Ride the High Country

"Excellent"

Ride the High Country Review


More westerns have been made than almost any other kind of movie (beginning with the first narrative film ever made, The Great Train Robbery in 1903) but there are not that many great westerns. (To be fair, there aren't many bad ones either -- they're all about par.) A few classics -- The Ox-Bow Incident, Shane, High Noon, Fort Apache, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance -- are almost the only standouts in a genre which, at least for most of its history, was focused on myth-making and honoring traditional entertainment values, not breaking new trails.

At least, that was true until Sam Peckinpah came along in the 1960s. Peckinpah loved and respected the western genre enough to try to reinvent it, injecting much more violence and moral ambiguity. He was criticized for going too far in his later films, but their toughness and realism now seem natural and appropriate.

One of Peckinpah's first westerns, Ride the High Country bridges the gap between the old conventions of the genre and the changes he would introduce, and it's one of the director's most satisfying films. The plot is not innovative; it's well-worn and comfortable, full of echoes and reminisces of earlier films (as well as later ones, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Lonesome Dove). Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott are old gunmen who have come over to the right side of the law, more or less, and are hired to move a load of gold from a mining camp to town. As in other westerns, the two old-timers take along a young, handsome, improbably green sidekick (Ron Starr) who predictably does some growing up on the trail. On the way they get mixed up with protecting a farmer's daughter (Mariette Hartley) who runs away from home to marry a miner in the camp.

This was the last major film for both Scott and McCrea. The two actors were so well-known for making westerns (having made dozens of them, beginning in the '20s) that when they decided to hang it up, it was almost as big an event as John Wayne's last cinematic gunfight (The Shootist) would be in 1976. Peckinpah used the occasion to reconsider and update many of the tropes and stereotypes of westerns -- the old gunman who goes straight, the young buck hot on the trigger, the spunky tomboy heroine, etc. -- before putting them away forever. Soon after, he exchanged the reassuring clichés for the ground-breaking, relatively violent approach of films like The Wild Bunch.

Part of Peckinpah's innovation was slowing down the pace of some scenes to add depth and realism. Compared to today's action pictures, geared to audiences with terminal ADD, his films may occasionally seem just slow. But Ride the High Country picks up when the group reaches the mining town and get involved in the inevitable fights, a wedding in a whorehouse, and other well-plotted, nuanced scenes. By the end of the movie, the stock characters have taken on substance and delivered thoughtful, even profound, speeches; there's no happy ending, either.

Ride the High Country is moralistic even as westerns go, but it takes a half-step away from simplicity. The farmer is a tormented sinner obsessed with scripture (a staple character in melodrama); the girl's marriage turns bad before it begins. In every case, moral prejudices can be deceptive.

Shot on location in the Sierras (another departure, since westerns in the '40s and '50s were famously all shot in Monument Valley or Mexico regardless of where the setting was supposed to be), Ride the High Country vigorously and colorfully brings alive the Old West of cinematic myth.

The DVD includes commentary track by a host of experts, plus a retrospective documentary.



Facts and Figures

Run time: 94 mins

In Theaters: Saturday 28th July 1962

Distributed by: MGM Home Entertainment

Production compaines: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Fresh: 13 Rotten: 1

IMDB: 7.6 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Producer: Richard E. Lyons

Starring: as Gil Westrum, as Steve Judd, Mariette Hartley as Elsa Knudsen, Ron Starr as Heck Longtree, as Judge Tolliver, R. G. Armstrong as Joshua Knudsen, Jenie Jackson as Kate, James Drury as Billy Hammond, L.Q. Jones as Sylvus Hammond, as Elder Hammond, John Davis Chandler as Jimmy Hammond, as Henry Hammond

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