Dear Novice Rower Goes to the Movies

When rowing's not possible and you need to get your rowing fix, an evening at the movies might be just the thing.

Here at Dear Novice Rower, we put together a panel of professionals* to identify the best rowing movies out there. (* OK, these are fellow competitive female rowers from my rowing club. But they know of what they speak.)

Before we unveil our picks, a few things to note:

  • Rowing movies are, by and large, flops. So if you are thinking Oscars, please lower your expectations exponentially and think “Razzies.”
  • Some of these movies have only rowing scenes in them. Rowing appears so rarely as a plot line that we tend to take whatever we can get. (I've been known to shout, "Look! Rowers!" even if they show up for 5 seconds.)
  • Rowing scenes in movies usually highlight the worst rowing technique ever. So when I say “don’t try this at home,” really, don’t try this at home. If you are looking for good technique, look to the boat the heroes are rowing against. These are usually top rowers, and you can see some great stuff.

Without further ado, here are our favs, in no particular order:

The Social Network (2010). You know, the Facebook story. The twins who claim Mark Zuckerberg stole their idea were rowers (Olympic rowers at that), and the Henley rowing scene rocks. I wish that Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" played whenever I raced.

The Boy in Blue (1986). Before Moonstruck and Raising Arizona, Nicolas Cage played Ned Hanlen, a rower who was the first Canadian athlete to become a world champion. He was also the first rower to master swivel oarlocks and a sliding seat—both of which are now standard rowing equipment.

A Hero for Daisy (1999). A documentary much-loved in the rowing community. Two-time Olympian Chris Ernst pulls Yale’s women’s rowing team together to storm the AD’s office to protest lack of locker rooms for women. A Title IX triumph.

The River Wild (1994). I ask you: what’s a movie list without a Kevin Bacon movie?! Sadly, Kevin doesn’t row. Instead it’s Meryl Streep rowing down Boston’s Charles River in the opening scene. Little known fact: Liz O’Leary, women’s head crew coach at Radcliffe, does most of Meryl's rowing, You’ll see some pretty great technique in a very beautiful scene that’s made more than one woman decide to take up the sport.

The Skulls (2000). A rowing regatta scene captures the noise of a real race (minus the soundtrack), but is over-the-top in the drama department. (FYI: seven guys can’t beat eight guys, and don’t you dare bail out of a boat like that, ever.) However, this movie won big points from our panel for eye candy (Joshua Jackson and the late Paul Walker). The scene here is in Italian, which, according to one panelist, makes it even better. Watch and judge for yourself.

…and here's where the rowing makes us cringe:

Oxford Blues (1984): Rob Lowe's the only redeeming feature here. Unfortunately, he rows in a leather jacket, and his technique is truly awful. So redemption isn't forthcoming.

Rowing Through (1996). David Halberstam’s book, on which this movie is based, is infinitely better.

Enemy of the State (1998). A good movie on the whole, but not a whole lot of attention to detail in the rowing scenes.

House of Cards (2014 to present): Yes, I know. This is a series, not a movie. But I have to include it. Whenever Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) gets on that rowing machine, my husband fast forwards because I rant about how awful his technique is. So, dear novice rower, please don’t row like Frank Underwood. (Claire’s a little better, but not much.)

A Dear Novice Rower Bonus: a music video featuring a race between two 5-person boats! What’s wrong here? Where to start?!

  • We've never seen a 5-person boat before. Anywhere. Ever.
  • If you can sing while you are rowing, you aren’t rowing hard enough.
  • In the words of one reviewer, “that one guy is going to 'never dance again' because he's totally wrecking his shoulders." (The reviewer continues, "But I'm forgiving them. Because cuteness. And I like the song.” I love my panel!)

For a serious breakdown of rowing movies and scenes, this Rabbit guy knows his stuff. Be sure to check out the hilarious “make a rowing movie” link for some horrible similarities most rowing movies possess.

We are praying that The Boys in The Boat movie hits the theaters in the next year or so. We have high hopes for that one!