Ride the High Country, 1962, 92 mins, Blu-ray
I’m not the biggest fan of westerns. Maybe I saw just too much of John Wayne growing up, but the myth of the American West that Hollywood and early television was both fascinated by and creative of, the good guys and bad guys, the nobility of the gun, the racist view of Native Americans, the freshly laundered and pressed shirts and jeans… its the stuff of parody and farce and maybe a little distasteful too. The reality of the West had little if any part in the Hollywood films, whose stories were the stuff of reassuring fables in just the same way, I suppose, as the early cop shows, stories where the cops were righteous and good, and the criminals always got caught ( I well remember the consternation when UK crime series The Sweeney aired in the 1970s and sometimes episodes ended with the criminals escaping justice, leaving the police thwarted and powerless: a far cry from how Kojak, Columbo and Starsky and Hutch were getting along).
What I’m getting at is, I can see the appeal of those Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s, the technicolour vistas, the sense of freedom, the popularity of the simple good versus evil plots… after all, that was the same initial appeal of Star Wars in 1977 to the mass general public, and I recall the wise observation at the time (by who, I cannot remember) that Star Wars was the first Western set in space- because that was what it was. While George Lucas obviously has one eye on the Flash Gordon serials he had the other on the simplistic Westerns that had faded in popularity through the 1960s and largely disappeared by the 1970s. But the Westerns that I gravitated to came after the Old Hollywood variety had largely had their day- I loved the Leone films, the Dollars trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, and films like The Outlaw Josey Wales. They had a decidedly shady sense of morality, a tactile sense of dirt and reality, that totally ripped apart the tidy old Hollywood Western tropes (even if the Leone films were actually his love-letters to American Cinema).
Sam Peckinpah was a director whose life is as fascinating as any of his films, and who became famous (or infamous) for his increasingly revisionary and violent Westerns. It is telling, however, that Ride the High Country is markedly different – and indeed, its quite alarming, almost, to consider the shift in tone between this film and his next – the ill-fated Major Dundee. One can read -and of course many have- Ride the High Country as a clear marker of the shift from the western of Old Hollywood towards those that were coming thereafter.
Indeed, the film almost feels like a pause for breath prior to the era of the Spaghetti Westerns; its a reflective film that considers both the end of an era (we see automobiles starting to replace horse-drawn carriages, and uniformed police walking the streets replacing the law of the gun), and perhaps also the end of a certain kind of Western film/adventure. Aging lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea), taking a risky job transporting gold from a mining camp up in the mountains down to the bank in a burgeoning town, bumps into an old pal, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) and recruits him to help him in the risky enterprise. Westrum has been reduced to featuring in a carnival show that promotes the myth of the West, perhaps a commentary about the fake narrative that popular authors and Hollywood would continue thereafter. Westrum has a young sidekick Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) who he brings along for added security during the perilous trip back with the gold, but unknown to Judd, Westrum actually intends with the help of Longtree to abscond with the gold himself for one final payday. What he feels he is owed having been left with little to mark for his years in the West.
Along the way up to the mining camp, the two old men consider their past and the changing world around them. They feel, as many reaching maturity of middle-age do, a sense of not belonging, of disenfranchisement from the changing world they find themselves in. They share stories of the Old West, and those they knew who have mostly died with that Old West. They might as well be reminiscing about old movies: the two actors McCrea and Scott were Western stars of old, a sense of meta-reality leaking into the film in just the same way as the revisionary Unforgiven acted as a swansong/commentary for both Eastwood the actor of so many Western films as well as its narrative’s lead character William Munny. One almost has to wonder; are McCrea and Scott’s characters recounting tales of their past in-narrative lives or those of characters the actors played in decades-old Western movies- as someone not at all familiar with those films, it doesn’t make much difference, it could be either and the film still functions the same. All this lends Ride the High Country some added weight, and indeed its general plot is arguably inconsequential to its considerations of integrity and morality and the passing of the West, both the real in-narrative one and and the mythical West of McCrea and Scott’s old films. Its a lovely film, even if it feels like one awkwardly positioned between eras, and McCrea and Scott are both excellent.
Along the way to the mining camp they arrive at a remote farmstead run by Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong, a veteran of 1960s and 1970s television and even an appearance in Predator) and his frustrated daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley) who runs away from her strictly religious and disciplinarian father, seeing an opportunity to tag along with the cowboys up to the mining camp where her unlikely fiancé Billy Hammond works. I used to have something of a crush on Hartley when growing up, from her guest appearance in an episode of the ’60s Star Trek show, and she is very good here as a foolish, sheltered young girl on the cusp of womanhood who is destined for a sudden growing-up lesson when she learns her Billy is a disreputable lout whose brothers seem to think they have as much right to bed their new sister-in-law as her husband does, her wedding day quickly turning into a nightmare. Realising her mistake she rushes back to the safety of Judd, whose moral code ensures he will protect her while the more pragmatic Westrum is more concerned with the gold. Pursued by the Hammonds and with Judd inevitably betrayed by Westrum, the film ends in a deadly gunfight in which a reconciled Judd and Westrum battle the Hammonds, who have murdered Elsa’s father and staged a trap at her home.
One of the men is redeemed, and the other embarks on one final journey to an undiscovered country, having vindicated his moral code one last time. Ride the High Country is a very good film, lovingly shot and with a very fine cast in top form. Its story is very entertaining but its the films position in the pantheon of the Western genre, and the meta-narrative of its aging stars of Westerns of old and the director who would soon play his own part in transforming the Western forever, that makes it particularly interesting and rewarding.