PCA Retro Review: Ride the High Country (1962)

PCA reminds you that the world’s best movies are not in the new release section at Blockbuster.

Ride the High Country (1962) – Director Sam Peckenpah unites Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott in a Western that proves that sometimes women are nothing but trouble!

Joel McCrea plays aging lawman Steve Judd, who is hired by the bank to travel into the Sierra Nevadas to pick up a shipment of gold and distribute payment to a small mining community. Recruiting former allie Gil Westrum, played by Randolph Scott, and his hotheaded young sideman Heck Longtree, played by Ron Star, as backup on the long and potentially dangerous journey up the mountain, the three stop for the night at a farm owned by a deeply religious farmer and his beautiful and high spirited daughter Elsa, played by Mariettte Hartley in her film debut. After a dispute with her father when she’s caught flirting with Heck and learning that the three weary travellers are heading to the mining community, Elsa runs away from home and, at the disapproval of Judd and Westrum, follows the men in search for miner Billy Hammond, played by James Drury, who had once proposed to Elsa. However, once she finds Billy Hammond and his clan of psychotic brothers, Elsa realizes that she has bit off far more then she can chew. Now its up to the Judd and Westrum to save Elsa from herself. But, can Judd even trust his own friend Westrum who seems to have an agenda all his own for this fateful trip? Eventually the travellers discover that when you ride the high country not everybody is coming back alive.

Ride the High Country is easily one of the best films that Sam Peckenpah ever made. In fact, when Randolph Scott saw Ride the High Country he was so moved by the film that he announced his retirement from acting, declaring that Ride the High Country was the triumph of his career and that he knew that he could never top his performance in the film. He never appeared in another production again. Ride the High Country is filled with remarkable performances by a combination of screen veterans and young stars, making for an ongoing theme throughout the film of the old west being inherited by the next generation. McCrea and Scott become a representation of what happens to the lawmen of the past when they grow old. For former gunfighters retirement is not an option, but due to their age they seem to be lost in a west where they no longer seem to have a place. However, despite the changing world they remain to hang on to their morals of loyalty, dignity and bravery, marching into gunfire with heads raised high when a lady is threathened. Mariette Hartley is delightful as a young girl who has never been off of the farm, but gets way in over her head once she jumps from the safety of her father’s farm and into the dangerous world. Resembling the Scraggs from Al Capp’s Lil’ Abner comic strip, the Hammond Brothers, including performances by IQ Jones and Warren Oats, prove to be vile and disgusting villains with hints of inbreeding, rape and sadisim existing in thier camp. Ride the High Country also includes a memorable appearance by character actor Edgar Buchanan as the drunken judge who presides over the dirty and grimy mining town.

Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Ron Star and Merriette Hartley in Sam Peckinpah's "Ride the High Country" (1962)

Sam Peckenpah has been both praised and criticized for reinventing the American Western away from the heroic classics of John Ford to a more violent and realistic west full of anti-heroes and violence. Ride the High Country still resembles the traditional American Western in many ways, but it differs by making the west a less romantic and far scarier place. Peckinpah’s mining village is virtually a muddy Sodom and Gomorrah full of ugly and vile residents who act as a contrast from the heroic McCrea and Scott. The wedding of Elsa to Billy Hammond is full of ugly fiends and gaudy colors, which rememble a Hammer horror nightmare then a Western utopia. Meanwhile Elsa’s father, the pious Joshua Knudson, played by RG Armstrong, becomes an example of the ignorance created by misguided religious fundamentalism. Even the heroes in Ride the High Country can’t be trusted, as even the oldest allies become the victims of greed and betrayal.

Upon its release in 1962, Ride the High Country was not a box office success in the US, but was embraced by the European film community, winning the Paris film critics best film of the year award, as well as first prize at the Belgium film festival, defeating Fellini’s arthouse classic 8 ½. However, in recent years the film has gained the reputation of being one of the greatest American westerns ever made, and the turning point in Peckenpah’s career, opening the gateway for things to come.


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