Ride the High Country (1962)
Ride the High Country (1962)

Genre: Western Running Time: 1 hr. 34 min.

Release Date: May 9th, 1962 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Sam Peckinpah Actors: Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Mariette Hartley, Ron Starr, Edgar Buchanan, R.G. Armstrong, Jenie Jackson, James Drury, L.Q. Jones, Warren Oates

 


 

“W

atch out, old timer!” As Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) rides into a Californian town, he’s steered off the main road to make way for a camel-versus-horse race – as well as cotton candy vendors and various other carnival employees and participants. Judd has arrived for a job opportunity involving the transportation of a quarter-of-a-million dollars in gold bullion. Due to only a single path leading from a recent gold strike down to the local Hornitos bank, opportunistic bandits have capitalized on the general lawlessness of the area, requiring some hired gunfighters to escort the shipment.

But it’s more than a one-man job. So Steve connects with an elderly acquaintance, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), himself now partnered with impetuous youngster Heck Longtree (Ron Starr), to aid in the potentially deadly task. Along the way, they stop at the Knudsen ranch, where the attractive, dainty Elsa (Mariette Hartley) can’t escape Heck’s lustful grin, eventually leading to her joining the party, even though it’s dangerous and she doesn’t bring any resources or experience for the trek ahead.

Despite Sam Peckinpah in the director’s chair, there’s a pervasive levity to the proceedings, fueled by a playful script with comical rowdiness. An adventurous score by George Bassman also lends a lighthearted vibe. At least the indestructible notion of honor is still present, along with a bit of chivalry and appropriate comeuppance when Heck oversteps the line of decency by stealing a kiss. But after the initial, airy romance, the customers get tougher, particularly with the Hammond clan (James Drury, L.Q. Jones, John Anderson, John Davis Chandler, and Warren Oates), who represent a decided uncouthness – as well as a lengthy midsection to the plot that delays the suspense of an inevitable clash between lawmen and rogues. Yet the purpose is a character study more than an actioner; it’s a piercing analyzation of beliefs and mistakes and redemptions.

The days of the Wild West are disappearing – a theme Peckinpah would navigate in several later pictures. Modern technologies, like automobiles, are now on the streets, leaving the likes of professional cowboys to pick up odd jobs here and there, their specific sets of skills no longer as useful or necessary. As the two ancient gunslingers mosey on up the mountainside, taking in the sights of the Inyo National Forest, reminiscing about past undertakings and the days of yore, it’s clear that this picture is partly celebrating the transition of Westerns, which were themselves either declining in quantity altogether or morphing into the revisionist genre (there’s even an intermittent ugliness in the design here that suggests the coming change in classical styling).

It’s a swan song for this era of filmmaking and for these subjects, which is evident in the characters and the conflicts; shootouts at high noon aren’t the standard motifs anymore (though bar fights are still routine). Instead, much of the glamor of good against evil is blurred; there’s moral ambiguity with both of Elsa’s suitors, even if the Hammond boy is unequivocally more villainous. And though Judd and Westrum subscribe to the ethics of the classic cowboy, even that is a fragile ethos. Betrayal and sneaky tactics now dictate interactions; nothing is simply black and white. Yet there’s also an eerie beauty to the picture, chiefly in the scenery and marginally in the premise, during which few decisions trump coming to the aid of a damsel in distress. The conclusion, however, is extraordinary, momentarily embracing the most effective elements of archetypal Westerns, as if a final glimpse of the greatness of these kinds of vanishing adventures.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10