Before he became the flag bearer for cinema violence, Sam Peckinpah made his reputation with this unique western, a marvelous rumination on ethics, morality and personal responsibility. MGM all but threw it away in the summer of 1962 but it immediately became a critical favorite.
Ride the High Country
Warner Archive Collection
1962 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 92 min. / Street Date April 4, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Mariette Hartley, Ron Starr, Edgar Buchanan, R.G. Armstrong, Jenie Jackson, James Drury, L.Q. Jones, John Anderson, John Davis Chandler, Warren Oates.
Cinematography Lucien Ballard
Art Direction Leroy Coleman, George W. Davis
Film Editor Frank Santillo
Original Music George Bassman
Written by N.B. Stone Jr.
Produced by Richard E. Lyons
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
MGM’s western Ride the High Country put Sam Peckinpah on the map with critics and the foreign cinema literati — although it didn’t do big box office when new, the reviewers loved it. Few reviewers even noticed Sam’s first theatrical feature The Deadly Companions, a modestly budgeted independent that sprang from his television relationship with Brian Keith. The show became a mess when its tyrannical star Maureen O’Hara and her producer brother refused Peckinpah the leeway to alter an awkward script. Peckinpah tried to swing the picture his way by purposely shooting a different (and better) ending. The producer retaliated with a sloppy re-cut, and added insult to injury by slamming ninety minutes of mind-numbing guitar noodling onto the sound track. At least the movie looks good, even though Peckinpah’s camera angles are not always apt.
Ride the High Country is a thousand percent improvement in all departments. Producer Richard E. Lyons and Peckinpah had a good experience together, following an original script that Peckinpah tweaked and improved with excellent, authentic dialogue. Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea meet a Bible-thumping farmer and for several scenes thereafter put a Biblical lilt into their sly verbal exchanges. When the graying lawmen share old times, they talk like codgers enjoying the memory of a private dirty joke: “All night, Logan!” “Wa-ay up, Logan!” The dialogue reveals character even on the rebound, as when the punk gunslinger Ron Starr, staring at farm girl Mariette Hartley, is startled because he thinks he hears the word ‘Ass.’
Peckinpah’s western gathers up frayed themes from the genre’s previous decade and weaves them into a perfect swansong for the weather-beaten McCrea and Scott, each of whom was on the verge of retirement. Their relationship is a moral tug of war between integrity and crooked pragmatism. We love these guys — we don’t care if they turn out to be crooks, as long as they remain partners and friends.
A new century has dawned. Internal combustion vehicles, uniformed police and stuffy bankers are now fixtures of the West. Aging lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) takes a job transporting gold down from the mining camp of Coarsegold, ‘on the ridge of the Sierra.’ Judd hires his old pal Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) to back him up, not knowing that Westrum and his callow sidekick Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) intend to abscond with the paydirt. On the way they pick up Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley) a runaway farm girl hoping to marry Billy Hammond (James Drury), a miner. She doesn’t realize that Billy is one of the uncouth Hammond boys, a near-feral family with no respect for the bonds of marriage.
Ride the High Country strikes a leisurely pace that finds space for almost everything we enjoy in modest westerns. It presents the West as it probably was until the 1920s or so, a place where vagrants might still strike it rich. Gil and Steve live not on a Hollywood prairie or in a poet’s desert of the imagination, but in a changing California with horseless carriages, Chinese restaurants and obnoxious businessmen. Once top-gun town tamers, Gil and Steve are now on the skids. Steve’s coat is frayed and Gil survives by fleecing hicks with a carnival act, wearing a wig. He bills himself as ‘The Oregon Kid,’ a fake Legend of the West. Gil sees stealing a hundred thousand in gold as simple old-age security. Steve is content with the way things are: as long as he keeps his good name, he’s happy to take whatever comes with grace and humility. Have you heard the song “Old John Robertson” by the Byrds? It could be an epitaph for one of these aging lawmen.
Gil and Steve are contrasted with the next generation as represented by the young couple Elsa and Heck. She’s too sheltered to make critical character judgments and he’s too cocksure of himself to stay out of trouble. Steve Judd is a terrific role model. Without ever resorting to a lecture, Ride the High Country lauds the example that can be set by an ethical man of experience. Elsa admires his gallantry and Heck is shocked to discover that a sixty-year old man can beat him in a fair fight. The film is a meditation on how to live, giving us examples of religious extremism (Joshua Knudsen), greedy license (the mining town) and hillbilly brutality (the Hammonds). Actually, Judd does bark one brief lecture at Heck that today elicits cheers of approval from Sierra Club types, and anybody who cares about the environment:
Pick that up! These mountains don’t need your trash!
