Summer adventure movies! A nine-decade list

It’s so close to summer vacation! We’re going to hike! We’re going to swim! We’re going to finally fix the laundry room floor so we can have a second functioning toilet! And we’re going to watch a bunch of adventure movies. 

We’re not sure yet how mandatory it will be, but we want to have family movie night throughout the summer, and an “adventure” theme sounded like fun. I think we’ll keep this list strictly in the real world — i.e., no science fiction or supernatural or imaginary creatures. So there are plenty of great movies that I heartily recommend, like The Mummy, Into the Spiderverse, Attack the Block, Clash of the Titans (and a bunch of other classic Harryhausen), The Odyssey miniseries, Galaxy Quest, Tremors, Shaun of the Dead, Indiana Jones movies, Mad Max movies, Men In Black, etc. that just belong on a slightly different list.

Our kids are ages 7 and up. Most of these are not completely unsuitable for the youngest kids, but they may not appreciate them much. So please give me your suggestions for your adventure movies for the actual whole family!

Here’s our list so far, which not surprisingly is heavy on the theme of male friendship — or at least male interdependence. I accidentally chose one from each of the last nine decades, so I’ll organize them in that order, from oldest to newest:

Gunga Din (1939)
where to watch

IMDB summary: “In 19th century India, three British soldiers and a native waterbearer must stop a secret mass revival of the murderous Thuggee cult before it can rampage across the land.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this. Damien says it’s funny. I know nothing about it other than that it’s Rudyard Kipling, which is great, and Cary Grant, who I’m following a gradual forty-year plan to come around on. Looks like we will be doing some debriefing about blackface and imperialism with the kids; but we generally err on the side of “let’s look at this and see what we think” rather than running away screaming from anything that might be objectionable, and the kids are often capable of much more subtle thought than we expect. 


The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
where to watch

IMDB summary: “Two down-on-their-luck Americans searching for work in 1920s Mexico convince an old prospector to help them mine for gold in the Sierra Madre Mountains.”

I haven’t seen this in yeeeears. A real change of pace from the kind of movies the kids are used to watching. This is, by the way, where the “we don’t need no stinking badges” quote comes from, except the actual quote is: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!” so it’s one of those rare occasions when people’s faulty memories actually improved something. 

“Towering adventure hurled from the top of the world! Deep human conflict to enthrall the heart of the world! Humphrey Bogart surpassing every other triumph!” Heck yes. 

The African Queen (1951)
where to watch

IMDB summary: In WWI East Africa, a gin-swilling Canadian riverboat captain is persuaded by a strait-laced English missionary to undertake a trip up a treacherous river and use his boat to attack a German gunship.

We have actually seen this with the family a few times, but I’m always up for another viewing. The ideal movie, in many ways. I’ve written a little essay about this one, too. Oops, that’s two Humphrey Bogart movies, OH WELL. 


Sanjuro (1962) 
where to watch

IMDB Summary: A crafty samurai helps a young man and his fellow clansmen trying to save his uncle, who has been framed and imprisoned by a corrupt superintendent.

Also recommended is the first one, Yojimbo, which we saw recently. If any of your sons has a man bun and it’s bothering you, show him Sanjuro or Yojimbo, and he’ll probably realize he’s not pulling it off. Sidenote, you know who had a massive crush on Toshiro Mifune? My mother. Also my father, I think. 

Overwhelming fascination! A juggernaut of a film! Weird trailer. I cannot remember if the actual movie has that goofy music in it or not. If I were watching with a slightly different crowd, I’d propose a game where you drink every time he scratches himself. 

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
where to watch

IMDB summary: Two former British soldiers in 1880s India decide to set themselves up as Kings in Kafiristan, a land where no white man has set foot since Alexander the Great.

Again, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen this, and I remember it being a sort of fever dream of a movie, especially toward the end. Probably better for the older kids. I do recall that the white man does not come out looking as good as he does in Gunga Din. It will be interesting to compare the two movies. 

