Mention the American western, and a number of names immediately spring to mind. One of them absolutely has to be Sam Peckinpah, the hugely talented director who jumped from writing and directing for television to a series of turbulently-made but critically acclaimed master works – the most famous of which remains The Wild Bunch (1969). Peckinpah’s feature debut was The Deadly Companions, on which he fought with his producer and struggled to direct star Maureen O’Hara. He presented a far more confident and muscular work with his second feature, 1962’s Ride the High Country.
Aging former sheriff Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) is hired to escort a shipment of gold from the Sierra Nevada ranges. To maintain adequate support he enlists an old partner Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) and young shooter Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) to assist – unaware that Westrum and Longtree are planning to rob him of the gold as soon as they are able.
This may have been Peckinpah’s second feature, but it cleanly establishes themes and motifs that would dominate his filmmaking for the rest of his career. The film’s early 20th century setting establishes a Wild West in its dying days, populated by old men living in the shadow of their careers. Lines of good and evil, typified in an older generation by ‘blackhats’ and ‘whitehats’, are heavily blurred, and largely replaced by themes of brotherhood and masculinity. You cannot solely credit Peckinpah for this shift – the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and his contemporaries had a huge degree of influence – but of all the western filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s it is Peckinpah who arguably perfected the formula.
It was a master stroke to cast McCrea and Scott in the twin leads, as each actor’s long history in the genre further emphasise Peckinpah’s thematic interests. This was Scott’s final film role, and it is gratifying to see his career conclude on such a strong note. The film also boasts a strong supporting cast, notably Mariette Hartley as the abused Elsa Knudsen whose escape from an abusive father leads to a blossoming of character and experience.
It is impressive to see just how much Ride the High Country muddies the water of the traditional western. Good people sometimes do bad things. Bad people sometimes do good things. Difficult situations cause the typical morality of the genre to blur, so that suddenly the simple binary of good and evil gets provocative new levels in between. The ambivalence does wonders for the film’s sense of suspense – you honestly cannot be certain how the film is going to play out or conclude.
Plus, of course, it all looks great thanks to Lucien Ballard’s wonderful Cinemascope photography, and an effective location shoot around California. There is a good reason why Peckinpah is heralded as such a significant figure in the history of the American western, and there are few better places to start experiencing his film than Ride the High Country. It deserves to be remembered more often, and better.