Set in the Northwestern United States in 1875, the film focuses on taciturn widower Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum), who has recently been released from prison after serving time for killing one man while defending another. He arrives in a boomtown tent city in search of his ten-year-old son Mark (Tommy Rettig), who was left in the care of dance hall singer Kay (Marilyn Monroe) after the man who brought him there as Matt had arranged took off for the hills. Matt promises Mark, a virtual stranger to him, the two will enjoy a life of hunting, fishing and farming on their homestead.
Kay's fiance, gambler Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun), tells her they must go to Council City to file the deed on a gold mine he won in a poker game. They head downriver on a homemade log raft, and when they encounter trouble in the rapids near the Calder farm, Matt and Mark rescue them. Harry offers to buy Matt's rifle and horse so as to reach Council City by land, and when Matt refuses, Harry knocks Matt unconscious and steals both. Kay chooses to stay behind to take care of Matt and Mark, and the three are stranded in the wilderness.
When hostile Indians threaten the farm, the three are forced to escape down the river on Harry's raft. That night they set up camp by the river, and Matt and Kay argue about the wisdom of pursuing Harry. Matt questions why she would choose to marry a man who had endangered a child, and she reminds him Harry never killed a man like he did. Mark overhears their discussion, and Matt is forced to reveal the truth about his past to his son, who is unable to comprehend why his father acted as he did.
As the three continue their journey, Kay comes to appreciate Matt's bravery and the tender way he cares for both her and Mark. Along the way, they are forced to deal with a series of trials and tribulations, including a mountain lion attack; gold prospectors Sam Benson and Dave Colby, who are after Harry for stealing their claim; and fighting off a second Indian war party.
After a difficult ride through the worst of the rapids, the three arrive in Council City and confront Harry. Harry shoots at Matt, forcing Mark to kill Harry with a rifle he is inspecting in the general store, and the boy finally understands why his father had to shoot a man so many years before. Kay finds a job at the local saloon. While she is singing there, Matt arrives to take her back to his farm along with Mark, and she happily leaves with him.Robert Mitchum as Matt Calder
Marilyn Monroe as Kay Weston
Tommy Rettig as Mark Calder
Rory Calhoun as Harry Weston
Douglas Spencer as Sam Benson
Murvyn Vye as Dave Colby
Otto Preminger was preparing for the opening of The Moon Is Blue when 20th Century Fox executive Darryl F. Zanuck assigned him to direct River of No Return as part of his contract with the studio. Because of their previous experience with Westerns, producer Stanley Rubin had wanted William Wellman, Raoul Walsh, or Henry King to helm the film, and he was concerned Preminger, who he felt was better suited for film noir melodrama or sophisticated comedy, would be unable to rise to the task of directing a piece of Americana. Preminger himself had no interest in the project until he read the screenplay and saw potential in the story. He also approved of Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe, who already had been cast in the lead roles.
Zanuck decided the film should be made in CinemaScope and increased the budget accordingly. Much of it would be filmed in Banff and Jasper National Parks and Lake Louise in Alberta, and Preminger and Rubin flew to the area to scout locations. During their time there, Rubin grew fond of the director and began to feel that rather than viewing it as a contractual obligation, Preminger had a real interest in making the film.
Rubin scheduled twelve weeks of preproduction, during which Monroe rehearsed and recorded the musical numbers written by Ken Darby and Lionel Newman, and forty-five days for filming.
The cast and crew departed for Calgary in late June 1953. From there they traveled by special train to the Banff Springs Hotel, which would serve as their base during the Canadian filming.
Monroe was accompanied by Natasha Lytess, her acting coach. Preminger clashed with the woman from the very start. She insisted on taking her client aside and giving her direction contrary to that of Preminger, and she had the actress enunciating each syllable of every word of dialogue with exaggerated emphasis. Preminger called Rubin in Los Angeles and insisted Lytess be banned from the set, but when the producer complied with his demand, Monroe called Zanuck directly and asserted she couldn't continue unless Lytess returned. Zanuck commiserated with Preminger but, feeling Monroe was a major box office draw he couldn't afford to upset, he reinstated Lytess. Angered by the decision, Preminger directed his rage at Monroe for the rest of the production.
