There is a river
called the River of No Return
Sometimes it's peaceful
And sometimes wild and free
A straightforward, scenic and exciting "A" western with the lean, get-in-and-get-the-job-done running time of a "B", River of No Return put major stars Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe together for the first and only time, and the Cinemascope frame can barely contain their combined high-wattage screen presence.
Against the awe-inspiring mountain peaks and wide river valleys of Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, River opens with widower Matt Calder (Mitchum) - recently released from prison for killing a man - riding into a booming mining camp to collect his nine-year-old son, Mark, who he has arranged to pick up there. He soon finds the boy, wandering around on his own amid the chaos of the camp.
The boy has struck up a friendship with sultry saloon gal, Kay (Monroe). While Matt takes Mark back to his small cabin and they bond over the hard work of making it a homestead, Kay's no-good gambler boyfriend, Harry (Rory Calhoun) rolls into town. Somehow, Harry's got his hands on a gold mine claim and, with no horses available, he and Kay head off down river on a raft to cash in. Conveniently, they run into trouble on the rapids near Matt and Mark's cabin and are rescued by father and son.
Matt advises Harry to not attempt going any further down the treacherous river. In his desperation to get to his claim in Council City before the original owner can take action, Harry callously repays Matt's hospitality by stealing his horse and rifle. When they scuffle and Harry bludgeons Matt with the rifle butt, Kay refuses to leave the wounded man and his boy alone, so Harry rides off with an empty promise to come back for her.
Defenseless without his rifle, and the river the only means of escape, Matt flees on the raft with Mark and Kay as some Indians close in and burn the cabin to the ground. From then on, Matt's all business, his main goals to keep them alive and exact his revenge on Harry. Kay is equally intent on protecting her tarnished beau. The two do the usual fighting, bickering and slowly burgeoning romance thing, while contending with not only the deadly rapids but attacks from cougars, Indians and rapacious miners on their way to a fateful showdown in Council City...
It's a simple story, but a well-told one, which is all that matters in a western as far as I'm concerned. Mitchum (who made the bizarre, moody Track of the Cat the same year) is effortlessly rugged, a cool, capable presence that anchors the film. Marilyn not only looks great in her blue jeans and chanteuse frills, but manages to hold her own with Mitchum and still croon a few nice tunes. The scenery is gorgeous, the action muscular and frequent, and there's just enough character conflict to keep things interesting. Tommy Rettig is appealing as young Mark, and Rory Calhoun is all rattlesnake charm as the smiling, amoral Harry. Murvyn Vye and Douglas Spencer (a long way from his role as reporter Scott in The Thing from Another World) make a brief yet memorable appearance as a couple of grubby, brutish mine owners also on Harry's trail, and a few other well-known character actors, like Arthur Shields, Will Wright and John Doucette, show up in small cameos.
According to Lee Server's excellent bio, Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care", Otto Preminger's trademark screaming, bullying, Nazi general mode of directing didn't work at all well with the notoriously flighty, insecure Monroe:
Monroe, with Rory Calhoun as the shady Harry.
Mitchum thought Monroe was "an essentially sweet and funny but often sad and confused person. Eternally vulnerable, uncertain of her talent, she was prey to exploitation and a victim of her own bad judgment." (2)
Mitchum was an infamous horndog but insisted he never had the slightest interest in Marilyn sexually. Nevertheless, they generate some definite heat together on screen, two prime and primal physical specimens.
Behind the scenes, things weren't helped by the constant presence of Monroe's drama coach, Natasha Lytess. There were also some near death escapades involving the stunt crew filming the white water rapids scenes. Marilyn even injured her ankle towards the end of the filming. Mitchum seems to have coasted through things with his usual aplomb. One final story, courtesy of Server:
...(Mitchum) was a marvelous entertainer," Roy Jenson (the stuntman who doubled Mitchum on the rafting scenes) recalled. "Really great. And I was young and naive and everything, and trying to keep up, but no way, I was so far out of my league. Mitchum was incredible. The guy could drink two or three quarts of gin and not even show it. One day I went out with Bob and Murvyn Vye, he was the heavy in the picture. And we were drinking for hours. I'm just ripped out of my mind. I finally go away and I get a steam bath and a massage and a nap and have some dinner and I come back, and they were still there, talking and drinking!" (3)
Despite all the backstage trouble, the final film is as smooth a Hollywood spectacle as you're likely to find, and it's always been a personal favorite of mine. It's got a lovely, haunting main theme by Cyril J. Mockridge, with an ethereal, ghostly choir seemingly trying to mimic the sound of the north wind sighing through the trees. An uncredited Mitchum does a respectable job warbling the opening title song (*) , and Marilyn brings the right combination of sauciness and melancholy to her dance hall numbers. The story is solid, the star power and production values high, and the result is a fine, glossy and entertaining 50s western.
* There's much debate over whether it was Mitchum or Tennessee Ernie Ford who did the actual singing - see this thread for more info...all I can say is it sounds more like Mitchum to me.
DVD Note: River of No Return was released on Blu-Ray last July as part of the Forever Marilyn Collection, and looks and sounds mighty nice. You can see some representative screen shots here.
(1), (2) and (3) excerpted from Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care", by Lee Server, St. Martin's Griffin, 2001.
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