The Black Stallion (1979)
where to watch

IMDB summary: After being shipwrecked with a magnificent horse off the coast of Africa in the 1940s, a boy bonds with the stallion, and trains him to race after their rescue.

I cheated a little bit and this is going to have to count for the 80’s movie. Difficult to find an 80’s adventure movie that doesn’t have fantasy or supernatural elements, and/or isn’t completely sleazy. 

I haven’t seen this for many years. I remember it as being intensely beautiful and emotional, and the rare movie that’s suitable for kids but doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. It will be interesting to see how it holds up. Damien doesn’t like it, but I forget why. 

The Edge (1997)
where to watch

IMDB summary: An intellectual billionaire and two other men struggle to band together and survive after getting stranded in the Alaskan wilderness with a blood-thirsty Kodiak Bear hunting them down.

I actually wrote out a full review of this underrated movie several years ago. A tense, scary, intelligently written and acted wilderness adventure story that’s just as much about salvation as it is about survival — but not in a heavy-handed way. I always make this movie sound like a slog when I write about it, but it’s a kickass movie, very funny in parts, and it has a lot of bear in it, plus Alec Baldwin really acting, plus Anthony Hopkins, plus a bear.

Master and Commander: The Far Side Of the World (2003)
where to watch

IMDB summary: During the Napoleonic Wars, a brash British captain pushes his ship and crew to their limits in pursuit of a formidable French war vessel around South America.

Saw this for the first time last year, and it totally deserves its popularity. A thoroughly enjoyable, thrilling, fascinating, beautiful movie with engaging characters and relationships and gripping action and a well-crafted script. Really can’t wait to share this one with the kids. This trailer makes it look kind of cheesy, but it’s really not at all. I think we may watch this one first, because it’s long, but it leaves you wanting more adventure. 


Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
where to watch

IMDB summary: A national manhunt is ordered for a rebellious kid and his foster uncle who go missing in the wild New Zealand bush.

People keep recommending this, and it certainly looks like a change of pace from the rest of the list! Taika Waititi is never boring, anyway. 

Honorable mention, for movies that would be on the list except we’ve watched them too recently, or too many times:


True Grit (2010) I may move this into this summer’s watch list, just to get more females onto the screen. 

Robin Hood with Erroll Flynn

Die Hard

National Treasure (I don’t want to talk about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie, but my kids will die on the hill of National Treasure being a Thanksgiving movie. You can come over and argue with them if you want, but you won’t get anywhere.)

Jaws. This is on the honorable mention list solely because we are spending a week in Cape Cod this year and some people are already sufficiently nervous. But it’s one of the best movies ever made, and maybe we can watch it in the fall, when we’re all dry. 

That’s it! Please add your suggestions in the comments, or let me know if I’m making a horrible mistake by exposing my kids to Alec Baldwin, or just say hello! It’s almost summer, and I’m just so ready to sit on the couch. 

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20 thoughts on “Summer adventure movies! A nine-decade list”

  1. We just watched Swallows and Amazons last night. I thought it was a great adventure movie and perfect for summer time. A few other adventure family adventure movies I would recommend are Iron Will, The Young Sherlock Holmes, The Secret of Roan Inish, Heidi (the one in German with English subtitles), The Journey of Natty Gann, and Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken.

    Swallows and Amazons:


    The Journey of Natty Gann:

    Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken:

    The Young Sherlock Holmes:

    Iron Will:

    The Secret of Roan Inish:

  2. Some of these everyone has already seen, and some are too violent for younger kids, but here’s my list after a quick trip through the family DVD library: Apollo 13, The Bourne trilogy, Catch Me If You Can, Charade, The Frisco Kid, The Fugitive, The Man from Snowy River, North by Northwest, The Scarlet Pimpernel (with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour)

    If you’ve never seen The Frisco Kid, you should: comedy starring Gene Wilder as a Polish (?) rabbi sent to lead a Jewish congregation in San Francisco after the Gold Rush boom. He arrives on the east coast and would never have made it across the country without the help of train robber Harrison Ford. My dad’s favorite movie!

