River of No Return: More a Romance than a Western

With A-list actress Marilyn Monroe in its cast, this movie seeks to attract a wide audience. Sadly, the screenplay is nothing but boring and conventional. A few more ingredients here and there could have turned this movie from average to remarkable.

Source: Postcard from personal collection

A love story and a western, River of No Return seems to lean on both genres, but undeniably what stands out the most is the love story. If you look at the different movie posters, a picture of Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe embracing each other is what catches the eye. Still, the revenge plot serves as the basic storyline.

Harry and Kay Weston (Rory Calhoun and Marilyn Monroe) leave their western boom town to hurry to Kansas City to file a gold claim that Harry has just won by gambling. The married couple embarks on a raft but gets carried away by the stream. Fortunately, Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) and his son Mark (Tommy Rettig) are able to rescue them. However, Harry Weston is in such a hurry that he decides to steal Calder’s only horse and rifle, leaving behind a perplexed trio.

Because Calder will not have anyone defy him, he goes after Weston with his son Mark and Calder’s wife. Meanwhile, the trio is chased by Indians, although there is no explanation as to why the Indians suddenly get angry and decide to attack them. It appears very clearly that the Indians are only a subplot here – an unnecessary one. The movie would have been much better without it.

It seems that the ultimate message of this movie is to convey the idea of a Westerner as a real man, perhaps even as a true American hero. Calder is brave and fearless, and anyone who threatens him or his son is a dead man. Mitchum is indeed convincing at infusing his character with bursting pride and a manly attitude. Another aspect of his character is how indolent and laconic he is ‒ he only talks when necessary and without any fuss.

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Conversely, Marilyn’s character is full of life, and she is a real show-stopper. She switches costumes throughout the movie (from sparkling saloon singer to Western girl in jeans), she soothes Matt Calder when needed, raises her voice at times, but mostly she sings (“One Silver Dollar”, “I’m  Gonna File My Claim”, “River of No Return” and “Down in the Meadow”). She does seem strangely out of place in this spectacular and lush nature, surrounded only by men (she struggles to clean her pair of stilettos ‒ the only remains of the life she has left behind).  After the release of the movie, Marilyn declared that she was forced to accept the project due to contract obligations. Perhaps she was not very happy to play such a caricatural character: a woman who is either an object or a maternal figure, but always a prey at the mercy of men.

The confrontation between Kay and Matt Calder is a bit disappointing, the magic is not there. Indeed, at some point, the duo finds an isolated spot in the woods, and what follows is not a romantic scene but rather an awkward and disturbing encounter. The ending also falls flat. Not much seems realistic, even less so entertaining.

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Although River of No Return is disappointing because it had the potential to be really good, in the end it is only half-bad, or some may prefer to say, half-good. In any case, it was a huge hit when it came out, notably because of Marilyn’s presence. But you won’t miss much if you decide to skip Marilyn’s only western.

River of No Return (1954)

Robert Mitchum as Matt Calder
Marilyn Monroe as Kay Weston
Rory Calhoun as Harry Weston
Tommy Rettig as Mark Calder

Director: Otto Preminger
Producer: Stanley Rubin
Screenplay: Frank Fenton (adapted from a Louis Lantz story)
Distribution: Twentieth Century-Fox
Color: Technicolor
Running time: 91 M.

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