Ride the High Country is oft-considered to be one of Sam Peckinpah’s first successes: his second feature film and arguably the first to display many of the director’s defining traits. The bucketfuls of bloodshed and violence would be a few years still, as would his inventiveness as a filmmaker of action, but Peckinpah’s morally ambiguous misanthropic worldview does make a minor showing here, as does his questioning of duty over ugly choices.
Starring two actors who by this point were winding down their long careers as Western gunslingers, Ride the High Country introduces us to Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott). Judd is a longtime lawman and mercenary, riding into town to offer his services on a job transporting gold through a dangerous mountain trail, in which he enlists his old pal Westrum alongside the latter’s young protégé Heck Longtree (Ron Starr), unaware that the two are planning to rob the gold and take it for themselves. Along the way to Coarse Gold, the mining town, the trio stop at a farmhouse, where Heck meets the beautiful Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley). Her father, a sanctimonious and deeply-religious fellow, bars her from talking to the men, but she runs away with the gang to marry a miner she’d met from Coarse Gold. Once there, the group finds a sodden, wintry hell-hole of drunkards and nobodies, and Elsa discovers that her betrothed, Billy Hammond (James Drury) is little more than a rancid womanizer—with some especially lecherous brothers alongside him to boot. The journey back is fraught with danger: not only does Judd have to contend with possible betrayal from his long-time friend, but he also has to deal with gunshots arising from the jilted groom and his family.
Mostly, Ride the High Country is content to soak up the excellent location shooting and the ambiance of Judd and Westrum’s relationship. Given weight by two authoritative performances from McCrea and Scott, the duo perform a fascinating function within the film thematically. Judd admits to once toying with criminality as a young man as well as his frustration with pay: most of his life he has dodged bullets for other people and been paid a pittance, but he expresses pride that he still has his integrity, even in the face of advancing technology. Westrum serves the opposite function; though he has also been a lawman and tough nut by occupation, the film introduces him as a huckster at a carnival selling a rigged game. He desires the money because he also figures he’s owed it, for a life hard-lived but little-rewarded. He has no illusions about integrity, and it’s difficult to label him greedy either: rather, he is driven by a desire for material stability in an insecure, rapidly-changing world.
That central dynamic is probably the most satisfying part of Ride the High Country, but sadly Peckinpah doesn’t really follow through with it in great detail. Instead, more time is spent saving Elsa from the clutches of the Hammonds. And that’s a problem because the action scenes, which this subplot is built around, are surprisingly rather dull and flat.
A bigger issue is the film’s regressive sexual politics. One could argue that regressive sexual politics are a common feature of Peckinpah’s films, but of the rest of his work that I’ve seen, it tends to function as part of his nihilistic, misanthropic worldview. In his desire to break down the myths and half-truths embedded in American history, Peckinpah necessarily draws towards some of its uglier aspects, and that includes the mistreatment of women. His characters therefore, are often regressive misogynists, but I don’t believe his films are. The misogyny is an extension of the world which Peckinpah often criticises.
However, in Ride the High Country, this isn’t the case. The Hammonds are clearly a horrible family, but there is no sense of them being a result of a wider tapestry of societal failure. Heck Longtree begins the film as a womanising cowboy, casually slapping a waitress’s ass in his second scene, but ends it as a sensitive, morally focused young man as he falls in love with Elsa. His arc may look redemptive, but it ultimately comes down to “bad boy put right by love of a good woman”, and it cheapens the film.
On some level it’s perhaps unfair of me to expect even-handed gender representation from a genre not known for being full of great women’s stories, but the Western is at its strongest when its challenging and cutting through masculinity, as John Ford did with The Searchers (1956) and Howard Hawks with Rio Bravo (1959). Unfortunately, Ride the High Country lacks that edge, producing a rather simple, below-average film. Peckinpah’s follow-up would be Major Dundee (1965), a sprawling, studio-mutilated mess of a movie starring Charlton Heston. Yet for all its flaws, the latter remains the more fascinating film, buffeted by moral greys rather than simple black-and-whites. It’s finely structured, well-shot and well-acted, but Ride the High Country is not much to talk about.