Generally, when I’ve knocked out my thoughts on a film, I’ve tried to avoid those productions which have already been analysed to death. Such is the case with the work of Sam Peckinpah, which has had more than its fair share of examination and re-examination. However, I have decided that I’m not going to ignore the movie that both provides the title of my own blog and also happens to be my favorite among Sam’s films. Made in 1962, Ride the High Country was the director’s second feature – although this piece by John Hodson helps to explain why the previous year’s The Deadly Companions isn’t a real Peckinpah picture. This film contains the elements that have come to be typically associated with Sam, namely the passing of the Old West, the nature of friendship and loyalty, and a reflection on one’s past deeds.
The whole thing revolves around the two leads, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. These two men are old friends and former partners who have come together one last time, for one last job. McCrea is the very epitome of honour and personal integrity, whose only wish in life is to enter his house justified. His idealism hasn’t brought him any material rewards, his shabby suit in the early scenes being proof enough of that. Scott, on the other hand, has come to question the value of holding on to principles that lead only to poverty and a poorly attended funeral. And so it’s a question of whether McCrea’s quiet nobility or Scott’s cynical pragmatism will ultimately triumph. The guarding of a gold shipment will test the strength of their friendship to the full, but it is the climactic showdown with a family of degenerate rednecks that brings closure to all the moral issues that precede it.
Both Scott and McCrea play off each other beautifully and it’s a genuine pleasure to watch these two old hands clearly relishing what they must surely have recognised as the roles of a lifetime. Both men had spent the previous decade acting almost exclusively in westerns and that experience adds immeasurably to the authenticity of the film. For Scott and McCrea, Ride the High Country was to be the last hurrah; McCrea would make a few more movies and Scott, wisely I think, called it a day and bowed out with what is arguably his best role. Maybe it’s just my sentimentality, but I always get goosebumps when Scott speaks his final lines in cinema and tells McCrea “I’ll see you later..” – it’s a lovely understated way to bid farewell to a long and distinguished career. Randolph Scott is one of the reasons why I enjoy the western genre so much (I suspect I’m not alone, if that gag in Blazing Saddles is anything to go by) - when I was a child it seemed as though no Saturday afternoon was complete without a television showing of one of his films, so he was and is the personification of the western hero for me.
Ride the High Country is a marvellous looking picture due to Peckinpah’s direction and Lucien Ballard’s wonderful cinematography. The movie is full of memorable scenes, not the least of which being the climax, as Scott and McCrea stand shoulder to shoulder and walk out to confront the murderous Hammond clan and fate itself. Peckinpah would offer up a more elaborately staged and celebrated ‘walk’ in The Wild Bunch, but this one packs just as much punch for its simplicity.
Ride the High Country may have become overshadowed by the films that would follow from Peckinpah, but I don’t feel that that should be the case. Is it his best movie? Many would argue that it’s not and point instead to The Wild Bunch or Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but it is the one that I have a special affection for, and the one that I find myself returning to most often.