Guns in the Afternoon
There is an internal paradox to the delightful western Ride the High Country that makes it an intriguing and important proposition. For the actors Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea it was the concluding statement on careers honed in the dust and gunfire of the traditional western. For young filmmaker Sam Peckinpah it was a second attempt at directing a feature film after the forgettable and obscure The Deadly Companions (1961). Within Ride the High Country’s core is both a lamentation for the end of a traditional mode of generic address, and excitement for the new horizons opened by generic revisionism. Here Peckinpah shows his love for the traditional western, but it is a love tempered by an impatient need to move on and push the boundaries of the form. For some the nihilistic bloodbath that concluded The Wild Bunch (1969) may have come as a surprise, but Peckinpah was already making smoke signals in that direction with this film. Up to this point Peckinpah was chiefly known as a writer for television. He had contributed scripts and some direction for episodes of Gun Law (1955-8), Broken Arrow (1957-8), Zane Grey Theatre (1958-9) and The Rifleman (1958-63). His main contribution to western lore however was the creation of The Westerner (1960). This series only lasted for 13 episodes but was vital in securing interest from the major Hollywood studios. Peckinpah’s knowledge of generic typography was cultivated in the restrictive milieu of television, but the expansive possibillities of film allowed him to paint a much larger and thematically rich canvas with his second film.
On this occasion Peckinpah left the main writing duties to N. B. Stone Jr, though he and Robert Creighton Williams provided uncredited work to the screenplay. It is clear that Peckinpah’s attentions are very much directed toward the visual presentation of the film. The gorgeously radiant cinematography of veteran Lucien Ballard begins a love affair with the autumnal landscape that recurs throughout Peckinpah’s oeuvre. There is a sublime quality to the mountains and open vistas that resonates with symbolic and metaphoric importance. The overriding themes of the film though are old age, nostalgia, friendship, and the power of friendship in the face of betrayal and deception. McCrea plays Steve Judd a fading has-been who finds himself increasingly lost in a world that he no longer belongs in. With his threadbare clothes and hole riddled boots Judd cuts something of a pathetic figure. But his most important quality is that he has never lost his dignity. This is a world in which the gunfighters of yesteryear are ashamed of the spectacles they must wear to read contracts, and are desperate to prove that they can still compete with those much younger than themselves. When Judd bumps into his old partner Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) and his young protégé Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) they team up to transport gold from a wild mining community in the mountains.
© Shaun Anderson 2011