Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, August 19, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1962)

2. Ride the High Country

Sam Peckinpah grew up in Fresno, California. Reportedly, he would often skip school to spend time on his grandfather's ranch. There, he would learn to ride, rope, brand, and hunt. Supposedly, these childhood adventures inspired parts of “Ride the High Country.” The script was originally written by N.B. Stone Jr. The producer, a fan of “The Westerner,” offered Peckinpah the director's chair. He rewrote most of the script, incorporating elements of his relationship with his father as well. The resulting film would be the director's first breakthrough. Some still consider it Peckinpah's best film.

The wild west era is just about over. Steve Judd, a former lawman and gunfighter, arrives in California to take a job escorting a gold shipment down a mountainside from a mining colony. In order to help him, he recruits an old friend named Gil Westrum. Gil brings along Heck Longtree, a fiery young brawler. Gil and Heck conspire to betray Steve and take his portion of the gold but Gil has second thoughts. On their journey up the mountain, they meet Elsa, the daughter of a controlling and religious man. Elsa is immediately attracted to Heck but is already engaged to Billy Hammond, a man living at the mining settlement. Elsa goes with them and marries Billy but quickly regrets it. She leaves with Steve, Gil, and Heck. Billy, however, follows and plans to get back the woman he believes is his.

Only in his second feature, you can already see Sam Peckinpah's themes evolving. “Ride the High Country” shares a few superficial similarities to “The Deadly Companions.” Both films involve a group of men, riding through the countryside with a woman they perceive as more vulnerable. Within both films, treachery and betrayal simmers between the men. Both also feature a pretty uncomfortable attempt at sexual assault, which ends when another man intervenes. Yet these ideas have continued to evolve in a darker and more complex direction. “Ride the High Country” is, pointedly, a story of murkier morality with a more uncertain tone and an ending you can't exactly call “happy.” It represents Peckinpah coming into his own.

“Ride the High Country' begins with Steve Judd riding into town. They're having some sort of parade and, while he waves at the crowd, they boo him. Gil is working a carnival game, wearing a fake mustache and pretending to be a legendary outlaw. The two old friends trade stories, reminiscing about their glory days. Each story has a sad coda, about how that person is dead or that woman is married to someone else. These honorable lawmen are now resorting to transporting gold in order to make ends' meet. Throughout the film, there's this sense that the legendary old west is coming to an end, that the protagonists are relics of a bygone age and will soon be irrelevant. (Casting aging western icons like Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in the leads was surely intentional.) Thus, “Ride the High Country' becomes the first of several elegiac westerns Peckinpah would make, movies that engage more with the myth of the west and its inevitable end.

From the outside, though, “Ride the High Country” appears to be a typical example of the western genre. This is another story about the camaraderie among men as they go on a mission. There's conflict between the men, as Heck's antics get the others into trouble. He starts a fist fight in a bar and his attempt to force himself on Elsa earns him a beating from both older men. Eventually, the three overcome their differences and begin to feel like brothers to each other. This kind of macho struggle and bonding were commonplace in classic westerns.

However, “Ride the High Country” does not exist in a black and white world. At one point, Elsa says that her father teaches that the world is right or wrong. Steve admits that it's more complicated than that. This line informs all of “Ride the High Country's” world. Though Gil acts as if he's Steve's friend, he secretly plots to rip him off. Eventually, this conflict comes to the forefront, Gil attempting to betrayal his friend. However, the two eventually come together to fight their enemies. This characterizes the morally gray world of “Ride the High Country,” where men make mistakes and don't always do the right thing.

Another theme that develops from “The Deadly Companions” is the treatment of women. From the moment we meet here, Elsa is treated like an object, something to be controlled and traded, by the men around her. Her father is abusive, a tyrant that demands his daughter conform to his worldview. There's sparks between Elsa and Heck from the moment they meet. However, he takes it too far, attempting to force himself on her soon afterward. Her fiance Billy is no less patient. He attempts to consummate their relationship soon after being reunited. This sows doubt in Elsa's mind that grows as their wedding draws closer. The two are married in a brothel, Elsa showing her clear discomfort on her face. During the rowdy after-party that follows, she's nearly raped by both Billy and one of his friends. Judd and Gil then attempt to dissolve the marriage and take Elsa back to her home. Billy's refusal to let go of the woman he sees as his property is what drives the violence in the film's second half.

It's difficult to read “Ride the High Country” as feminist. Elsa is only so proactive, as the men still make most of the decisions. This is ultimately not her story. Heck is easily forgiven for his near assault, still being treated as a hero throughout the rest of the movie. However, the film seems to acknowledge that men, especially during this time period, treated women terribly. That they had thoughts and feelings of their own apart from their husbands and love interests. And, the film suggests, these attitudes might be something else from the old west that is best left behind. This makes the film progressive for its time, when westerns were usually happy to have women be nothing but props.

A story like “Ride the High Country,” about the end of a mythic age, obviously required iconic actors to star in it. Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, iconic western performers, were obviously up for the part. Interestingly, the actors were originally cast in the opposite roles before complaining about the production and getting switched around. It's hard to imagine it the other way around. Joel McCrea is fantastic as Steve Judd. He has a wry gleam in his smile, making him believable as a lovable old man from a bygone era. However, as the film goes on, McCrea faithfully brings to life someone who is struggling with obsolescence in a world that he is finding increasingly difficult to understand.

Randolph Scott co-stars alongside McCrea, though he got top-billing as that was decided by a coin toss. Scott plays off of McCrea fantastically, the two truly seeming like old friends with a long history together. As the story grows darker, Scott seems willing to embrace the more challenging aspects of the character. Scott and McCrea both formally retired after seeing the film, deciding a film this good was an ideal one to go out on. This only adds to “Ride the High Country's” status as a film about the end of the western era. (Scott's announcement of retirement stuck, as he never appeared in another film. McCrea would come out of retirement for a few B-westerns in the mid-seventies.)

As good as McCrea and Scott are, and they're both excellent, the heart of the movie belongs to Mariette Hartley as Elsa. Hartley projects a vulnerability that makes her believable as the sheltered daughter of a preacher. However, there's also a fiery drive in her, determined to get out from under her father's control and start her own life. Hartley also just has an excellent screen presence, being captivating to the eye. She's also believable as someone interested in Ron Starr's Heck. Starr is very good as well, as a hard man who learns his lesson as the story goes on. This was Hartley's first film and she would go on to a long career as a character actress. Starr would only appear in two other movies and a few more television episodes after this.

“Ride the High Country” shows Peckinpah's visual sense evolving as well. Compared to the flat Arizona desert of “The Deadly Companions,” the mountainous regions depicted here are much more colorful. There's a sweeping scene of scope, as the camera looks out over the rising Californian frontier. Peckinpah also brings an intimate element to other scenes, such as a shadowy and tightly framed scene devoted Elsa and her father talking in the darkness of their dining room. Save for one oddly crop shot – a sudden zoom in on a corpse's body - “Ride the High Country” is an elegant looking film that is fantastically assembled.

“Ride the High Country” was released on the second half of a double bill with “The Tartars,” a mostly forgotten Italian viking movie starring Orson Welles and Victor Mature. The film was released this way because the studio didn't believe the movie cost enough to be as good as it was. It would receive positive reviews from a few American critics but was largely overlooked. It found far more success in Europe, winning awards at festival. (It actually beat out Fellini's “8½” for Best Picture at the very first Belgium Film Festival.) Nowadays, it's recognized as a classic western and the first great film from Sam Peckinpah. [Grade: A]

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