I have a very clear memory from my childhood that involves a Western. I don’t recall anything from this movie apart from the ending where our hero, who’s been mortally wounded, lies down to die and the camera focuses on a beautiful sunset. Many years later I believe I finally found the film I had been watching. Sometimes, memories from our childhood concern movies that turn out to be real dogs. In this case it so happens that I must have been watching Sam Peckinpah’s first great film. No wonder it made such an impact.
In the early 1900s, Steve Judd (Joel McCrea), a former lawman, takes on quite a challenge. He’s hired to guard a shipment of gold that is to be transported from a mining camp to a California town. A dangerous mission, even for men who are much younger and in better shape than Judd. After enlisting his old friend Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) and his much younger (and easily distracted) partner Heck Longtree (Ron Starr), Judd heads out for that mining camp. After a while, they reach a farm where they’re offered dinner and a bed; the farmer is a strict, religious man, but his daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley) clearly longs for a different life. When Judd, Westrum and Longtree leave the next morning, they’re followed by Elsa who’s decided to run away from her domineering father, join the trio and marry a fellow in the mining camp that she’s fallen in love with.
The mission is about to become a lot more complicated… especially since Westrum and Longtree are planning to steal the gold.
Watching McCrea and Scott is a pure treat
Peckinpah was apparently offered N.B. Stone, Jr.:s script because of his work on a TV series called The Westerner (1960), which he had created. This was only his second feature, and it took some time for many critics to recognize its worth. Fans of Peckinpah and The Wild Bunch (1969) may note that had the movie been made later it would probably have featured the kind of stylish manipulation that we’ve come to expect from the director, including much bloodier violence and slo-mo effects in the shootouts. Ride the High Country is conventional in its technical approach, but the subject matter is more modern as it attempts to portray what the old Wild West looked like some time after its heyday.
The opening scene has Steve Judd getting a taste of the kind of new society that he seems ill-equipped for, but as he embarks on his journey it also becomes an exercise in time-traveling, with him and Westrum sharing memories from the good old days and showing both Longtree and the roughnecks in the mining camp the value of old-fashioned decency and bravery coupled with gun skills that haven’t aged much. Watching McCrea and Scott in their last major starring roles is a pure treat and the underlying threat of Westrum’s plans lends a bittersweet complexity to his and Judd’s nostalgic relationship. Hartley is also good in her first film role as the naive girl who makes the mission a lot messier than everybody involved anticipated.
Cinematographer Lucien Ballard offers breathtaking widescreen views of the California wilderness and composer George Bassman has written a music score that’s fairly standard but memorable and a fitting accompaniment to the tone of the film’s central relationship.
Many brilliant later films, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Unforgiven, reused the theme of the Old West and its pros coming to terms with a new era. This one stands as an early example of a genre that continued evolving during the 1960s.
Ride the High Country 1962-U.S. 94 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Richard E. Lyons. Directed by Sam Peckinpah. Screenplay: N.B. Stone, Jr. Cinematography: Lucien Ballard. Music: George Bassman. Cast: Randolph Scott (Gil Westrum), Joel McCrea (Steve Judd), Mariette Hartley (Elsa Knudsen), Ron Starr (Heck Longtree), Edgar Buchanan, R.G. Armstrong.
Trivia: The two leads reportedly switched roles with each other.