Savant first saw Ride the High Country when it was only ten years old, in Jim Kitses’ critical studies class at UCLA. Kitses characterized the film as a ‘temptation,’ with Steve Judd’s integrity holding firm against the corruption of the world. He straightens out a young hoodlum, delivers a maiden from a terrible fate, holds off a band of killers and refuses to let an old ‘friend’ rob him of his principles. And not a single scene is a predictable western-movie situation. Casting the straight-arrow icon Randolph Scott against type as a grinning con man is nothing less than brilliant. Gil has consciously chosen a crooked path and his cynical remarks serve notice that he knows full that he’s ‘going bad.’ Gil is corrupt, but the virtuous Steve Judd will redeem him. When I first rented Ride the High Country on 16mm from Films Incorporated I was told that it was frequently shown in California prisons. According to the film booker, wardens reported that hardened criminals responded positively to the film’s message.
Ride the High Country was filmed by ace cameraman and lighting artist Lucien Ballard. His contribution to Sam Peckinpah’s two best films is so great that I’m surprised he’s not given more credit for them — when not teamed with a creative, cooperative cameraman, Peckinpah’s work suffers greatly. There’s a heart to Ballard’s camerawork that’s missing from Peckinpah’s often- indifferent cavalry epic Major Dundee. The production deftly matches distant locations in the High Sierra, faked locations in Griffith Park and on the MGM back lot, and phony stage-set night exteriors. The lighting that emphasizes the stars’ age also provides the ‘visual grit’ to back up their words. When Joel McCrea barks out the command “Move!” in close-up, the lighting is similar to the choker CU in The Wild Bunch where William Holden says “If they move, kill ’em!” Peckinpah needed a strong cameraman tuned-in to his aesthetic wavelength, and Ballard was the man.
Ride the High Country enjoyed good luck during and after the shoot. When bad weather rained out the mountain location producer Lyons re-dressed Bronson Caverns to serve as a Sierra-top mining camp. The illusion is excellent. I suspect that the Knudsen farm scenes were filmed in Southern California as well. When the rough cut was complete, MGM editorial maven Margaret Booth wanted to ‘shape-up’ the picture to MGM standards, eliminating eccentric moments like the little mood digression among Joshua Knudsen’s chickens before the final showdown. But the studio production chief in charge was so unimpressed by a screening that he ordered the picture locked ‘as is’ for final negative cutting to proceed. So studio indifference made this one of the few Peckinpah films to be finished as cut. Peckinpah was barred from the lot for the final mix, but producer Lyons graciously helped the director stay involved by playing mixes for him over the telephone.
By the late ’40s both McCrea and Scott had backed away from conventional leading roles, to hone their established personae as western stars. Seeing them together here is like a coda for beloved characters and personalities. The movie is like a retirement graduation, complete with a gold watch. They get to wave their hats one more time, as they make way for a new generation.
New discovery Mariette Hartley showed up only sporadically on film, but continued a stage career. TV viewers of the seventies thought she was married to James Garner because they were featured in a long-running TV commercial campaign for Polaroid. The second plum role goes to Ron Starr, an actor whose career is a mystery — his excellent showing here should have done things for him. Casting the Hammond clan gave Sam Peckinpah an opportunity to gather up favored actors from his TV westerns. James Drury possibly owed MGM another movie on his contract. L.Q. Jones, John Davis Chander, John Anderson and Warren Oates had all been chasing bit parts and TV appearances for years, looking for a breakout role. Peckinpah sees that each gets a real character to play, and a showcase close-up or two to wave at agents and casting directors.
When genre critics like Jim Kitses began singing the praises of Peckinpah the stress fell on Ride the High Country’s awareness of the passing of an era. The Wild Bunch waxes nostalgic over its genuine Men of the West, even though they happen to be depraved criminals. There are surely other examples of the theme, but the key precursors definitely include 1958’s Man of the West from Anthony Mann, and 1959’s The Wonderful Country by Robert Parrish. Each is a must-see genre staple. Of course, Peckinpah had barely gotten his western career in gear when Sergio Leone came along to up-style the genre with a violence quotient and cynical outlook derived from Japanese slice ‘n’ dice samurai films. One of Sergio Leone’s biographers noted that Peckinpah had little feeling for the Italian’s extreme close-ups and long static takes.
Perhaps the film’s strongest suit is its moral argument, which presumably comes from N.B. Stone’s source book, not director Peckinpah. Steve Judd says right out that Good and Bad are not absolutes with nothing in between, as Joshua Knudsen believes — there has to be a gray area in between. Judd is the ideal that we all should aspire to, but few people can avoid compromise of one kind or another. Gil Westrum has a lot of Bad Man potential, as he’s feeling his mortality and doesn’t want to die in a gutter. If it’s easy enough, he doesn’t mind taking what’s not his. But he’s still cut from the same lawman cloth as Steve Judd. In this film one’s word is what counts, regardless of to whom it is given.
