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Ride the High Country

Sam Peckinpah Legendary Westerns Collection

From the conclusion of 1939's Stagecoach, which announced that the film's lovers were "saved from the blessings of civilization," the western genre has always been stuffed with films trying to put a cap on the era of gunslingers and codified honor. But no one could end the Old West like Sam Peckinpah. His films never lacked bloodshed and a sense of tremendous loss, with his greatest statement on such The Wild Bunch (1969). That said, "Bloody Sam" was always drawn to the close of the era, and with his first major effort — 1962's Ride the High Country — he tackled these themes using aging western stars Joel McCrae and Randolph Scott to great effect. If The Wild Bunch transcends its cinematic preoccupations, then Ride the High Country is content to be one of the great genre era-closers by using its stars in two of their final film efforts. It's also Peckinpah's most conventional project, and one of his few films that doesn't suffer from studio tampering. McCrea stars as Steve Judd, an old-time lawman past his prime who finds work bringing gold down from a prospector's camp. For protection, he takes with him his old friend Gil Westrum (Scott), who now makes a living hustling yokels with stories of his past travails and cheating at shooting games. Gil has a new, younger partner, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr), and both accompany Judd with plans of taking the gold for themselves. On the way up to the mountain they run into God-fearing widow Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong) and his lonely daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley), whom Heck takes a fancy to. Not long after they leave the Knudsen farm, Elsa decides to tag along since her fiancé Billy Hammond (James Drury) is on the mountain. Once they get there, she sees that Hammond lives with his four brothers (including Peckinpah regulars Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones), and their slovenly lifestyle frightens her away, even after she's been married. Leaving the mountain with the gold and Elsa, the quartet are tracked by the Hammonds, while Gil and Heck become desperate to take the gold from Judd.

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What marks Ride the High Country as a cinema classic is how it uses stars McCrae and Scott. Both spent much of the '50s making B-westerns, and that command of the form helps infuse their characters with history. When the film comes to its honorable but tragic close, there is a gravitas that can only be earned by the reverberation it makes over a body of work. It's also fun for the role-reversal Scott gets — his western image was of the upstanding lawman (as parodied in Blazing Saddles), and here he gets to play a character who's almost on the other side of the law and cheats his customers at sharp-shooting by using buck-shots. As his first major effort, one can see Sam Peckinpah working within the system (something he'd never do again — he spent the rest of his career fighting against it) and crafting a western that takes up his personal concerns about the west while still keeping in line with the period genre efforts — it's the least bloody western in his canon. And if this lack of bloodshed makes the film less shocking, it also draws focus to Peckinpah's concerns about honor and respect. Or, as McCrae says as he goes into the final gun battle, "All I want is to enter my house justified." This theme would become the touchstone for Peckinpah's work, and it was never made more universal than here. Warner presents Ride the High Country in a good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 1.0 audio — the transfer is stunning, and the soundtrack is well preserved. Extras include (as do almost all the Peckinpah releases) a commentary by Peckinpah scholars Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle, along with the featurette "A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and The High Country" (23 min.). It's an extended interview with Sam's sister Fern Lea Peter, who speaks more of Peckinpah's youth than the film at hand, but also provides some insights into their family. Also included is a Peckinpah trailer gallery and a bonus trailer. Keep-case.

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