    The Scarlet Pimpernel is a lot of fun, it was made for TV and appropriate for about ages 8 and up.

  3. Too many men doing narrow masculinities for my taste. How about Moana? Self-sacrificial leadership and a round-bellied female lead ftw.
    Pacific Rim is pretty good too!

    1. I absolutely love Moana, but it doesn’t fit the “real life, no fantastical creatures or situations” criteria.” Pacific Rim was fun but a good 40 minutes too long (and same problem). It’s really hard to find a straight up adventure movie with girls or women that doesn’t veer into fantasy. I remember enjoying SALT with Angelina Jolie, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen it.

  4. Goonies is an 80’s movie without fantasy or sci-fi. Is it too sleazy too be watched? Just viewed it recently, and although the language is salty at times it’s still pretty fun.

  5. No it’ s ” Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.”
    – it gets laughs even now.
    I forgot about all the dark stuff. Oh well, it’s still a fun movie.
    Someone else suggested “stand by me” – that’s a much better if occasionally gritty choice.

  6. You guys are going to love Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It’s bonkers, completely bonkers and hilarious! Sam Neil gives one of my favourite performances ever.

    I can also recommend Romancing the Stone. My husband and I recently watched it and it’s surprisingly a clever and funny ribbing of the romance adventure genre.

    I can also recommend Red Dog which is a family friendly ‘boys own’ adventure but with a charismatic kelpie looking for his master in the Pilbara mining region of Western Australia. Also a good female actress.

    My brothers found Into The Wild a different take on the adventure genre and is a meditation on human connection. I haven’t seen it but it’s pretty emotionally intense, especially for introverts who may be tempted to be a hermit in the wilderness.

  7. I’m tempted to argue for March of the Penguins being my favorite adventure movie. No one said the protagonists had to be human! Or at least Wikipedia didn’t! Plus I like the film score.

  8. Undercover Blues, for a slightly younger crowd (although Stanley Tucci is a treasure for any age), Silverado and Hunt for Red October.

  9. A couple of my boys saw Adam Sandler’s Hustle in the theater last week. The premiere was a big deal because the movie was filmed down here. My sons loved it. It’s not an adventure movie but it’s on Netflix starting today.

  10. My wife and I very much enjoyed the Horatio Hornblower short movies/miniseries starring Ioan Gruffudd. Lots of action in the Napoleonic era.

  11. How about Stand By Me? It’s definitely a non-fiction summer adventure movie and when you said “summer” and “adventure” it’s the first thing that popped into my mind. Then you mentioned how the theme was male friendship/interdependence and I thought that’s the perfect movie for that theme.

  12. How about “Adventures in Babysitting” for the 80’s? It’s not sci-fi and it’s got adventure in the the title! And a female lead! Perhaps not as epic as the rest of your list, but it was funny. (I admit I’m basing this off watching it in the movie theater in 1987 or so. There’s one line that became a guaranteed laugh in my family.)

    1. Aaaagh by chance is it “Don’t F with the babysitter”???? 😀

      I LOVE this movie (if only for the opening scene), *but* I would describe it as very rough and gritty (typical 80s) even for being PG-13. There’s the plotline that involves the Playboy, the car thieves, subway gang fight, etc. I think it’s best for kids 13+.

      1. No it’ s ” Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.”
        – it gets laughs even now.
        I forgot about all the dark stuff. Oh well, it’s still a fun movie.
        Someone else suggested “stand by me” – that’s a much better if occasionally gritty choice.

  13. I really love Secondhand Lions, but it’s only sort of an adventure movie because the swashbuckling adventure bits all take place in flashbacks and the rest of the movie is about a preteen boy living with two crotchety old men. It’s one of my all time favorite movies though. DEFEND YOURSELF!!!

    Romancing the Stone falls under this category, though it’s been years since I saw it so I can’t say whether there’s any parts that you’ll have to skip with kids. I remember it being great popcorn flick level fun though.

    Not in this category, but Pacific Rim is quite possibly the best goofy action adventure monster movie ever made. Fantastic action, no dumb romances, and lots of wonderful goofiness.

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