier. Other than Montana for locations, the studio then began to scout the areas in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming. Before filming began, the crew spent two weeks doing research and development on whitewater rafting.

Principal photography began in late July 1993. Many of the film's whitewater scenes were filmed on the Kootenai River. Other scenes were filmed on the Ruby Horsethief section of the Colorado River, the Rogue River in Southern Oregon, and the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Streep did several of her own stunts in the film, on the milder river sections. The major whitewater stunts were performed by expert professional river guide Kelley Kalafatich who was hired as Streep's stunt double for the movie.

There was a scare at the end of one day of filming when Hanson asked Streep to shoot one more scene, to which she objected because of her exhaustion. However, she decided to attempt it, and weak from fatigue, was swept off the raft into the river and was in danger of drowning; she did not drown because of her personal flotation device and the river rescue team. Afterwards she said to Hanson, "In the future, when I say I can't do something, I think you should believe me," to which he agreed.[3]

After completing filming all the whitewater sequences in Montana & Oregon, the main cast & crew then went to Boston, Massachusetts to film the remaining scenes from the beginning of the film. Production was completed in November.

Stunts & safetyEdit

Many of the scenes were filmed in dangerous locations which required that specialized whitewater river professionals perform the river stunts and provide the needed safety for Streep and the other cast members. Streep also did some of her own stunts.


The film was initially scored by Maurice Jarre, but after the producers threw his work out, Jerry Goldsmith was signed to rescore the project (footage of the Goldsmith scoring sessions was used in the 1995 documentary Film Music Masters: Jerry Goldsmith, with extended footage of same as a DVD bonus). Although Goldsmith took a different approach to Jarre, both composers incorporated the folk song "The Water Is Wide" into their scores; the Cowboy Junkies also recorded a version of the song for the end credits. RCA Victor released a soundtrack album on September 13, 1994.

On January 19, 2014, Intrada Records released a limited-edition album, with Goldsmith's score and alternates on disc one and Jarre's unused music on disc two. Tracks in bold also appear on the RCA album, mostly under different names.


The film premiered on September 30, 1994, in the United States. The film grossed a total of $94,216,343 worldwide, earning $46,816,343 in the United States and $47,400,000 internationally.[4]


As of August 2018, the film holds a 56% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 32 reviews.[5] Film critic James Berardinelli praised the production values of the cinematography and score, and the pace of the rafting experience. He also praised Hanson's directing, likening it to that like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), stating that Hanson, "could manipulate characters and situations within the comfortable confines of a formula plot", and describing The River Wild as a "level of excitement designed to submerge implausibilities and minor gaffes, and a film which "braves the rapids while keeping the viewer afloat amidst its churning waters".[6] He also praised Streep's powerful performance as a female action hero, but described the film overall as "a cut below a white-knuckler".[6]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times also said the best elements of the film were its cinematography, which he described as "great looking", and the performances of Bacon and Streep; he described the latter as "putting a lot of humor and intelligence into her character".[7] However, Ebert identified serious flaws in the strength of the plot, remarking that, "movies like this are so predictable in their overall stories that they win or lose with their details ...The River Wild was constructed from so many ideas, characters and situations recycled from other movies that all the way down the river I kept thinking: Been there".[7] He emphasized the lack of credibility in the storyline and sheer impossibility of some scenes, particularly involving Strathairn as he outruns the pace of the river, and his scenes with the cliff and his Swiss Army knife.[7]

Nominations, awards, and recognitionsEdit

Streep received Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) nominations for best actress for her portrayal of a former river guide. Bacon received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Featured Film. Neither of them won the Golden Globe, with the awards going to Jessica Lange in Blue Sky and Martin Landau in Ed Wood respectively.[citation needed]

In 2003, the American Film Institute nominated Gail as a hero from this film for AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains.[8]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "The River Wild (1994)". The Numbers. Retrieved July 4, 2016.
  2. ^ "The River Wild". Turner Classic Movies. Atlanta: Turner Broadcasting System (Time Warner). Retrieved July 11, 2016.
  3. ^ "10 Iconic Movie Scenes That Nearly Killed Their Stars: 2. Meryl Streep: The River Wild". MoviesTalk. Retrieved 30 May 2014.
  4. ^ "The River Wild at Box Office Mojo". Retrieved October 4, 2010.
  5. ^, "The River Wild (1994)", Accessed November 30, 2017.
  6. ^ a b Beradinelli, James (1994). "The River Wild". Retrieved March 18, 2009.
  7. ^ a b c Ebert, Roger (1994). "The River Wild". Chicago Sun Times. Archived from the original on September 30, 2007. Retrieved March 18, 2009.
  8. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-12.

External linksEdit