Ride the High Country

Directed by Sam Peckinpah Starring: Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Mariette Hartley. MPAA Rating: Not Rated Before Sam Peckinpah reinvented the Western in 1969 with his bloody classic The Wild Bunch, he paid tribute to it with his second feature film, Ride the High Country in 1962. Part of the homage is in casting the veteran actors Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott to the lead roles. McCrea and Scott appeared in nearly two hundred films between them -- this would be Scott's last. Neither was a major star along the lines of a Bogart, Gable or Grant, but they were pros in many forgettable Westerns. Those who followed the Western genre appreciated McCrea and Scott, but in the studio era of the 1940s and 50s, Westerns were about as common as teen sex comedies in the 1980's. McCrea plays Steve Judd, an aging gunslinger who has been on both sides of the law. As he matured, he chose the righteous path and became a lawman. He has come to learn that violence is a necessary evil in the West, though he would prefer to avoid gunplay, if possible. His reputation for honesty runs so deep that a banker hires him -- sight unseen -- to safely escort gold from the mountains back to the bank. When McCrea arrives in town, he is nearly run down at the finish line of a bizarre race between a horse and a camel. Escaping the animals, he is almost hit by a crazy new transportation mechanism known as a car. The automobile would become a recurring symbol of modernity in Peckinpah's films. The Old West is fading away and a New World, ushered in by the automobile, the airplane, the telephone and the radio, was arriving. McCrea makes it to the banker's office and surprises the banker and his son with his age. After quelling their fears about his abilities, he signs a contract (which he reads with glasses) to haul the gold from the mountain. From there, he begins a search for a partner. On the other side of town is Scott -- lampooning himself as a carnival sharpshooter known as "The Oregon Kid". Scott's character, Gil Westrum, has spent more time on the wrong side of the law than McCrea's. Inevitably, McCrea comes across Scott and asks him to be his partner in his new job as courier/protector of gold. Without reluctance, Scott accepts and he and his young sidekick, played by Ronald Starr, are off to the mountains the next day. Scott, of course, has no intention of returning the gold to the banker. This is to be just the latest in a litany of schemes. Herein lies the essence of the western in general and of this story in particular. One man's code of honor (McCrea) pitted against the criminal avarice of another (Scott). Early in the journey, the three-some stop at the homestead of an edgy, religious widower. The landowner repeatedly recites scripture and McCrea happily joins him. However, where McCrea has come to terms with himself, the widower has not. He has buried his late wife -- who betrayed him for another -- on the land and brainwashed his daughter (Mariette Hartley), into sexless oppression. It comes as no surprise then that she is attracted to the youngest of the traveling threesome -- Starr. The next morning, Hartley sneaks away with Starr in the dark of night, much to the dismay of McCrea. This is no journey for a woman. In the frontier world, women are seen and heard, but stay out of the men's business. Peckinpah beautifully photographs the climb to the mountain. He constructs gorgeous contrasts between the dull plains and the soaring mountains. Metaphorical? Probably. At the end of this journey either McCrea or Scott will stand tall and the other will be laid low.

When the group reaches the settlement on top of the mountain, they learn that Hartley is actually betrothed to another. The husband-to-be is the hooligan responsible for swiping the gold from prospectors and other folks with good intentions. The man also has four ghastly brothers who believe that what belongs to one belongs to the other -- and that includes women. It becomes McCrea's burden, a duty in his mind; to not only make the mountain safe for the bank's prospectors, but to extricate Hartley from an abusive husband and to return Scott to the straight and narrow. Up and down the mountain, Scott plots and schemes with Starr about how they will swipe the gold from McCrea. Who rides the high country, from a moral perspective? The great Westerns have always appealed to us because they strip a man down to the core of his character. One choice will determine a man's epitaph. That is the case here. One man seeks redemption (Scott) while the other (McCrea) provides it.