In the winter time people come here to our Colorado mountains for the skiing. In the summer, when the snow is gone, they head to the mountains for white water rafting. One year when my brother and his family came here to visit they were anxious to hit the rapids. I, on the other hand, am not quite that adventurous. I will, however, sit comfortably on my couch and watch Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe try to brave the rapids in Otto Preminger’s 1954 western River of No Return.
Mitchum plays Matt Calder, a man recently released from prison who has now set out to be reunited with his young son Mark (Tommy Rettig) after the death of the boy’s mother. The two have a small cabin along a river and are working to start farming. There are dangerous indians nearby, but the fact that Matt has a rifle, and is a heck of a shot, keeps them at bay. One day, a raft comes precariously down the river. On board is a gambler, Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun), and his new bride, a dance hall girl named Kay (Monroe). The young Mark had known Kay from when he was waiting for the arrival of his father at a mining camp. Weston is anxious to get to Council City to file a claim on a gold mine he has recently acquired. Unfortunately, Weston is a bit too anxious. Even though Matt and Mark showed him hospitality, Weston steals their gun and their horse and takes off…but he promises to return for Kay.
It doesn’t take long, however, for the local indians to seize on the opportunity. They attack the homestead, so the trio has no choice but to hop on the raft and head down the dangerous river. Now, Matt is determined to get to Council City and confront Weston. The whole way they are pursued by the indians and must deal with deadly rapids, a mountain lion, and two scumbag prospectors. Not to mention dealing with the burgeoning romance romance between Matt and Kay.
River of No Return is an enjoyable enough film, but it’s a case where its individual parts are stronger than the film as a whole. To start with, the film looks fantastic. The Cinemascope photography captures the western landscapes in beautiful fashion. Even the scenes of our three lead characters on the raft, which are clearly shot on a soundstage with rear projection, look good. There’s no hiding the rudimentary special effects utilized in these sequences, but it doesn’t detract from the film in the least.
We also have some very strong performances at work here. Mitchum is very solid as a guy trying to turn his life the right way and raise his son and give him the skills he’ll need. I was also very impressed with young Tommy Rettig, who shows considerable acting chops considering his age. Monroe is also a real treat. She brings a real strength to her character and still manages to inject the sexiness one would expect from Marilyn Monroe. In her first scene she sings a song and practically melts the screen before the movie has even really gotten started.
There are many strong components to River of No Return, so it is surprising that it doesn’t come together as well as it should. The major problem is that though each of the individual performers does a fine job, their chemistry together falters a bit. The romantic tension between Monroe and Mitchum has about as much spark as a birthday cake at the bottom of a swimming pool. Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of depth between Mitchum and Rettig. I mean the kid has never really met his father and yet he is very quick to accept this stranger as the man who is now going to raise him. Even when tension enters into the relationship once Mark learns that Matt spent time in prison for killing a man, it’s dealt with in a very by-the-book fashion that lacks credibility. The film is also guilty of inserting a little bit of fluff. The opening sequence at the mining camp is quite unnecessary and seems to only exist so there would be an excuse to have Monroe do a few sultry musical numbers.
So, while I found River of No Return to be entertaining and great to look at, I found myself wanting a bit more out of it. Both Mitchum and Monroe certainly give their performances their best. Somehow, though, the pieces just don’t quite fit together in the end.