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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 <email@example.com>
After a time working as director and writer of Western TV Series, Sam Peckinpah started his career on film with "The Deadly Companions",a romantic Western that seemed like an extension of his work on TV; however, his next film, "Ride the High Country", was an completely different beast, it was a deep meditation on the long-lived Western genre that introduced themes that would become Peckinpah's obsessions and signature: the end of an era and the quest for redemption and meaning in life. This raw masterpiece faced a cold reception when it premiered, but gained a tremendous success overseas (winning the Belgium Film Festival), demonstrating to the world that this newcomer was here to stay.
Former lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) is now an aging man, and is hired to transport gold from a mining community through a dangerous territory. As he has the need to hire assistants, he finds his old friend and former partner Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) and hires him and Westrum's young protegé, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) to assist him. However, Steve doesn't know that his two assistants are planning to steal the gold, with or without Steve's help. Things will get complicated when the trio is forced to help a young woman named Elsa (Mariette Hartley) to escape from her fianceé and his criminal brothers.
Written by another veteran of Western TV series, N.B. Stone Jr. (who without a doubt worked with Peckinpah in "The Rifleman"), "Ride The High Country" is a clear step forward in the evolution of the Western as a film genre. As one of the first "revisionist" westerns, it shows a meditation on the genre and how two aging men become outdated by their world and suddenly obsolete. Through powerful lines of dialog and a slowly and carefully constructed plot, the film shows Peckinpah's favorite themes like honor, loyalty, redemption and the destruction of the West (both the historical one and the Western genre) for the first time in one of the most moving Westerns ever. As many have pointed out, one doesn't need to like Westerns to appreciate this film, as it's basic theme of humanity facing change is an immortal one.
Peckinpah's love for the genre is quite obvious and lead to an awesome use of the genre's elements. Starting with a great camera-work that stands as a heir of John Ford's, exchanging Ford's Monument Valley for the beauty nature of Inyo National Forest in California. Forecasting the Spaghetti Western revolution, Peckinpah's realistic Western makes its first appearance, and even when it's considerably less raw than the violent world of "The Wild Bunch", it's a step ahead of the classic Western. In many ways this was not only the beginning of Peckinpah's career, but also of the revisionism in Westerns and the evolution that would change the genre forever.
The inspired casting of Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in the lead roles is simply brilliant, as no one else but this former legends of classic Western films could embody the meaning of their characters, two old men that easily could had been the future of the many lawmen these two actor played in their lives. It was Scott's last film before retiring, and really it couldn't been a better closure for a career. Newcomers Mariette Hartley and Ron Starr represent the new West, too naive and ignorant of the past that precedes them; and both actor's performances are top-notch, although Starr is definitely the weakest link in the cast.
It's hard to believe that this movie almost was a failure in the U.S., but fortunately now it is receiving the attention it rightfully deserves. The natural landscape and the contrast of the new and the old make a great visual composition, almost as the missing link between the classic golden age of Ford and Wayne, and its modern counterparts. The film has few minor flaws, such as the average performance of some members of the cast, but nothing really annoying. Modern viewers may feel it moves too slow, but that slow pace actually enhances the feeling of that slow but steady change that suddenly caught the characters.
"Ride the High Country" is not a very famous film, but it really deserves a wider audience, not only because it introduced us to Peckinpah's film-making, but also because of its deep meditation on the Western genre and its wonderful immortal theme of mankind facing change. All in all, this film is a very recommended one, and I dare to say it's Peckinpah's first raw masterpiece. 9/10
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