In 1864, due to frequent Apache raids from Mexico into the US, a Union officer decides to illegally cross the border and destroy the Apache, using a mixed army of Union troops, Confederate POWs, civilian mercenaries and scouts.
Aging ex-marshal Steve Judd is hired by a bank to transport a gold shipment through dangerous territory. He hires an old partner, Gil Westrum, and his young protege Heck to assist him. Steve doesn't know, however, that Gil and Heck plan to steal the gold, with or without Steve's help. On the trail, the three get involved in a young woman's desire to escape first from her father, then from her fiance and his dangerously psychotic brothers. Written by
James Meek <firstname.lastname@example.org>
It was goodbye to two stars from the golden age of Westerns and hello to a director who would help transform the genre into something bloodier, nastier, and truer. A skillful compromise of those visions, "Ride The High Country" presents a kind of crossroads that feels more like a destination, a perfect summing-up of the legend and the reality of the American West.
Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) is a weary old lawman trying to make ends meet as he nears the end of the road. To transport some gold from a mining town to a bank, he takes on the services of an old buddy, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott). Westrum's as sleek and angling as Judd is square, and has more on his mind than collecting $10 a day risking his neck guarding someone else's money. While this remains unsettled, the pair gets mixed up with a woman (Mariette Hartley) who thinks she's in love with a miner whose idea of a honeymoon means sharing the wealth with his hideous brothers.
Ask anyone with a glancing knowledge of films what kind of movies Sam Peckinpah made, and they will likely describe a movie very different from this. There's some shooting, a little blood, and an unshaven Warren Oates, but otherwise "Ride The High Country" is a movie in the classic Western mold. There are some dissonances for Scott and McCrea's old-time fans to sort through, like Scott's ambiguous morality, but this is all-in-all the nicest movie Peckinpah ever made, decent characters set against an inspiring landscape, the kind of yarn John Ford or Anthony Mann would have delivered.
Not that everything is too black-and-white. The girl, having escaped her stern father and the stump farm where they lived, asks Judd at one point about right and wrong: "It isn't that simple, is it?" "No, it isn't," Judd replies. "It should be, but it isn't."
McCrea is the center of this film, a pillar of virtue. He quotes the Bible, but it's not clear he's especially religious or just stoic in the classic tradition. When he talks about his simple desire "to enter my house justified," he may have the Christian meaning in mind, or just the humanistic ideal of having been a good man when all is said and done. Nevertheless, there are intimations of a deeper truth in the redemption of Westrum and his unambiguous last line: "I'll see you later."
Peckinpah does present a bull-headed Christian zealot in R.G. Armstrong as the girl's father, but he's essentially decent, afraid of life, what it did to him and can do to her. Some see a suggestion of incest in their relationship, when she tells him he doesn't want her with any man but him, but it's more likely that's her complaining about his being overprotective.
There's a lot of humor here, too, much of it courtesy of Randolph Scott. Scott could be a stiff in other films; here he settles nicely into the role of a cut-up, like when he watches his young charge Heck get the tar beaten out of him twice without lifting a finger to help him. "Good fight, I enjoyed it," Westrum chirps as the boy licks his wounds.
The film culminates in a good fight with the Hammonds, so ornery they jeer at Heck when he brings the girl to their doorstep and she assures them he was a gentleman: "How come? Something wrong with him?" It's the one gunfight in the film, and though its one more than some Peckinpah films like "Junior Bonner" had, it's another reason for the film sticking out as unusual in the director's oeuvre.
But it's a good kind of difference, for the most part, as Peckinpah finds his métier while paying tribute to those who came before him with the help of McCrea and Scott. Like its heroes, "Ride The High Country" moves a little slowly in parts, but watching it, you'll likely agree with me the long journey is worth the ride.
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