“Ride the High Country” (1962) is one of the greatest westerns ever made, which means it’s also one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s a glorious film that works on many levels, and is arguably director Sam Peckinpah’s best film.
Peckinpah is one of those directors I’ve always admired more than liked. “The Wild Bunch” (1969) is an undoubted masterpiece, but it’s not an easy film to sit though. “Major Dundee” (1965) has some marvelous visuals, but a disjointed narrative, even in the restored version which recently came out on DVD.
A maverick personality, in the best and worst senses, Peckinpah was in many ways his own worst enemy. But that was the future.
“Ride the High Country” is a beautifully elegiac film, teaming two legendary stars, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott for the first and only time. This film gives Scott a wonderful final screen appearance that ranks up there with the final films of John Wayne in “The Shootist” (1976) and Humphrey Bogart in “The Harder They Fall” (1956) as worthy screen goodbyes.
Joel McCrea plays Steve Judd, an ex-lawman who is hired to transport gold from the mines. Needing help, he runs into his old partner Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) to help him. Gil brings along his partner Heck (Ron Starr, don’t know what ever happened to him) to help. It’s established early on that while Gil and Steve are friends, there’s some tenseness there. Judd is a straight shooter, interested in living a dignified, honest life while Gil has more than a touch of larceny in him. Indeed, he and Heck plan to steal the gold for themselves and make off with it.
On their way to the mines they stop off at a ranch owned by a fundamentalist, Bible thumping rancher (R.G. Armstrong) whose daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley, in her film debut) is itching to get clear of the ranch. She leaves the ranch and asks the three to escort her to the gold camp where her fiancé Billy Hammond (James Drury) is mining with his brothers.
The Hammond brothers are pure Peckinpah, dirty and grimy and with the morals of alley cats. They’re played by later Peckinpah favorites Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones. The mining camp is a dinghy, depressing place, but a touch of beauty and grace emerges during Billy and Elsa’s wedding. On their wedding night, Billy gets drunk and passes out and the Hammond brothers decide to take his place in the wedding bed. Her screams bring Steve, Gil and Heck to her rescue, and after a tense stand-off they elect to bring her back with them, along with the latest gold shipment.
The next day the Hammond brothers take after them to bring Elsa back. Gil and Heck steal the gold but Judd stops them, and ties them up. He tries to make his way back through the high country with prisoners in tow and the Hammond brothers right on his trail, with blood lust in their hearts and guns drawn ready to kill.
Like “The Wild Bunch,” “Ride the High Country” deals with western men whose time has passed. The west they’ve known is gone, replaced by a town teeming with automobiles, a Chinese restaurant, and a carnival featuring a race between a camel and a horse. Judd is ordered to clear the streets by the local police, who are dressed like the Keystone Cops.
Judd’s time is over but he’s determined to live the rest of his life with the dignity he’s always possessed. As such, Steve Judd is the perfect role for Joel McCrea.
McCrea was a Hollywood anomaly, a good, decent man. Married to actress Frances Dee for more than 50 years, he lived a quiet life with his family entirely devoid of scandal or rumor. He starred in all kinds of movies in the 1930s and 1940s, including some of Preston Sturges’ best-loved films, but after World War II he made almost exclusively westerns. When not making movies, he was a working rancher, and, as such, was an authentic cowboy.
His career paralleled co-star Randolph Scott’s in a few ways. Like McCrea, Scott appeared in everything from comedies to musicals, to westerns to melodramas in the 1930 and 1940s but after World War II he made nothing but westerns. They both liked making westerns, they knew their fans liked them in westerns, and since both actors were consistent money makers, why rock the boat?
Beginning in 1955 with “Seven Men From Now”, Randolph Scott made a series of tight, B westerns directed by Budd Boetticher that are marvels of tightness, speed, action and Freudian overtones. Check out “The Tall T” (1957) sometime if you ever get the chance.
“Ride the High Country” is the perfect screen coda for them. Their time has come but Steve and Gil, like McCrea and Scott, are going to go out in a blaze of glory. Composer George Bassman contributes a lovely theme which is a perfect complement to the autumnal aspects of the story.
There’s a terrific shoot out scene in the rocks where no music is played, but the lonely sound of the wind makes for an equally effective soundtrack. The final shoot out at the ranch is one of the most melancholy, yet satisfying, in all westerns. Steve’s final words with Gil are poetic in their simplicity and are matched by the haunting final image.
McCrea made three or four cameo in later films and one final film “Mustang Country” (1976). Scott decided to call it quits. A shrewd businessman, he invested wisely and retired a wealthy man. But their films still play and connect with audiences who respond to the values their characters espoused. We will never see their likes again.
Rating for “Ride the High Country”: Four stars.