Ride The High Country Review

One of the saddest things in cinema is to compare the optimistic, energetic hopeful director of Ride The High Country with the strung-out, drug-addled, semi-aware orchestrator of Convoy. Even sadder is the reflection that only 16 years separate the two. Yet somehow, the change in Sam Peckinpah isn’t particularly surprising because the tragic self-destructive figure of the later films is present in the poignant melancholy of the early ones. Not in person exactly, but in the themes, characters and settings. Ride The High Country is an old man’s film made by a young one and it’s partly the clash between the energy and dynamism of the filmmaker and the weariness and gentle sadness of the protagonists that makes it such an interesting and rewarding film. But perhaps the most moving thing of all is the knowledge that the end of the road facing Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea (both in film and life) was not all that far off for the 37 year old man behind the camera.

The plot is very simple. Steve Judd (McCrea) is a once-renowned lawman who is hired to protect the transport of gold from a mining colony back into a bank in the town of Hornitos. Although the bank have reservations about both his age and his insistence on taking along two assistants – his old friend Gil Westrum (Scott) and Gil’s protégé Heck Longtree (Starr) – they agree to his terms. But along the way, the men get mixed up with a young woman Elsa Knudsen (Hartley) and her maniacal father Joshua (Armstrong) and a group of ne’er do wells at the mining camp, one of whom is set to marry Elsa. Bonding together to tackle these various problems, Gil and Steve seem closer than ever but a betrayal is planned which will change their relationship forever.

Some critics claim that Ride The High Country is Peckinpah’s best film and it’s easy to see why. It’s not particularly confrontational, it’s relatively bloodless and it’s shot in a simple, classic style. You could easily mistake it, at first glance, for another Western in the 1950s ‘dark frontier’ tradition of Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher – and the presence of Scott will certainly make genre fans recall the latter. The tone is attractively nostalgic and there’s no foul language or explicit nudity to cope with. Not that any of this should suggest that it isn’t a personal film, far from it. It’s full of themes which would become inextricably associated with the director throughout his career. It’s funny, moving and memorably powerful. But there’s something missing somewhere. It seems to come too easy somehow, a judgement which is manifestly unfair since Peckinpah never had an easy time on any film. Everything is in place to be heartbreaking and it’s as though the director knows it. The double edge to the poignancy in The Wild Bunch or Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid comes partly because we’re never sure whether there’s anything to feel nostalgic about and partly because our emotions are deliberately disturbed by confusions of identification with hunter and hunted – and in Pat Garrett, the two eventually seem to become one. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue, the ‘end of the trail’ storyline is given a comic spin while nostalgia becomes hopelessly complicated by questions about the way in which Cable Hogue treats the people around him. Ride The High Country is played very straight and while that’s appealing, it’s limiting and it doesn’t allow Peckinpah the luxury of too many grey areas - the spaces in which he is at his very best. The casting of McCrea and Scott is also a dig in the ribs which, while entirely appropriate, is far from subtle and the script – which also whacks us with the end of the trail references at every opportunity - doesn’t give them space to be as complex as Robert Ryan, William Holden, Kris Kristofferson or James Coburn.

But that’s a very harsh judgement and not one upon which I wish to dwell. If Ride The High Country seems like an apprentice run for themes which Peckinpah made his own, then it’s a remarkably confident one which looks beautiful throughout thanks to work by Lucien Ballard which is a model of how to use Cinemascope for more than simply epic landscapes. Throughout, the attention to detail is delightful, ranging from the stunning landscapes of the opening credits (which become significant towards the end of the film) to the carefully chosen Biblical quotations and the frayed cuffs of Steve Judd’s shirt. The opening is a wonderful allegory of the end of the West as Steve Judd rides into a town on the cusp of a welcome which he thinks might be for him, but which turns out to be a celebratory cowboy show. The central themes of friendship and betrayal which constantly recur in Peckinpah’s work – right up to The Osterman Weekend - are present in the relationship between Steve and Gil. The obvious betrayal comes as the plot progresses towards its climax but their first scene together contains two which are symbolic – on a simple level, Steve pretends to be a stranger and on a more allegorical one, Jud is dressed up in a wig and cowboy suit making money out of an image which he once embodied.

The vital part of the film is the friendship between Gil and Steve and the film has the good fortune to have Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. Neither man was the greatest actor in Hollywood – indeed, Scott became famous for doing barely anything while still being the most stylish guy in the 1950s western. But they were skilful film actors who knew how to use the camera to their best advantage and there’s a nicely understated competition between them in their scenes together where they try to get the upper hand.

Equally, both actor was representative of the history of the genre from the big budget Western Union and Union Pacific to quickie westerns of the late 1940s and the revival of the low-budget renegade western under De Toth and Boetticher – not much acknowledged at the time but increasingly interesting fifty years on. Both men seem to represent basic assumptions of heroism and order – they follow a ‘code’ which distinguishes them from the foes they encounter - and it’s consequently a huge shock when the betrayal comes, even though it’s constantly signposted in the dialogue between Scott and his young compadre played by the deservedly obscure Ronald Starr. What you remember from the film most vividly is the dignity of the two men, riding along together as Steve explains his superficially simple but endlessly profound philosophy of life – “All I want is to enter my house justified”. There’s a history between these two men – what we might now call backstory – and it’s one of occasional successes, many chances missed and endless regrets. Take these two men, remove a few years, add a few more shades of darkness and you can see the models of Deke Thornton and Pike Bishop.

The film has been called Peckinpah’s homage to the classic western but, if so, it’s a remarkably ambivalent one.

