This review is, of course, a tribute to Mitchum; it is also a tribute to my uncle, David Vernon Kumar. In the good old days, my uncle was a guitarist with the Hindi film company Filmistan. He was very talented, and though he passed away when I was a child, I remember him as having a great sense of humour and of regaling us with tales of his days in Bombay and the film world.
The connection: one of Vernie Uncle’s favourite tunes was the theme song of River of No Return. It’s a lovely song, and this is a lovely film.
River of No Return begins in the woods of Canada, from where Matt Calder (Mitchum) makes his way to a trading post seeking his nine-year old son, Mark (Tommy Rettig). Matt’s paid a man $100 to bring Mark to the trading post, but even though he wanders around looking for Mark, Matt isn’t able to find the boy. Until, by chance, he rescues a boy who’s being harassed by a bunch of local hooligans who think it’s funny to shoot holes in beer cans being delivered by a child.
The kid’s got his name scrawled on a piece of paper and pinned to his lapel, so Matt realises straight off that this is his son. There’s a somewhat restrained reunion (neither recognises the other), but Mark agrees to go back home with Matt.
First, though, Mark has to go pick up his things and say goodbye to Kay. Kay (Marilyn Monroe), whom Matt has already noticed at work, is a singer at the local saloon. She’s been looking after Mark all this while and is happy that he’s finally found his Dad.
Shortly after, Kay has another visitor: her lover, Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun). Harry’s a gambler and has good news to share: he’s just won the claim to a gold dig. In a land where everybody’s searching feverishly for gold, a confirmed source of the precious metal is, quite literally, a goldmine. Harry tells Kay he has to get to Council City to file the claim as soon as he possibly can—because the man he won it from may get there before him. He needs a little capital, which he scrapes together by borrowing Kay’s savings.
Matt and Mark Calder, meanwhile, are getting to know each other on Matt’s small riverside farm out in the wilds. Matt is a little cagey about where he’s been all these years, but it seems he’s been wandering about a bit and sent for Mark only when he discovered that his wife had died.
That aside, they get along well: Matt teaches his son to shoot, to handle a plough, to learn to survive out in the wilderness.
—Which is where, one fine day, they have unexpected visitors when a raft goes careening out of control along the fast-flowing waters of the river. Matt, Mark and their horse rescue the pair on the raft: Harry and his wife—Kay! Kay’s bag, with all her clothes, gets swept away and all she’s left with, other than the clothes she’s wearing, is her guitar and her shoes: her sleek, snazzy red shoes with their high heels.
Matt offers them food and coffee, and while Kay is sitting and singing to Mark (another beautiful song: Down in the meadow), Matt and Harry have a heart-to-heart. Matt warns Harry that the river gets worse further down, with rapids so treacherous the local Indians have dubbed the river `the river of no return’.
Harry makes an offer for Matt’s horse, but Matt refuses. He offers to take Harry and Kay to Council City after he’s got the ploughing and the sowing done, but Harry refuses to wait that long. Matt by now has begun having his doubts about whether Harry won the claim through fair play or foul.
—And Harry soon shows his true colours: he grabs Matt’s rifle and uses it to force Matt to give up his horse.
Matt tries to resist, but Harry knocks him out and gets ready to leave. Kay, who’s been trying to stop Harry all this, is horrified that he’s now leaving Matt out here, wounded and defenceless. She tells Harry to go on; in any case, she’d just slow him down. Besides, her conscience won’t let her leave Matt in such a condition: she’ll look after him and wait here until Harry returns after filing his claim.
Matt recovers soon enough (with the help of some very grateful, exuberant and moist kisses from Mark, who thought his Dad had died!) He’s barely back on his feet when he realises there’s an enemy lurking above and taking note of the fact that Matt doesn’t have a gun now.
