1960s, 3.5/4, Review, Sam Peckinpah, Western

Ride the High Country

#5 in my ranking of Sam Peckinpah’s filmography.

The Deadly Companions was a weird little western with an ending that Peckinpah had no say in. Ride the High Country, his next film, was credited to N. B. Stone but with extensive rewriting by both Peckinpah and William Roberts, feels much less compromised, especially in its ending. Anchored by a pair of wonderful central performances from Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, Peckinpah’s second film is a nearly great film that makes the absolute most of its location filming while telling a touching story of aging with multiple facets to it.

Steve Judd (McCrea) is coming to a small western town filling with sights and sounds of the encroaching modern world including a popcorn machine. He has come to work for a bank, to go up into the mountains and collect gold from a small mining camp, give the miners bank notes, and return the gold back down to the bank. In town, he coincidentally meets an old friend, Gil Westrum (Scott). The two have a long, shared history of being lawmen throughout the West, a time that is long past, especially now that Judd is working for a bank and Westrum is working as a sideshow attraction, shooting better than the hayseeds that come to his booth. He’s winning nickels and dimes and being treated to free drinks at the local tavern as a life now, so when Judd offers to bring Westrum in to help with the promise of transporting $250,000 worth of gold down, Westrum and his younger partner, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) decide to tag along with the plan of stealing the gold and running off.

What’s kind of interesting about the film considering Peckinpah’s reputation is how quiet the film is. There’s very little action in the first hour of the 94-minute long film, and most of the time is given to really fleshing out both Judd and Westrum. They have a great camaraderie as they reminisce about old times and talk about their outlooks on life. The key is Judd’s bookkeeping background coming up and him detailing what he thinks he’s owed for all of the dangers he faced in life. This makes Westrum optimistic that he’ll be able to rope Judd into the scheme to get away with the gold, but he keeps laying low.

On the first leg of their trip, the trio stay at the small and remote ranch run by Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong) along with his daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley). Joshua is a Bible-thumping man who sees the three wanderers going up to the den of iniquity and greed of a mining town and sizes them up, seeing all three as sinful men. He’ll house them and feed them for a night out of his sense of Christian charity, but he forbids Elsa from interacting with them and simply counts the hours until they leave. Of course, Heck and Elsa get close and have an obvious rapport off the bat, but Elsa is engaged to be married to one of the miners. When Joshua hits her for her impudence, she leaves, following the trio until they let her join them for her own safety in the wilderness.

The mining town is exactly as sinful as Joshua maintained, and Billy (James Drury) and his four brothers (most notably Warren Oates as Henry) are all pretty obviously scum. It’s easy to see how Billy, alone, would have the charm and good looks to easily win the heart of a lonely farm girl yearning for escape, but as one of five brothers, removed from civilization, his basest instincts are running wild. It’s obvious that Elsa is questioning her decision the second she shows up, but she’s run from home, brought her mother’s wedding dress, and is determined to follow through on her promise.

My only real problem with the film is how much time without a real break we dedicate to this subplot. It’s there for clear plot reasons as well as Elsa’s character, but it pushes aside Judd and Westrum for about twenty minutes. There’s a thematic thing playing out at the same time as well. Judd and Westrum talk about lost loves, and Elsa could become Heck’s lost love. Heck kind of feels like an outsider between the two instead of the third part of a triangle (Clint Eastwood handled this same kind of relationship better in Unforgiven).

The wedding night is a raucous affair, almost Felliniesque in its carnival and grotesque atmosphere, and Elsa decides that this has been a mistake, and she wants out. This brings Judd and Westrum back into the movie, going from collecting gold to helping Heck get Elsa out of town. There’s a faceoff, a gunfight in the mountains, and a final showdown at the Knudsen ranch, and this is a much better way to wrap up different storylines than the script for The Deadly Companions allowed. The final moments between Westrum and Judd are the kind of deeply emotional but reserved moment that ended Western Union. It’s all about the relationship between those two main characters and the ideas around getting old, dealing with regret, and finding ways to move on when life doesn’t go according to plan.

The subplot with Heck and Elsa acts in support of the main characters, and it’s a very good support. I just wish it didn’t push aside the actual main characters for quite so long in the middle of the film.

Other than that, this movie is wonderful. One thing I often advocate for is for low-budget productions to film outside, and Ride the High Country is a great example of that. Peckinpah makes the countryside a main character, framing the actors with the trees, high peaks, and small breaks of flatness in a way that is both aesthetically pleasing as well as helping to convincingly create the setting, far removed from civilization. This is going outside to film and creating an amazing sense of production by simply setting up the camera and pulling back.

This is evidence that Peckinpah was more than just a solid director. His writing on The Westerner helped prove that, but it’s nice to see the evidence in feature film form as well. He understood the western, male relationships, and even disappointment in old age. This is his The Last Hurrah, in a way, only made by a much younger man. This is a wonderful film.

Rating: 3.5/4

5 thoughts on “Ride the High Country”

  1. This was good.
    At my age, the themes hit home, especially at IDPA when I see younger, faster shooters and sorta know I’m never going to get that fast, not anymore. Funny, this being made when Peckinpah himself was not yet old, sort of how Kobayashi wrote about age and regret before age had its hooks in him, too.

    I didn’t like Heck, I didn’t like Elsa…at all. I was honestly hoping life would give her another smack in the face. She’s going to end up going man to man and wind up in Seattle, dying of veneral disease.

    Scott and McCrea really do good work here. Sadly Randolph Scott now is mostly a punchline but he really grew into a good actor. I wish more people saw him that way.

    May watch this again…and just FF past all the Elsa bullshit.

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    1. There’s an underlying melancholy across almost all of Peckinpah’s work, and I think it’s because he thought he was born in the wrong century. He longs for a time and place he never really knew. Add in the fact that the Western was dying as a genre just as he was entering the filmmaking game, and Peckinpah, artistically, just feels like a guy who understood that he was out of step with the times.

      I don’t hate either Heck or Elsa, but they are definitely the weakest part of the story. Them dominating the middle is just unfortunate. This is the McCrea/Scott show, and it shines when they are front and center.

      Funny story: When I first watched this film, it was randomly on TCM something like 15 years ago. I had no idea which one was Randolph Scott and which was Joel McCrea. I ended up assuming wrong because I thought Scott always played good guys.

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  2. My favorite Peckinpah film, although I would consider The Wild Bunch the greater film, but this one has a more intimate feel. I like the interplay between Scott and McCrae, with Scott working on McCrae that they never got their due. Also has to be one of the best endings to a movie ever, Scott reverting back to their old friendship when it really got down to it.

    I do remember that they had planned to shoot in the Sierra’s, but because of budget cuts they had to use the mountains outside of LA. I don’t know what would have been, but I don’t feel like I’m watching a lower budget movie.

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    1. Peckinpah obviously loved to shoot outside, and he used it to the hilt. He refused to shoot everything in closeup, giving us these wide shots of characters planted firmly in the great outdoors, and it gives a wonderful sense of scale that’s achieved by just planting a couple of guys on horses in front of a camera.

      I assume the town stuff at the beginning was a pre-made outdoor set on the MGM lot. So, he probably inherited a lot and just went outside and let the outdoors be part of the scenery. Peckinpah really knew what he was doing with a physical production.

      I do really like the historical note that Scott loved his performance in this film so much that he decided to retire afterwards. It is a very good performance from a strong, B-movie actor.

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