The nostalgia for a genre which was on the wane even in 1962 is evident throughout – the casting of the two stars, visual cues from Anthony Mann and John Ford, including a wedding procession to a brothel which could come straight out of the Cavalry Trilogy until the (wondrously expressive) face of Mariette Hartley at the end is a direct reminder of How Green Is My Valley – and there is a sense of endings in the concentration on ‘end things’ throughout – Steve and Gil are constantly talking about the good old days, discussing half-remembered the woman they both knew, the memorable characters they’ve met and times of glory now well behind them. Death crops up frequently – most of their acquaintances seem to have died unmourned – and they discuss their distinctly minimal expectations for how their own deaths will be greeted. But there’s a distinct sense that the simplicities of the classic western are no longer possible, notably in the remarkable scene at the farm run by an evangelical nutter played by the great R.G.Armstrong, an actor who later played virtually the same role in Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid. This homestead, that repository of familial warmth which provides shelter and understanding, turns out to be a place of terrible repression where biblical platitudes take the place of dinner conversation and love seems to be a dirty word.

It’s not a new notion of course. Anthony Mann’s westerns with James Stewart all challenge conventional notions of heroism and history and John Ford’s work in the genre from Fort Apache onwards frequently suggested that the myth was becoming increasingly fragile until it finally shattered in The Searchers. Directors such as Andre De Toth and Budd Boetticher reduced the genre right down to its basics, adopting a minimalist approach not only for budgetary reasons but also to create abstract stories which said as much about genre conventions as they did about characters and settings. What Peckinpah does is to turn the implications of earlier films into the subject of his – subtext rises right to the surface. Around the same time, Ford was questioning the myths in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and ironically suggesting that one should print the legend while he was actually showing the truth behind it. Meanwhile, David Miller made Lonely Are The Brave, a contemporary western which ended with the horse-bound hero being knocked down by a rampaging metaphor in the shape of a car.

But Ride The High Country has a very special atmosphere.

It’s not subtle but the rich colour images have the power of illustrations in a fairy-tale and it’s possessed of a kind of grace – the same sensation which reaches its fullest expression in Peckinpah’s work during the five minute, Dylan-scored final ‘showdown’ towards the end of Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. Much of this comes from the two stars who are incredibly dignified but Peckinpah deserves credit too. This isn’t a particularly representative film in a stylistic sense. There’s no use of slow-motion or balletic violence and bloodletting is notable by its absence. However, it’s certainly not anonymous. Peckinpah loves actors and he makes the most of a rich supporting cast, amongst whom you’ll notice favourites such as L.Q. Jones and Warren Oates, who gets a wonderful scene where he refuses to wash for his brother’s wedding. There’s also plenty of comedy and good humour, traits which tend to get forgotten but which continually bubble up in Peckinpah’s work. He likes his characters here – as he does in Cable Hogue - and this creates a feeling of tremendous goodwill. There’s also something interesting which Peckinpah perhaps lost in his search for more complex things. The lack of violence with consequences for most of the film – much knockabout slugging - makes the final reel all the more shocking and moving and while the resolution is perhaps inevitable, it has a realism which brings us up short. The close-up of the dead R.G. Armstrong is particularly shocking because we’re not prepared for it. What’s also surprising is how sympathetic the central female character is. The way she is treated first by her father and, later, during the shocking but historically accurate post-wedding sequence is portrayed as cruel and demeaning and the sympathies of Gil and Steve are firmly with the woman. Those people who claim Peckinpah couldn’t create decent female characters should have a look here – and at Ida Lupino in Junior Bonner while they’re at it. There’s a real understanding of the lot of the woman in a male society in evidence and that’s both unexpected and refreshing.

Peckinpah came to Ride The High Country as an enthusiastic TV director with one film behind him - The Deadly Companions which was destroyed by its producer - and a glittering career in front of him. It was one of his better experiences with the studios, even though he didn’t have final cut and MGM couldn’t work out what to make of it, eventually dumping it in the lower halves of double bills. Ultimately, it found enough of an audience, notably in Europe, to make the director’s reputation and remained a favourite of western fans, some of whom consider it Peckinpah’s finest moment. Looked at forty years later, if it seems like a dry-run for his greatest work then that’s only because greater work did emerge and even then it’s a very, very good film. By anything except Peckinpah’s very highest standards, this is a great movie and a classic western.

The Disc

This DVD, available both on its own and as part of the Sam Peckinpah Legendary Westerns Collection, looks wonderful, sounds good and contains a couple of very pleasant extras.

The film is presented at an aspect ratio of roughly 2.35:1 and looks beautifully detailed. I found the colours more satisfying than those on the disc of The Wild Bunch and they are generally very pleasing to the eye, although not perhaps as knock-out as they should be. There are, thankfully, no problems with artifacting and the picture contains some fine grain but no unsightly texturing. The mono soundtrack is exceptionally good – crystal clear with crisp dialogue and atmospheric music.

There are three major extras, one of which – the Peckinpah trailer gallery – is duplicated on all the discs in the collection. The commentary, by the usual ‘Peckinpah Posse’ is a good one, covering the themes of the film and offering some contextualising of its place in the director’s career. Nothing new or surprising in what they have to say but they’re very pleasant company. We also get a 25 minute featurette called “A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the High Country” which is somewhat misleadingly titled. It’s an interview with Peckinpah’s sister Fern Lea Peter and is very revealing but not really linked to Ride The High Country more than it is to his other films. She tells a good deal about Peckinpah’s early life and expresses great regret for what eventually happened to him.

The film is divided into 23 chapter and optional subtitles are offered for the film but not the extra features.

9 out of 10
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