The irony is that Gil Westrum’s willingness to cut corners gives him a special talent for dealing with wrongdoers. Gil pulls a real cheat, a slick trick, to free Elsa from her criminally unreliable husband and his scummy brothers. A straight arrow like Steve Judd would never think to threaten a judge (Edgar Buchanan), and an Average Joe wouldn’t have the skill to pull it off — Gill is just scary enough to make the judge do his bidding. Sometimes, the story says, the ends do justify the means, at least when one is defending the virtue and honor of an innocent young lady.
I’ve previously compared Gil Westrum to Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, a character / historical figure often cited for his moral ambivalence. It’s a complicated issue, but the part that’s relevant to Gil Westrum is the sequence where Schindler goes into Auschwitz, to secure the release of his employees. No upright official, churchman or do-gooder’s appeals to mercy or reason could possibly sway the monstrous camp commandant. Only a selfish, corrupt son of a bitch like Schindler would be able to come up with the exact persuasive argument to do the trick. Were Schindler’s motives pure? Who cares, when lives are being saved?
We wish America had more Steve Judds, as we need them now more than ever. But we’ve also needed some Gil Westrums too, when bad men get the upper hand. Ride the High Country indeed provides a real moral tale about temptation and redemption.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Ride the High Country is a welcome surprise; the WAC has been turning out Blu-rays of fan favorites on a weekly basis since the beginning of the year — favoring popular musicals, comedies and fantasy pix. Western fans weren’t holding their breaths for this disc. It’s found a permanent home on TCM cable, but who expected a BD release?
Even in 1972 MGM’s 35mm prints had faded quite a bit, and by the time Ride had been rediscovered and was making the round of repertory theaters, the photochemical prints might as well have been monochrome — featuring brown and a little green. Digital magic has pulled quite a bit of color out of the surviving elements. The 2006 DVD was a big improvement and the HD image is like seeing it in color for the first time. Instead of the same brown everywhere on screen, the landscape is a medley of earth colors — browns, golds, yellows, purples. Even in 1972 we noticed that scenes seemingly meant to take place at night or dusk weren’t very dark. It’s possible that they were filmed to be timed slightly Day-for-Night, and in the post- production rush job MGM just timed them for Day. Even in this new transfer, breakfast and bedtime scenes sometimes seem a little light. Maybe this part of the High Sierra is up in Lapland, with the Midnight Sun?
We notice right up front that McCrea and Scott wear no makeup. With McCrea especially every age spot, freckle and sunburned facial blotch stands out in relief. He was only 56 or 57 during filming; the cause must have been all those years out in the sun, living on his ranch with Frances Dee. Randolph Scott, a little older at 63 or 64, didn’t look much different than he had for the last ten years — I think he took better care of his face.
Some of the original dialogue recording and sound effects are a little rocky, again possible due to a rushed post schedule. But composer George Bassman’s masterful music score fits the film well. It was partially re-used for Richard Lyons’ follow-up picture Mail Order Bride. The similarly- structured film even has an Elsa Knudsen- like hopeful bride played by Lois Nettleton. Record producer Nick Redman released the score on CD, explaining how cues were edited and re-purposed for Lyons’ second MGM western. The cost cutting at MGM must have been brutal in those years.
As with most Warners Blu-rays, the original DVD extra package has been carried over intact. A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the High Country is a featurette interview with Fern Lea Peter, Peckinpah’s younger sister. Her first-person history of their ranch outside of Fresno and her account of Peckinpah’s early life are illustrated with many family photos. She identifies Sam’s father as the source of the characterization for Steve Judd, offering the opinion that Peckinpah would never have behaved the way he did in later years had his father been around. And there really is a town called Coarsegold.
Peckinpah movies on disc have been dominated by the ‘Peckinpah’ posse of biographers, and a whole passel of ’em congregate for the commentary: Bishop, Engstrom, the Gor… Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle, and host Nick Redman, who won an Oscar nomination back in the ’90s for a short film about their favorite director. The authors are a competitive bunch, so expect a few moments of academic elbowing, but the track is packed with information and insights, and is a great place to learn about one of the genre’s best directors.
P.S.: Peckinpah’s best quality might have been his loyalty to actors. Joel McCrea came from a similar ranching background. His son Jody McCrea tried to become an actor and ended up in A.I.P.’s beach party movies, playing characters with names like ‘Deadhead,’ ‘Bonehead’ and ‘Big Lunk.’ Peckinpah apparently tried to repay Joel by casting Jody in a brief but important role in his cavalry epic Major Dundee. Jody McCrea is Lt. Brannin, a young hotshot officer who models himself after George Armstrong Custer. He was meant to be a central character in a lengthy opening prologue, almost all of which which was cut from the film and discarded. The only shot of Brannin in the finished film shows him hanging upside down over a fire, being tortured by a renegade Apache. Like his father, Jody McCrea would eventually return to the family ranching business.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ride the High Country Blu-ray rates:
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary, featurette (see above)
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 2, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson