“Can’t you see you’re in the way?”
When Joel McCrea’s Steve Judd enters a small western town at the beginning of Sam Peckinpah’s 1962 film Ride the High Country, he is greeted by the jeers of a gathering crowd, the bystanders urging him to get out of the way, to make room for what will soon reveal itself to be a camel race of all things. A carnival is in town and the awkwardly bemused Judd can’t quite figure what all the commotion is about. He looks out of place, an improper relic entering what used to be familiar territory but what now appears strange and new. A local policeman repeatedly refers to him as “old man” and “old timer,” and though he is there to accept a job—to transport some gold from a mining outpost to this burgeoning hub of Hornitos, California—even his employers are taken aback by his weathered, ragged appearance. They tell him they expected a much younger man. “I used to be,” Judd responds. “We all used to be.”
As it so happens, a former acquaintance of Judd’s is currently contributing to this festive affair. Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), eventually joined by his young sidekick Heck Longtree (Ron Starr), has apparently hung up his spurs and now amuses as a sideshow sharpshooter in the vein of Buffalo Bill. Knowing that the treacherous path from the Coarse Gold mining camp to the fortune’s final bank destination has already taken a handful of lives, Judd enlists his old accomplice to assist. What Judd doesn’t know, however, is that Gil and Heck have every intention of making off with the gold themselves, with or without Judd’s support.
Soon after their departure, the trio stops at the home of Joshua Knudsen (R. G. Armstrong), where they ask to bed down for the night—the barn will do—and where Heck quickly takes a shine to the farmer’s sheltered tomboy daughter, Elsa, played by Mariette Hartley. Ride the High Country was the film debut of stage actress Hartley, and it’s easy to see by the smitten Heck falls for the blossoming beauty. But her Bible-quoting over-protective father will have none of it, and besides, she is betrothed to a young man named Billy Hammond (James Drury). It’s under that pretense that she sneaks off with Judd, Westrum, and Heck, for fiancé Billy has set up shop at Coarse Gold hoping to strike it rich.
Neither the gold transport nor the prospective union go as planned, though, with both running into ruin courtesy of the rough and tumble brute Billy and his quartet of four volatile brothers. To see just how plainly the best laid plans have been spoiled, one need look no further than Hartley’s timid face when, at her wedding ceremony, which takes place in the local brothel, is presided over by a drunken judge, and features madam Kate as the bridesmaid, the poor girl grows visibly dumbstruck, grieved by the sad realization of her inauspicious position.
This is a solid narrative foundation, but the ostensive plot of Ride the High Country ultimately has little to do with the film’s worth. Written by N. B. Stone Jr., with uncredited work by William Roberts and Peckinpah himself, the picture is more an insightfully poetic lament than it is a guns-a-blazing cowboy adventure. With a slow and steady build-up to the fatal confrontation between Westrum and Judd and Billy and his rowdy kin, there is, in fact, no real action for more than an hour. Far more pointedly, Ride the High Country is a considerate character study, one that excels with its profound execution of essential Western themes. The film is about change: a changing nation, changing people, and a changing genre. The Western was hitting the skids by the 1960s, and Peckinpah knew it as well as anyone. For nearly ten years, he had honed his directorial skill on television—mostly Westerns—before directing his first feature film, The Deadly Companions, in 1961—also a Western. To make Ride the High Country as he did was a gutsy move, to launch his filmmaking career with a sophomore effort that in many ways began to dismantle this most hallowed of American movie genres. It took confidence and it took an artistic combination of reverence for the form and an awareness of its inevitable evolution.
It also took the sturdy, equally assured presence of Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. Originally cast in the opposite roles, the two were approaching the close of their careers just as Peckinpah was getting started, and not unlike Don Siegel’s 1976 film The Shootist, in which an aging John Wayne and James Stewart play similarly aging characters, Ride the High Country banks on the personas of its two stars to captivate as familiar famous faces and to literally embody its senescent implications (supposedly, Ride the High Country was actually planned for Wayne to star alongside Gary Cooper, but Cooper died before production began). The contrasting screen personas of McCrea—genial, soft, warm—and Scott—stoic, severe, stiff—were well-established by 1962, and their legendary stature and their actual age significantly contribute to the film’s observations of maturation and transitory development. This would, in fact, be Scott’s final film, though McCrea had four left in him, acting until 1976’s Mustang Country.