There’s only one way out: take the raft and go down the river of no return. So Matt, Kay and Mark pile on to the raft, and battle their way down it, past rapids and chasing Indians (who have, meanwhile, burnt down Matt’s farmhouse). They finally manage to outrun the Indians, but by now Kay has another worry on her mind. Matt has no qualms about admitting to her that he means to have his revenge on Harry for leaving him to die. Kay decides she has to prevent Matt from getting to Harry.
Early one morning, therefore, Kay tries to set the raft adrift while Matt and Mark are asleep onshore.
Matt manages to stop the raft, and there is the inevitable showdown between him and Kay. What Matt hasn’t realised is that Kay knows more about him than she’s let on so far. In her fury, she flings back his own past at him: Harry had told her that Matt Calder had shot a man in the back, and has spent the last few years in prison for the murder.
So that’s where Matt has been all these years.
Unfortunately, Mark has overheard Kay’s words, and is shocked. Matt tries to tell Mark that he’d had to shoot in order to save the life of a friend, but the child is unable to see the greys: to him, all is either black or white. He’s not able to reconcile to the fact that his Dad—good, upright Matt—could have dry gulched a man.
But things, it seems, are never quite what they seem, and as they make their way downriver to Council City, Matt and his son—and just importantly, Matt and Harry’s ‘wife’, Kay, must learn to live with each other’s failings and weaknesses. And come together to fight the enemies that press in on all sides.
The story of River of No Return is fairly usual Western: bad girl with a good heart meets good man with a bad name; they fight off enemies, and learn to tackle their own personal demons in the process. It’s not exceptional, but it’s much better than the average Western. Definitely worth at least one viewing.
Look out for those shoes, by the way. Otto Preminger uses them as an interesting symbol of Kay’s own life. The lone girl who’s having to work her way—even if it means being deceived by someone she thought she could trust—only so that she may finally get to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Kay loses a lot along the rough ride down the river of no return: all her belongings go swirling away; her blouse gets torn; and by the end, she’s a dirty, ragged creature who’s reduced to borrowing a coat to cover up. But her shoes are still there, clutched in a bag that reflects her need (not necessarily her desire) to go back to work. If you catch on, then what happens to those shoes by the end of the film is fairly predictable.
What I liked about this film:
Mitchum, of course! He gets to really show off here, as he battles everything from Indians (Cree, I mean, not us here in Delhi and around) to Harry Weston to a cougar. And rapids. And some passing villains. And fate.
Marilyn. I don’t like Marilyn in her dumb blonde roles, but this film, for a change, is one that has her in a refreshingly more intelligent role. She’s beautiful (naturally!), but she’s also a warm-hearted, sweet, down to earth person who’s willing to admit that she could have been wrong; to stay back to look after a wounded man; and to sing a lullaby to a sleepy child. True, her exaggerated diction did get on my nerves in places, but it isn’t as bad as in films like How to Marry a Millionaire. (Mitchum is rumoured to have patted her on the butt and said, “Come on now, let’s talk like a human being!”)
The music, especially the theme song; I can understand why my uncle loved it so much.
The scenery. River of No Return was shot in Canada—in Banff—and those glorious landscapes are simply breathtaking.
What I didn’t like:
Yes, I know I’m being fastidious, but some things just didn’t add up. How did Harry know Matt’s past? And why did a certain man (no spoilers here!), after having muttered a lot of threats, just disappear? With a fairly limited cast and a simple storyline, I’d have expected every bit of dialogue to have some relevance to the rest of the story—this particular character, after making some really ominous threats, just vanished into the blue.
Minor irritants though, and they don’t detract from the simple charm of the film. If for nothing else, watch it because Mitchum’s handsome, Marilyn’s beautiful and the landscape’s stunning. And watch it for the music.
Little bit of trivia:
Although this was the only film they did together, Mitchum and Marilyn knew each other from long before either was a star. During the 1940’s, Mitchum had worked at the Lockheed Aircraft factory, where Marilyn’s then husband, Jim Dougherty, was one of his co-workers.