On Tuesdays, I run a classic film screening. On Fridays, I write about these movies.
This week’s film: Ride the High Country (1962) – Dir: Sam Peckinpah; starring Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott.
Director Sam Peckinpah’s second feature film Ride the High Country is a fitting tribute to the American West, two aging Hollywood stars, and the Western genre itself. The film is set in the early 1900s, a time when “the days of the 49ers has passed and the days of the businessman has arrived.” Former lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) is hired to escort a shipment of gold from a mining camp to a town. He enlists his old friend Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) to assist him and Westrum brings along his sidekick, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr).
The journey to and from the mining camp is not without conflict. Gil and Heck intend to steal the gold shipment with or without Judd’s help. And on their ride up the mountain, Heck meets and falls for Elsa (Mariette Hartley), the daughter of an overbearing religious man. Elsa is engaged to Billy Hammond (James Drury), an abusive drunk who resides in the mining town and intends to prostitute his new wife. Elsa’s predicament not only requires Heck and Judd to rescue her but also leads to a gunfight with Hammond and his brothers.
The differences between Judd, Gil, and Heck are astounding. There are frequent references to Judd and Gil’s old age and how they behave differently than the younger generation. A man like Heck literally flaunts his age and skills. Heck is first seen wrestling another man as Judd and Gil observe his behavior. Heck finds risking his life for $10 a day to be an absurd undertaking, which is probably the cause of his greediness. Above all, Heck is careless and inexperienced. It is Heck’s misguided romance with Elsa that causes more conflict and unnecessary deaths than Gil’s betrayal of Judd.
Ultimately, Judd and Gil’s age, experience and friendship win out. After a violent gunfight, they manage to save Elsa’s life and the gold shipment while also repairing their friendship and maintaing their loyalty to one another. (Please remind me if Heck actually did anything during the gunfight.) Judd’s final request is for Gil to prevent Heck and Elsa from seeing his death. He prefers to die alone while staring at the high country, something Gil respects.
It’s fitting that Ride the High Country was Randolph Scott’s final film and one of McCrea’s final roles. The characters they play are emblematic of characters from earlier Westerns. Their partnership is their most important asset. But Gil and Judd happen to find themselves in a new era of the American West, clinging on to their heyday. This storyline, paired with Scott and McCrea’s presence, all works to make Ride the High Country an elegy for Western genre.