In covered wagon days, a newly reunited father and son (Cape Fear‘s Robert Mitchum, Tommy Retig) head to the hills for a simple life of farming. But when a gambler and his singer wife, Harry and Kay (Rory Calhoun and Marilyn Monroe) show up things go sour as Harry steals their only horse and leaves the three at the mercy of local Indian tribes. Fighting for survival, they escape down river to reclaim what’s theirs.
The other Monroe Western, The River of No Return is much better than Bus Stop. It combines all-American values of family, Bible, sexy ladies, independent living and the right to kill anyone who gets in your way, and many of the best features of Westerns, including gorgeous cinematography, a wistful soundtrack and an exciting story. It had a troubled shoot, leading director Otto Preminger to pay Fox $150,000 to escape his contract and avoid making another studio film, but it pays off in the visual quality of the film.
While the focus is on a lengthy river trip on a precarious raft it’s character driven throughout, with the trio of father, son and club singer anchoring the film in their developing family dynamics. Unlike Bus Stop, Monroe sticks to the glamorous makeup and sweet singing for which she’s known, and the film is all the better for it. While her saloon singer character is fairly typical, she’s less ditsy and more capable than in many of her other films. Unsurprisingly it’s politically questionable in places, but it’s easy on the eye, constantly engaging and an fine example of the genre.