New faces also stand out in Ride the High Country, many of whom became Peckinpah regulars like R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, and Warren Oates. But Scott and McCrea express the fundamentals. They exhibit signs of physical deterioration and fallibility—aching bones, reading glasses, rheumatism—and when Judd subtly evokes his desperation in wanting, no, needing, the gold delivery job, it is painfully apparent that part of the impetus is the money, sure, but also the desire to retain his individual worth, to still have value in a world passing him by. Basically playing My Two Dads to the adopted youngsters Elsa and Heck, Westrum and Judd share hints of a dubious past, with cheerful reminisces and perceptive smiles that pleasantly disclose the remnants of rowdy days gone by and experiences now marked by the venerable sensibility of lessons learned.
The eventual dust-up with Billy and his brothers gets Westrum and Judd into an unintended conflict, but it too serves the purpose of personal edification. It’s not what they wanted, but now that it’s there, it’s what they have to do. Like several of Peckinhpah’s later films, Ride the High Country deals with the impact of reluctant responsibility. The older men have their own personal demons to contend with, and they each, in their own way, seek a shot at redemption and relevance. In the film’s most quoted line, based on a musing attributed to Peckinpah’s father but given to Judd (who was largely inspired by the director’s dad), he comments, “All I want is to enter my house justified.” And part of that justification is the adherence of a moral code, which is why Judd’s disappointment is so intense when triggered by Westrum’s betrayal. His reaction reveals as much: he slaps Westrum twice in the face—not punches, but demeaning slaps, like Westrum was a scolded child or a battered woman. Seeing the young and reckless Hammonds cruelly leave one of their dead behind is one thing, but seeing two seasoned friends embattled in such a skirmish is another. We expect more. It’s no wonder Elsa is confused when she attempts to ascertain what is good or bad in this environment, what is right or wrong. She sees it is not such an easy distinction (it’s not, in other words, what many Westerns have led us to believe). “No it isn’t,” says Judd. “It should be, but it isn’t.” Still, there is the right thing to do, and Peckinpah offers Judd and Westrum the opportunity for a last hurrah and affords Westrum a chance for ethical recovery.
The closing shot of Ride the High Country is one of the best in all of Peckinpah’s career, and the showdown leading up to it is likewise an extremely well-crafted succession of varying angles and shot sizes, heroic compositions supported by the moving camera, all edited together as a visual precursor to the dynamic shootouts Peckinpah would accelerate with The Wild Bunch (1969). This was his first feature with cinematographer Lucien Ballard (they had previously worked together on two episodes of The Westerner in 1960), and from the film’s textured surfaces to its scenic vistas—both of which look outstanding on the new Warner Archive Blu-ray—Ride the High Country is also a preview of the definitive Peckinpah image: a beautifully gritty coarseness further evinced in later Ballard collaborations like The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), Junior Bonner (1972), and The Getaway (1972). Shooting on the picture began near Mammoth Lake, California, but winter weather conditions moved the production to the MGM backlot near Bronson Canyon in Hollywood. Wherever they were captured, the exteriors are gorgeous, and they provide a spectacular natural backdrop for the literal and symbolic journey (when Heck is reprimanded for littering, the film becomes the rare Western that acknowledges its magnificent setting and the need to take care of it).
Starting with the incongruous camel race, Ride the High Country indicates a genre and a milieu entangled in a period of dramatic shift, and it’s a concept the film continually reconciles in delicately self-conscious touches, as when Westrum’s carnival barker showman capitalizes on fabricated and exaggerated tales of “single-handed exploits,” those mythical tales of how the west was won (so we’ve been told), or when Peckinpah defies notions of admirable macho glory. The frontier’s masculine behavior and boys-will-be-boys antics are no laughing matter here. Billy and his brothers are abusive and uncivilized and even Heck at one point assaults Elsa, after which he is leveled by Judd with one punch (which makes sense) and yet she soon comes around to apologize (which doesn’t). Sexual equality is clearly still a work in progress.
While many view Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch as the film that finally put the bloody nail in the traditional Western’s coffin, when it comes to the depiction of the American west—and the American Western—in transition, the director’s most elegiac, most somber and most sobering take on the theme emerges in Ride the High Country, where its aged ex-gunfighters reunite to both confront and convey the nature of a fluctuating time and place.