Ride the High Country (1962)

Ride the High Country (1962) movie poster

director Sam Peckinpah
viewed: 03/19/2014

Sam Peckinpah’s 1962 Western, Ride the High Country, is a fascinating transition of the traditional and the old encountering the first wave of the modern or revisionist Western.  The film features two old faces from classic Hollywood, Randolph Scott (in his final big screen performance) and Joel McCrea, playing aging Old West gunmen in a fading Old West.  Scott is seeking redemption in one last job to reestablish his integrity, protecting a shipment of gold from the mountains to the town for a small town bank.  He enlists McCrea, who has been making his way in cheap gun tricks in “Old West” shows and carnivals, to help him out, though McCrea has other, less idealistic notions.

While it’s not entirely clear what year it’s supposed to be, this is the Old West in its last vestiges, turning toward the modern world.  And though the film begins much like a traditional Western, the film verges into territory much grittier and grimier than the clean and noble West of the first half of the 20th Century.

It’s interesting that the character that pushes the film into this sleazier territory is Warren Oates, who would come to be one of Peckinpah’s main actors.  And it’s interesting how the movie gets there.

The cowboys encounter an obsessively Christian man and his lovely daughter (Mariette Hartley) who is tired of being repressed.  She’s an interesting figure all throughout, first appearing to be a boy, dressed for work on the farm, then transposed into fancy dress as she tries to express her femininity against her father’s wishes.  But she decides to venture up to the gold mining outpost with the gunmen, to seek to marry one would-be suitor of hers that lives up there.

Only, that would-be suitor has three inbred brothers, including Oates, who share and share alike of family goods and fully expect the pretty young Hartley to be theirs in every way as much as their brothers.  The brother doesn’t disagree.

The wedding takes place in a whorehouse, with leering eyes, saucy girls, horny cowboys, and a big, buxom, flouncy madam.  The local judge, who is not the least sober as one, presides over the affair, making it legit.  But with the lustful brothers and all the others, there is an explicitness to the suggestions of rape and prostitution that the girl has somewhat unwittingly set herself up for that are much more coarse and certain than one would expect in the far more dainty 1950’s.  In fact, it’s pure Peckinpah.

The film becomes a chase back to the town, with McCrea and his sidekick thinking to steal the gold and the brothers seeking to get Hartley back after Scott rescues her.  It ends with a semi-traditional shoot-out with Scott’s character dying and McCrea’s regaining his integrity, a commentary no doubt on the position of those old weathered heroes of yore.

The “Revisionist Western” has come to interest me more and more of late.  And Peckinpah in particular has been interesting me, his particular slant on the genre.  Ride the High Country is considered Peckinpah’s first great or important film and it’s well worth watching.

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