True Western: Marilyn in ‘River of No Return’

Considering how popular the Western was in 1950s Hollywood, Marilyn did relatively little work in the genre. She had a bit part as a chorus girl in A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950), which was primarily a comedy; while The Misfits (1961), with its modern-day setting, is more akin to a New Wave existential drama. That leaves us with River of No Return (1954): and while not generally considered among her very best films – or the greatest Westerns – it’s visually stunning and action-packed, with musical numbers bringing added depth to Marilyn’s  performance.

Writing for Collider, Adam Grinwald takes a fresh look at how River of No Return stands up today.

“Let’s just get it out of the way right now: River of No Return is not a great film. It’s not a bad film by any means — there’s plenty here to cherish — but it’s certainly no masterpiece of the genre. This isn’t to say that it isn’t entirely worth your time. It isThat’s largely due to Monroe’s endlessly captivating presence, which rescues the film from being a largely dismissible entry amongst the superior pictures from the same era and genre (i.e. High NoonThe Searchers). Yes, thanks to Monroe, the movie has a genuinely interesting character to root for, one with the sort of charm, charisma, and wit that could be expected from one of her characters.

River of No Return plays all the notes a Western film in the ’50s would be expected to: there’s heroism, danger, gunplay, thrills, and scenery of a beautiful American landscape. Helmed by the great Otto Preminger (The Man with the Golden ArmAnatomy of a Murder), the film places Monroe on a top-billing along with Robert Mitchum … Even with two heavy hitters like Mitchum and Preminger on board, Monroe remains the strongest link by a long shot. Mitchum plays it fine enough, talking with a swaggering bravado infused with emotional detachment and grittiness … Rarely, though, does Mitchum ever meet Monroe’s level. Instead, he scowls his lines with a distant aloofness and throws himself headfirst into danger without expressing a moment’s fear …

It’s Monroe, though, that truly deserves the top billing in River of No Return. It’s her that makes this picture as memorable as it is. Even if the character isn’t particularly well-written, considering that her motivations often feel aimless while good-natured, Monroe breathes life into the role. She walks around with her Rapunzelesque blonde hair and her blue jeans, and she croons her lines with a breathy vulnerability that pulls you in. She sings a short setlist of musical numbers (for which Monroe did her own singing), guitar in hand, and reminds us time and time again that her gargantuan level of fame is very much deserved. When she’s not singing, she’s extracting sympathy through her fluttering eyelashes and wounded vulnerability or giving zingy little punchlines that show her knack for comedic timing. When asked by young Mark (Tommy Rettig) how old she is, Kay retorts, ‘that’s no question to ask a lady … not that I’m a lady.’ Here is an actress near the pinnacle of her fame, exuding an effortless charisma that only a capital ‘M’ Movie Star could. It’s less so about how good the role is and more about who is playing it. And when that who happens to be Marilyn Monroe, well, you’ll surely be paying attention.

It’s important to note that River of No Return is expectedly a product of its time, and it consequently features some poorly aged scenes and plot points that are capable of opening up an important discourse about the portrayal of history in entertainment. It being a ‘50s western, River of No Return is rife with scenes where indigenous archers appear from nowhere to attack the trio, and they’re quickly killed off like nameless, faceless villains. In a later scene, Matt (Mitchum) forces a physical advance on Kay (Monroe), and after much resistance, he’s able to wrestle her to the ground to continue his forceful necking. It’s a scene that, when viewed in a modern setting, paints Mitchum’s character to be far more villainous than heroic.

When it comes down to the basics, though, River of No Return is best when it puts Monroe at the centre with the majestic Northwest country sprawling about in the background … When we see Marilyn Monroe sitting out on a charred-up tree stump, plucking a guitar and warbling a nice tune about woodland critters, her thick blonde locks cascading down to her waist, an ancient mountain range rising up from nothing like some divine beast, it feels like something much greater than anything anywhere else in the film. It feels like a movie as movies should be: glamorous, majestic, and larger than life.”