Movie Review: Ride the High Country (1962)
“Showdown in the High Sierras!”
Ride the High Country (1962)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast: Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Mariette Hartley
Synopsis: An ageing cowboy hired to transport a shipment of gold finds that his partner is planning to betray him.
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It’s not difficult to see how the two lead characters will pan out in Sam Peckinpah’s highly acclaimed Ride the High Country. Steve Judd’s (Joel McCrea – The Most Dangerous Game, Foreign Correspondent) unassuming self-respect lends him a dignity that transcends his dust-covered and threadbare suit; he’s an honest man, fallen on hard times, who has ridden hard over a long distance to take on a job he sorely needs. His old friend, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott – Carson City, The Bounty Hunter), has also seen better days. Dressed not unlike Buffalo Bill, complete with fake long hair and beard, he’s working as a sideshow huckster under the bogus persona of The Oregon Kid when Judd catches up with him. The work Judd has lined up is to escort a shipment of gold worth an estimated quarter of a million dollars from a mining camp. It’s a two-man job, and he wants Westrum at his side. What he doesn’t realise is that his old friend’s moral code was never as firmly entrenched as his, and that Westrum sees the work as a means of getting rich quick.
Although the film’s theme centres around how the passing of an era can test the principles of those by whom that era was defined, it’s youth that sells tickets, so equal prominence is given to a romantic sub-plot concerning Westrum’s young partner, a headstrong young buck named Heck Longtree to whom Judd takes an instant dislike. Longtree is played by Ron Starr (G.I. Blues), a journeyman actor whose career never amounted to much, which, given the blandness of his performance here, isn’t much of a surprise. It’s not that he’s a bad actor – he simply fails to make any kind of an impression. The same is largely true of his love interest, played by Marietta Hartley (Marnie, 1969), who at least went on to make a career for herself in television, which raises the suspicion that perhaps Peckinpah didn’t want this commercially required love interest to overshadow the true business of his story.
Hartley plays Elsa Knudsen, a young girl living on a farm en-route to the mining camp with her religious father (R.G. Armstrong – Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, The Car), whom, its suggested, harbours – and perhaps acts upon – incestuous feelings for his daughter. There’s an immediate attraction between Elsa and Longtree, but Elsa is also sweet on young miner Billy Hammond (James Drury), and persuades the men to allow her to accompany them to the mining camp so that she can accept Billy’s proposal of marriage. The darkly handsome Drury is most famous for playing The Virginian on the long-running TV series that bore his character’s title, so it’s something of a surprise to see him playing such a low-life here. Billy has three brothers – one of whom is played by a young Warren Oates (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, 1941), who would go on to become a member of director Peckinpah’s unofficial stock company – and it quickly becomes clear that they intend their brother’s new wife to be communal property, setting up a confrontation that will prove fateful for all the principal characters.
Ride the High Country is set in the early years of the twentieth century, a time which marked the dying days of the Old West; in many ways, the film itself also represented a sea-change in the way that Hollywood Westerns portrayed the West. Characters were becoming more morally ambivalent – Scott turns his back on the virtuous roles he played in his Westerns of the 1950s (he effectively played the same character over and over again) to become a man prepared to betray his moral code and an old friend. Ride the High Country is also more realistic than the Westerns of the 1950s. The squalid, makeshift town that has sprung up around the gold mine is nothing more than a ramshackle collection of tents and wooden huts populated by unwashed vagrants, and the film makes no coy pretence about the occupation of the blowsy women who hang around the saloon in their tired and faded finery.
Ride the High Country was not only a farewell to the old-style Western, it was also the last film of one of the genre’s most faithful and dependable stars. Randolph Scott felt that, at the age of 63 he was unlikely to find a role in a film so well conceived and constructed, and opted to hang up his screen spurs after completing the film. Despite notching up 200 movies and 69 years between them, he and McCrea had never appeared together – although there are unconfirmed claims that Scott was an extra on Cecil B. DeMille’s 1929 drama, Dynamite, in which McCrea was a supporting player – and it’s a real pleasure to witness two old professionals squaring off against one another. McCrea, in particular, demonstrates just what an accomplished and under-rated actor he was in what was to be his last role in a major movie.
(Reviewed 27th November 2016)