The River
Film poster
Directed byJean Renoir
Written byJean Renoir
Based onThe River
by Rumer Godden
Produced byKenneth McEldowney
Jean Renoir
StarringNora Swinburne
Esmond Knight
Arthur Shields
Suprova Mukerjee
Radha Burnier
Narrated byJune Hillman
CinematographyClaude Renoir
Edited byGeorge Gale
Music byM. A. Partha Sarathy
Oriental International Films
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
10 September 1951
Running time
99 minutes
Box office$1 million (US rentals)[1]

The River (French: Le Fleuve) is a 1951 American Technicolor drama romance film directed by Jean Renoir shot in Calcutta, India where the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, then a student of cinema, met him for guidance.[2] It was fully filmed in India.

A fairly faithful dramatization of the 1946 novel of the same name by Rumer Godden, the film narrative follows a teenager's coming of age and first love, with the namesake river as a central theme and backdrop.

The film was produced by Kenneth McEldowney, and original music was by M. A. Partha Sarathy. The cast includes Esmond Knight, Nora Swinburne and Arthur Shields.


Harriet (Patricia Walters) is a teenaged girl who belongs to an upper middle-class English family residing on the banks of the Ganges River in British India[a]. Her father (Esmond Knight) runs a jute mill, and she has four sisters and one brother, all several years younger than her. They are raised in a genteel, English setting, and even have the benefit of live-in Indian employees, such as a nanny.

The normal order of Harriet's life is shaken when the family's neighbor invites his cousin, Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), to live with him on his plantation. When Captain John arrives, the children discover he has lost one leg in the war. Harriet, her sisters, and Harriet's best friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri) are all smitten with him and therefore invite him to a Diwali celebration. Harriet also gains the courage to show him her "secret book" - her diary. He politely acquiesces in a non-romantic way.

Later, eager to impress upon him her familiarity with Hindu religion, or perhaps to divert his attention from Valerie, Harriet tells him a marriage story where mundane identities of ordinary peasants are subject to divine change and transformation. In this tale, Lord Krishna intervenes in a wedding ceremony to assume the identity of the groom, and a bride is temporarily transformed into Krishna's consort. There follows an extended dance sequence with Radha Burnier performing as Krishna's consort. After Harriet's story, Valerie steals the diary and reads lovelorn passages of it aloud in front of Captain John, embarrassing Harriet greatly.

Harriet's brother develops an obsession with cobras after watching a snake charmer one day in the market. Happening across the boy playing a flute to a cobra in their garden one day, Harriet commands him to inform their parents of the dangerous snake's presence. She does not tell them herself after becoming distracted by an opportunity to eavesdrop on Captain John and Valerie. Harriet follows them to a point on the river bank where, believing they are alone, Captain John trades a passionate kiss with Valerie. Harriet's brother's body is found soon after, killed by the cobra. Overcome with jealousy and wracked with guilt over the boy's death, Harriet loses the will to live.

She runs away from home that night and attempts to commit suicide by floating down the river in an unattended canoe-like skiff, the river being dangerous to navigate at night due to strong currents. However her late brother's friend Kanu sees her steal the boat and local fishermen rescue her from the water. Ashore, she refuses transport back to her family. Captain John, sent by Kanu, arrives, eases her mind, and kisses her on the forehead to her delight. She then allows him to take her home.

It is revealed subsequently that Captain John also has an interest in Melanie (Radha Burnier), the twenty-ish, biracial daughter from his cousin's marriage to a now-deceased Indian woman. Captain John and Melanie compare their experiences struggling with wartime injury and being biracial respectively.

The story ends with Harriet's mother giving birth to another baby girl. Prevented from entering the room just after labor is completed, Harriet, Valerie and Melanie pause for a moment in front of the river to reflect on the cycles of life and death that take place on its banks.



Shot in Technicolor, a five-month turnaround at the lab meant things had to be done right the first time. While filming, Renoir made use of nonprofessional actors in key roles, including Captain John and Harriet. The future Indian film maker Satyajit Ray, then working in advertising, met Renoir while The River was in production, and the two men became close.[3] Ray met Subrata Mitra, a production assistant on this film and Ray's eventual cinematographer, during filming.

Assistant director was Harisadhan Dasgupta and Asst. Art director was Bangshi Chandra Gupta

Thomas E. Breen, playing Captain John, was a veteran of the United States Marine Corps who was injured during fighting on Guam in 1944, resulting in amputation of his right leg. Renoir selected him for the role without knowing that he was the son of Joseph Breen, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, who was the chief censor of films in the U.S.[4]

Awards, responses and preservation

At the Venice Film Festival, the film won the International Award in 1951.[5] The National Board of Review in the United States decided that it was among the Top Five Foreign Films for 1951.[6]

Roger Ebert added The River to his "Great Movies" list in 2006.[7]

The River was preserved by the Academy Film Archive, in conjunction with the British Film Institute in 2004.[8]


At the New York Film Festival, director Wes Anderson, a great fan of Jean Renoir, discussed Martin Scorsese showing him a print of The River; it is one of Scorsese's favourite films.[9] The River was hugely influential upon Wes Anderson's film, The Darjeeling Limited (2007), as it inspired Anderson to make a film about India.[10]


  1. ^ The time setting is not specified. The Raj had ended by the time of the film's release but the book was written in 1946. Harriet's character narrates the action as an older woman, looking back on the experiences.


  1. ^ 'Top Box-Office Hits of 1952', Variety, January 7, 1953
  2. ^ "Nuit Satyajit Ray – série de podcasts à écouter – France Culture".
  3. ^ Bert Cardullo (ed.) 22 Satyajit Ray: Interviews, University of Mississippi Press, 2007, p.64-65
  4. ^ Doherty, Thomas (2009). Hollywood's censor : Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 170, 282. ISBN 978-0231143592.
  5. ^ Faulkner, Christopher (1979). Jean Renoir, a guide to references and resources. Boston, Mass: G.K. Hall & Company. p. 31.
  6. ^ [1] Archived May 26, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ Roger Ebert. The River (Le Fleuve) February 12, 2006
  8. ^ "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.
  9. ^ "Scorsese's 12 favorite films". Archived from the original on 26 December 2013. Retrieved 25 December 2013.
  10. ^ "Wes Anderson & Adrien Brody: Darjeeling Limited inspirations". YouTube. 2007-09-29. Archived from the original on 2021-12-21. Retrieved 2013-03-21.