Sunday, 26 June 2011

Ride the High Country (1962)

Country: USA

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.

The odyssey the team embark upon is one which sees a bitter Gil continually try to reinforce the view that life has screwed the two old men over. But Judd is unmoved and holds to a code of ethics and honesty which eventually turns the two old friends against each other. On the way they pick up Elsa (Mariette Hartley - making her film debut) who is desperate too escape the religious fundamentalism of her abusive father and marry the miner to whom she is betrothed. The film works especially well because it takes the time to develop multiple narratives. It also takes the time to develop the characters who constantly evolve after each episode of danger or challenge to their morality they encounter. At times the film has a poignant and elegiac quality very reminiscent of the more thoughtful westerns of John Ford. Certainly the journey through the landscape is one of storytelling and celebrating the past - the anecdotal nature of Judd and Westrum’s relationship offers an echo to similar character arcs in Clint Eastwood’s masterful western Unforgiven (1992), to which this is surely a major inspiration. The tonal shift comes when the travellers arrive at the mining community and are faced with rough and wild characters who have no time for the honourable ethics that Judd abides by. Elsa’s groom turns out to be the slightly least psychotic of a band of cutthroat brothers that includes a young Warren Oates and the ever watchable John Anderson. It is made explicit that marriage to one brother means marriage to all of them.

The clash of values between Judd/Westrum and the Hammond brothers in many ways represents the clash between the traditional western and a modern revised western. The Hammonds wouldn’t hesitate in shooting an opponent in the back, and they wouldn’t hesitate in using Elsa. The outcome of this battle is ambiguous. The Hammonds pay with their lives, but then so too does Judd. Judd is unable to survive the film because his values are no longer consistent with the modern world. The attempted betrayal by Westrum is much nearer to how it is…steal the shipment of gold you have been entrusted to deliver and make for pastures new. Westrum is allowed to survive the film because he revises this attitude and emerges at the end of the film much better equipped to deal with modernity than Judd. Anybody expecting bodies riddled with bullets falling to the ground in slow motion will be sadly disappointed. The film has a cautionary attitude to violence, and even by the standards of 1962 has a relatively small body count. Because of the subtleties and nuances of the principal characters, and the iconic generic baggage of the lead actors Ride the High Country becomes a very thought provoking study of a genre that needs to move on. Peckinpah here is not quite willing to completely break away from traditional western values, by the end of the decade he would. But that’s a story for another day.

The Deadly Companions (1961), Major Dundee (1965), The Wild Bunch (1968), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973).

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. Very good review for a very good film. This really is sort of the hint towards the big change that was coming in the genre as a whole. Peckinpah managed to express his vision here and make things though-provoking in a genre that was mostly good cowboys in white hads gunning down bad cowboys in black hats. And man, did Peckinpah ever take off into orbit by the time he got to "The Wild Bunch".

  2. Thanks for stopping by Lee, and for the very kind words. It certainly took a few years and a few false starts before Peckinpah exploded the myths of the traditional western. I might have to return to MAJOR DUNDEE, which is the film that bridges RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY and THE WILD BUNCH.

  3. I loved this write up when I read it back when. still haven't seen it, but plan to soon. Good job!

  4. Many thanks Greg - Yes it's a great film, I'm sure you'd enjoy it.


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