Admittedly at times, I fall into the trap of getting so caught up in the context of a film and its history I miss out on elements of the experience. However, when I watched Ride the High Country it didn’t feel like I was getting distracted by how this story pertained to others — at least not when I was immersed in it.
I probably don’t foster enough of a respect for Sam Peckinpah as other viewers or perhaps as much as I should, but watching a picture like this there’s this undying sense that he knows full-well the tradition of the western. He builds off some of the best themes of the genre with two fine actors straight out of the tradition. It comes with not only tightening the script to make it more resonate but honing in on the inner conflict of our characters as well.
Lucien Ballard’s photography is equally phenomenal in its use of the width of the screen to capture horizontal panoramas of majesty. Instantly he makes the high country synonymous with raw and rugged beauty that’s a joy to behold.
Like the most riveting westerns, this stunning imagery paired with the compelling narrative of two men, played by Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, picked me up and carried me away. Implicitly I knew that the West was changing; themes that we would be reminded of again most definitively in The Wild Bunch (1969).
In the opening minutes, we already have camels, automobiles, Arabian music, and popcorn machines out in the West and if they’re not purely anachronistic, the times must be changing. And our two main characters too were a different breed of cowboy. It’s more so a simple reality than the point of the drama.
And anyway what we learn and would do well to remember is that sometimes it’s not a generational thing at all. Each person has their own makeup and circuitry that ultimately dictates their decisions and moral framework. But, again, that comes later.
With no acting marshall in the territory and six miners recently killed and robbed trying to get their spoils down to the bank, there’s a need to be met. Steve Judd (McCrea) soon earns the gig guarding a shipment of gold to be extracted from the mining outpost of Hornitos. Granted he’s not as young as he used to be but his name still means something in the territory and when he runs across his old comrade Gil Westrum (Scott) working a carnival show, they bring an entire history with them that we only have to imagine. The other man coaxes his buddy into letting his young partner Heck (Ron Starr) come on too. It’s very reluctantly agreed to.
Their first stop is a ranch ruled by a puritanical homesteader who distrusts all men and their earthly ways; he deems them deserving of God’s wrath. His outlook is so pernicious because there is not an ounce of affection in him and it reveals himself in how he maintains a severe existence that deeply affects his daughter. Such that at the first sign of a man she perks up and runs off to put on some different duds.
Her father begrudingly gives them lodging in his barn far away from his daughter and chides the trio with the words out of Proverbs 22. Perceiving them as godless fortune seekers he lords over them with the words that “gold is a stumbling block.” He’s not wrong exactly and yet Steve coolly comes back with his own scriptural knowledge, suggesting he’s not some heathen. He can ably play the game and hold his own.
Mariette Hartley had yet to become the familiar face who flooded my childhood from The Bob Newhart Show to M*A*S*H but she’s an important piece of this picture just as Ron Starr is. They are the youth, representative of the new generation still trying to find their way. Elsa makes a rash decision to travel up to the mining town to get hitched with a man named Billy Hammond (James Drury) who formerly promised marriage.
She gets there and finds the wheels turning toward matrimony with Billy’s four lascivious brothers intent on the marriage and the added benefits for them. What becomes so striking is the harsh reality of this whirling wedding. It’s crowded with people and photographed in such a way that is claustrophobic, raucous, and dare I say, garish. It hearkens back to a similar sequence in Day of The Outlaw (1959) except the color in this one makes the palette come alive evocatively.
Simultaneously, in her youthful exuberance, it was nothing of what Elsa imagined her wedding day would be like presided over by a drunken buffoon (Edgar Buchannan) and frequented by an ensemble of floozies and lewd miners. It’s completely bereft of the loveliness or intimacy of true matrimony as its meant to be but she’s made her decision. Surely, she has to live with it now.
Ride the High Country is situated as a moral tale deceptively simple like a High Noon (1952) or Magnificent Seven (1960) in a sense, and yet it gives way to so much of note. Like many stories, it gets to one place only to realize it must go back from whence it came and yet the game and the stakes indubitably change.
In this case, Steve just occupied himself with his task at hand initially and yet in a righteous moment he decides to insert himself into this young woman’s plight and intercede on her behalf. He doesn’t have to do it but it is the right thing and since Heck’s in love with her, he’s right there too. Judd has the girl and the gold in toe planning to do right by both. Gil has his own agenda planned since the first moment they ever set out. Justice relies on men acting in honor and they rarely do. But when they do, it’s important. It’s what this story ultimately hinges on, this constant shifting of moral tectonics.
There’s a deep satisfaction in watching two giants of the genre riding out together in style. It’s true that both Scott and McCrea took a premature retirement (though McCrea would come back years later). The sentiment being, “why not quit when you’re ahead?” and when you look at the landscape of westerns and where they were headed, Ride the High Country is a perfect cantilever jutting out into the great unknown.
Because most important of all and crucial to understanding this inherently American genre is some sense of a moral code — good and evil that must always be grappled with in the hearts and minds of any man who gets on a horse and takes to the West. That’s Ride the High Country at its finest revealing how muddled this tradition would become even in a few years time. It was the direction of the new west still untrod that Peckinpah’s film openly anticipates.