During the difficult shoot, Preminger also had to contend with frequent rain, Mitchum's heavy drinking, and an injury to Monroe's ankle that kept her off the set for several days and ultimately put her in a cast. Monroe nearly drowned while filming in Jasper, Canada. She had donned chest high hip waders during rehearsal to protect her costume. She slipped on a rock, the waders filled with water, and she was unable to rise. Mitchum and others jumped in the river to rescue her but her ankle was sprained as a result. Young Tommy Rettig seemed to be the director's sole source of solace. He respected Rettig's professionalism and appreciated the rapport he developed with Monroe, which often helped keep her on an even keel. When Lytess began to interfere with Rettig's performance, thereby undermining his confidence, Preminger let the cast and crew know about her behavior and was delighted to find they finally began to support him in his efforts to remove her from the set.
In early September, filming shifted to Los Angeles for interior scenes and close-ups for a river sequence that would be filmed in a tank, since stunt people had been used in the long shots filmed on the actual rapids of the actual River of No Return, the Salmon River, south of Lewiston, Idaho. Lewiston would have been the destination of Matt, Kay and Mark, not Council City. The Salmon drops over 7,000 feet in elevation from its headwaters to its confluence as a tributary of the Snake River, hence the rapids and its nickname. (As a side note, the Salmon is the only major river in the United States contained entirely within one state.) There is a Council, Idaho, but it is in Adams County, distant from the river. Monroe was on crutches, and Preminger had to work around her as much as possible. Despite frequent disagreements with Rubin, Preminger completed the film on September 29, on schedule and within the budget.
This movie was the first to be filmed in CinemaScope in Canada. River of No Return was the first film released by 20th Century-Fox to feature the "CinemaScope extension" fanfare before the opening credits. Written by Alfred Newman, it's a rerecording of his original 1933 fanfare, with the extra few bars that play under the credit " 20th Century-Fox presents A CinemaScope Production". After Fox switched to Panavision in 1967, they went back to their old fanfare, so the extension fanfare wasn't used again until it was revived by George Lucas to play before the opening credits to Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope. This time those few extra bars played under the credit " A Lucasfilm Production" Since then it's been re-recorded a few times but remains to this day the intro to every film released by that studio.
During post-production, Preminger departed for Europe, leaving editor Louis R. Loeffler and Rubin to complete the film. Jean Negulesco was called in to film a few retakes. The dailies reconfirmed Rubin's belief that Preminger had been the wrong choice for the project. He felt the director had failed to capture the Western aura, had ignored key elements in the plot, and had perfunctorily directed action sequences, leaving them looking staged and static. In several cases, studio and location shots didn't match.
Preminger's experience on the film convinced him he never wanted to work as a studio employee again, and he paid Fox $150,000 to cancel the remainder of his contract.
In later years, Monroe claimed River of No Return was her worst film, and Preminger spoke bitterly about her in numerous interviews. It wasn't until January 1980, when being interviewed for the New York Daily News, that he conceded, "She tried very hard, and when people try hard, you can't be mad at them."
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times observed, "It is a toss-up whether the scenery or the adornment of Marilyn Monroe is the feature of greater attraction in River of No Return . . . The mountainous scenery is spectacular, but so, in her own way, is Miss Monroe. The patron's preference, if any, probably will depend upon which he's interested in. Certainly, scriptwriter Frank Fenton has done the best he could to arrange for a fairly equal balance of nature and Miss Monroe . . . And that should not be too lightly taken. For Director Otto Preminger has thrown all the grandeur and menace of these features upon the eye-filling CinemaScope screen. A sickening succession of rapids, churned into boiling foam, presents a display of nature's violence that cannot help but ping the patron's nerves. The raft tumbling through these rapids is quite a sight to see. And layouts of Rocky Mountain landscapes are handsome in color, too. But Mr. Mitchum's and the audience's attention is directed to Miss Monroe through frequent and liberal posing of her in full and significant views."
Variety said, "The competition between scenic splendors of the Jasper and Banff National Parks and entertainment values finds the former finishing slightly ahead on merit, although there's enough rugged action and suspense moments to get the production through its footage. In between the high spots, Otto Preminger's directorial pacing is inclined to lag, so the running time seems overlong."
TV Guide rated it 3½ out of four stars, calling it "a simple, frequently charming, and beautifully photographed film blessed with fine performances and great teamwork from Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe" and "an enjoyable, engaging little Western that never fails to entertain."
Film4 called it a "patchy drama which owes more to its gorgeous scenery and musical numbers than it does to anything else . . . The plot doesn't convince, but Monroe, at the peak of her career, is more than easy on the eye . . . Despite some pretty locations and occasional tension, there's little going on. A shallow river indeed."
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment released the film on Region 1 DVD on May 14, 2002. It is in anamorphic widescreen format with audio tracks in English and French and subtitles in English and Spanish.