Ride the High Country

Sam Peckinpah was 36 years old when he made Ride the High Country, but it feels like the work of a man who’s somewhat farther along in years. That’s not because the film speaks so knowingly about the difficulties of aging (though it does that in spades), but because of its air of potent, self-aware nostalgia. A film of abundant visual beauty, it’s also a highly literate one through whose heart blows a chill valedictory breeze. It’s a modern Western that uses the Old West not just for its color, but as a concrete part of the American experience, a way of reflecting the shift in attitude towards the past between the people who lived in it and those who came afterwards. A highly versatile work (its 94 minutes enclose a morality play, a historical essay and a probing character study), it represents a summing-up of everything that preceded it in the Western genre, the same way that Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch would perform another, more convulsive, summing-up seven years later.

Ride the High Country’s autumnal tone begins with its casting of Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, two of the genre’s most revered icons; after making scores of Westerns between them, High Country was to be Scott’s last movie and McCrea’s second-to-last one. McCrea plays Steven Judd, a former U.S. Marshal grown too old to wear a badge and now reduced to picking up work where he can get it. Surrounded by the signs of a creeping progress, Judd has outlived not only his reputation but also the era he made it in. Wanting nothing more than to recoup his self-respect, he’s just landed a job that draws on his experience as a lawman: armed guard, responsible for transporting gold bullion from Coarsegold, a mining camp in the high Sierras, back down to a bank in the lowlands. Judd needs help on the four-day ride to and from the settlement, and as luck would have it his old friend and former deputy Gil Westrum (Scott) is in town.

Westrum, who scrapes together his living from a rigged carnival game, is tantalized by the promise of easy money that he sees as rightful payback for his years of unrewarded service. Enlisting the aid of the impatient young hustler Heck Longstreet (Ron Starr), he offers their services to Judd, hoping that once on the trail he can tempt his old friend into taking off with the gold. Gil opens his psychological gambit the second they move into the foothills, using every opportunity to remind Judd of the ungrateful citizens and unmourned lawmen that litter their past. The two old friends talk through the moral problems posed by their lives, resorting in turn to Scripture, aphorism and the memory of shared experience, until their journey finally becomes as much an inward as an outward passage. “The clothes of pride—is that all you want?” Gil asks at one point along the trail. Judd replies with a paraphrase from the Book of Luke: “All I want is to enter my house justified.” Coming out of Joel McCrea’s mouth it’s the cornerstone of a simple but certain philosophy.

Their progress is complicated by the appearance of Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley), a young woman fleeing her repressive household to join her fiancé, a white-trash miner in Coarsegold named Billy Hammond (James Drury). Forced by circumstance to accept Elsa into their party, Judd and Westrum again save her when Hammond and his four brothers turn out to be a pack of deadly human jackals. During the party’s return trip down the mountain, Judd must fend off both Billy Hammond’s attempts to retake Elsa and the crisis of betrayal brought on when Westrum and Heck, having run out of patience, try to seize the gold by force. If at the end of The Wild Bunch Pike Bishop takes his enemies to Hell with him, Steven Judd does his best to trailblaze a path into Heaven for his friends.

Ride the High Country is the work of a relatively conventional Sam Peckinpah, done before a more radical artistry began altering the contours of his work. The gentleness of his sensibility is most palpable in the love he sheds on the great outdoors; rare for its time, High Country even contains an admonition against littering. Paired for the first time with world-class cameraman Lucien Ballard and shooting in CinemaScope, Peckinpah gets the most out of his locations — from serene aspen-lined lakes to the mining camp’s utilitarian grittiness — investing each of them with their own moral and emotional temperatures. His movie is riddled with unexpected pockets of pitched emotion: an alcoholic judge (Edgar Buchanan), looking like a beetle that’s been pickled in its own perspiration, pulls himself together to deliver a deeply felt wedding sermon; a prostitute gnaws on a turkey leg while taking absent regard of a vicious beating that’s occurring at her feet; a man enraged at missing his human target turns his gun on a hapless flock of chickens and blasts away.

After releasing Straw Dogs in 1971 Peckinpah would be vilified for his ostensible misogyny, and depending on how you see it Ride the High Country remains either the best rebuttal to this accusation or a measure of how far he would fall in the next 10 years. It’s hard to think of a character more sympathetically rendered than Elsa Knudsen, the naive farm girl who escapes a sexually inflected relationship with her father only to land in a worse situation. Elsa’s wedding to Billy Hammond remains one of Peckinpah’s most memorable set pieces, beginning with the comically lurid horseback procession in which the Hammond boys serenade the couple with a whiskey-fueled rendition of “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.” The ceremony and ensuing revelry — all depicted through Elsa’s eyes — carries her through disillusionment (Billy expects her to give up her virginity in the local whorehouse) to the horrifying discovery that the Hammond clan views marriage as a legitimized form of gang rape.

Seeds of the Sam Peckinpah who a few years hence would revolutionize cinematic violence are evident in Ride the High Country. The unblinking portrayal of physical suffering that would become a Peckinpah hallmark can be seen in the aftermath of a gunfight above the timberline, when a mortally wounded man seems to be watching his own death descend upon him as a cold mountain wind whips at his hair. And the concluding gunfight, in which Judd and Westrum test their values one last time by going head to head with the Hammonds, is edited in increasingly percussive rhythms as the bodies fall, presaging in embryonic form the cataclysmic gun battles that open and close The Wild Bunch. With Ride the High Country, Peckinpah began gathering about him one of the most colorful stock acting companies in film history: Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones are wonderfully repellent as two of the Hammond brothers, and R.G. Armstrong appears as Joshua Knudsen, the first of several religious fanatics he’d play for Peckinpah.

Joel McCrea turns in an irreplaceable performance as Steven Judd, whose touching mixture of stoicism and longing lies at the heart of so many Western heroes. The contrast between McCrea’s flinty line-readings and Randolph Scott’s speculative, laid-back style perfectly mirrors the distance between Judd’s unyielding sense of purpose and Westrum’s flagging morality. McCrea gets the great speeches but Scott provides some of the movie’s most affecting moments. When Gil, his scheme gone awry, extends his bound hands and asks Judd to cut him loose for the night, he bluntly offers his only reason: “I don’t sleep so good anymore.”

“People change,” the drunken Judge Tolliver reminds us in his oration, and by the end of Ride the High Country all four of its characters have traveled to an emotional location far from where they began. Steven Judd in particular moves from a state of humiliation to bittersweet triumph, which is something like the opposite of what happened to Sam Peckinpah over the course of his career. But perhaps it doesn’t matter that the beleaguered director didn’t “sleep so good” in the end, for any man that ever had a Ride the High Country inside him has plainly entered his house justified. The movie’s famous closing shot, in which death and fulfillment arrive hand-in-hand, leaves nothing else to be said.