Ride the High Country
RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY
(Guns in the Afternoon)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Production: MGM; CinemaScope, Metrocolor; running time: 93 minutes; length: 8,391 feet. Released May 1962.
Producer: Richard E. Lyons; screenplay: N. B. Stone, Jr.; assistant director: Hal Polaire; photography: Lucien Ballard; editor: Frank Santillo; sound: Franklin Milton; art directors: George W. Davis, Leroy Coleman; music: George Bassman.
Cast: Randolph Scott (Gil Westrum); Joel McCrea (Steve Judd); Ronald Starr (Heck Longtree); Mariette Hartley (Elsa Knudsen); James Drury (Billy Hammond); R. G. Armstrong (Joshua Knudsen); Edgar Buchanan (Judge Tolliver); Jenie Jackson (Kate); John Anderson (Elder Hammon); L. Q. Jones (Sylvus Hammond); Warren Oates (Henry Hammond); John Davis Chandler (Jimmy Hammond); Carmen Phillips (Saloon Girl).
Kitses, Jim, Horizons West, London 1969.
Wright, Will, Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western, Berkeley, 1975.
Caprara, Valerio, Peckinpah, Bologna, 1976.
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Weddle, David, If They Move, Kill 'Em: The Life and Times of SamPeckinpah, New York, 1994.
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* * *
Apart from his first feature, the rarely screened The Deadly Companions, few of Sam Peckinpah's films have escaped controversy. The obvious exception is Ride the High Country, acclaimed a classic within months of its release—and which still remains the Peckinpah movie that people who hate Peckinpah movies can like. It's clear enough why this should be so. Such violence as occurs is relatively muted; the film exudes a melancholy, autumnal gentleness, enhanced by the presence of two much-loved veterans of the genre, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, in what are evidently conceived as farewell performances. The characters—the upright lawman, the bad guy who becomes good in the end, the brash youngster who learns wisdom, and so on—are all comfortingly familiar types, and the plot itself springs few surprises. With Ride, Peckinpah openly staked his claim to the mantle of Great Western Director, heir to Ford, Mann, and Boetticher—before striking out, in Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch, on the maverick trail to a more equivocal position as (in Jim Kitses's phrase) "John Ford's bastard son."
Yet, beneath all the conventional elements—which are handled, it should be said, with a vigour and assurance which prevent them ever seeming merely routine—the thematic preoccupations of the later films are already in place. If Peckinpah didn't invent the elegiac, passing-of-the-west western (Ford, for one, could stake a claim with Liberty Valance), he made more telling use of it than any other director, and Ride locates us there from the start. From the majestic wildness of the "high country" we cut, as the credits end, to the bustling vulgarity of a California township where the shabby old lawman, Steve Judd (McCrea), is nearly run down by an automobile (anticipating the fate of another Peckinpah hero, Cable Hogue). Meanwhile his former colleague, Gil Westrum (Scott) has been reduced to running a carnival side-show, got up in a phony Buffalo Bill outfit as "The Oregon Kid."
These two, creaky and rheumatic, rehashing ancient exploits, bedding down in baggy long-johns, clearly enough embody the old, heroic, outmoded west. But they also foreshadow, in their contrasted attitudes, such later opposed pairs as Bishop and Thornton (Wild Bunch), Steiner and Stransky (Cross of Iron), Billy and Pat Garrett. Ride, like most of Peckinpah's work, explores the tensions of relative morality. Judd professes absolute values ("He was right. I was wrong," he says of his one-time mentor. "That's something you just know"), and can trade biblical texts with Knudsen, the grimly puritanical rancher. But after Westrum's treachery, doubts creep in. "My father says there's only right and wrong, good and evil," says Elsa, Knudsen's daughter. "It isn't that simple, is it?" "No, it isn't," Judd responds. "It should be—but it isn't." The old, clear-cut frontier code—the code of a Ford movie—no longer holds up; and maybe it never really did.
Having set up his stock types, Peckinpah slyly subverts them. Judge Tolliver, the venal old drunk performing Elsa's wedding ceremony in a brothel, comes out with a wistful speech about marriage: "A good marriage—there's a kind of simple glory about it." Even the squalid Hammond clan can be goaded into an open showdown through their "sense of family honor"—which, of course, promptly gets them killed. By all the conventions of the genre, Westrum should die in the final shootout, atoning for his earlier misdeeds. But it's Judd who dies, gazing up at the austere purity of the mountains, granted his wish "to enter my house justified" (a phrase Peckinpah borrowed from his own father). Westrum can adapt and compromise; he survives.
The casting of Scott, icon of integrity, as the devious Westrum, is a master stroke; and while Peckinpah didn't originate the idea (McCrea and Scott, initially cast the other way round, spontaneously suggested a swap) he makes shrewd use of it, bringing out a foxiness which, we can recognize, was always latent in the actor's persona. That Westrum should survive, though, was the director's idea, part of his extensive—and uncredited—rewrite of Stone's script. Ride also marks Peckinpah's first cinematic collaboration with the veteran Lucien Ballard, whose lyrical widescreen cinematography makes it one of the most beautiful of all westerns.
Not for the last time, a Peckinpah movie hit studio problems. Ride, victim of a front-office feud, was taken away from him in post-production and released as a second feature. Critical enthusiasm and prizes at European festivals embarrassed MGM into giving it a rerelease; and its reputation remained unaffected by the hostility aroused by Peckinpah's subsequent work. If not, as some have claimed, his best film, it's surely his most perfect.