The initial idea of Marilyn Monroe in a western sounds frightening to say the least. Director Otto Preminger, however, knew what he was doing. Preminger worked with her in ways in that brought out skills as an actress and singer (she plays a lounge singer) that no other film showcased. Kay (Marilyn Monroe’s character) has recently married a frequent patron of the bar she works in (played by Rory Calhoun); he also happens to be a criminal. She also has cared for Mark (played by Tommy Rettig), a young boy who was abandoned at the bar several years earlier. When Mark’s father Matt (played by Robert Mitchum) returns for Mark, the characters are all forced to unite despite a great deal of baggage regarding each other’s past.
While the title’s “river of no return” is an actual river where much of the action takes place, it is also a metaphor for forgiveness. All four characters need each other to survive in the face of enemies and the potential danger of the literal river. Yet, they all (except for the young boy) suffer and cause suffering as a result of their prejudices against each other and their regret over their own past decisions. In their journey, they are forced to see each other and themselves as they really are. They are challenged to lay aside the wrong beliefs that blind them. As Kay works through her own regret over past decisions (most likely promiscuity, though this could only be hinted at in a 1954 American film), she becomes a conduit of reconciliation, attempting to help the two men become willing to forgive each other and themselves. Their willingness or lack thereof will determine the fates of the whole crew on the literal river.
Willingness is the key to the movie’s message. The characters are keenly aware of how they have been harmed by each other and of their own transgressions. They do not seek a modern, simplistic “forgive and forget” attitude. They exhibit the need for repentance to make forgiveness possible. As the mediator, Kay never attempts to prematurely lead the other characters into forgiveness without the expectation that other will change their behavior. Instead, she teaches them the deeper reality of how show love to each other.
As the witness to all the danger, the hurt, the external conflicts between the adults, and the internal conflicts each adult faces regarding what to do with their past and the pasts of the others people they are forced to travel and survive with, Mark is the central character of the story. He is not the one who needs forgiveness, but he needs to be shown what it looks like. The final scene in the movie articulates spectacularly and unsentimentally that he understands the balance between justice and forgiveness, that he knows what forgiveness actually is, and that he knows how to make a good decision based on the demonstration of justice and forgiveness he has seen from the adults around him.
Stumble Alert: The film hints, as I mentioned, at illicit sexual behavior, but nothing is shown or described in any detail. The violence is very mild. There is no major objectionable material in the film.
Watch River of No Return: The film is currently available for free with an AmazonPrime subscription.