Far from routine western with director Sam Peckinpah, in his sophomore picture, channelling territory that would later become more familiar, old friends turning enemies, the encroachment of civilization, the passing of the Old West, and sharing with The Misfits (1961) incredulity that the once noble occupation of cowboy/lawman has become redundant. In Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969), the story turns on former friends turned enemies, here that aspect is in its infancy.
Down on his luck former lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea), shirt collar frayed, holes in his boots, eyesight not what it was, recruits old pal Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), reduced to running a western sideshow, to help him escort a load of gold down from the mountains. Gil brings along his younger sidekick Heck Longtree (Ron Starr). Along the way, romance beckons for the ever romantically-inclined Heck when he encounters young Elsa (Mariette Hartley), daughter of Bible-thumping farmer Joshua. When she runs off, intending to marry prospector Billy Hammond (James Drury) at the mining camp, they act as her escort.
Gil turns out not to be the straight-shooter he originally appeared, planning to rob the gold consignment on the way back, with or without Steve’s assistance. The plot takes a wild detour in the mining settlement when Elsa realizes that her marriage will take place in a brothel, her fiancé is a drunk, and that his four brothers reckon they will have equal claim on her sex-wise. Gil arranges for the marriage to be apparently annulled, which doesn’t for a moment fool the Hammond brothers, and the return journey, already splintered by Steve working out what was on Gil’s mind, turns into one ambush after another.
The narrative switch away from the cowboys bewailing their lot, or, in Gil’s case planning payback for a life gone awry, to the plight of the vulnerable woman in the last of the lawless western wildernesses, is a nifty one. But you can’t help seeing Gil’s point, all the gun wounds, gunfights, months in hospitals, jobs lost as a result of confinement, make a man’s mind turn to the notion he has not been correctly reward for his endeavours. And not quite as convinced as Steve that honor makes up for everything.
There is some very lively dialog, great banter as Gil tries to sow sedition in Steve’s ear, Steve with an endless fund of humorous retorts, gently explaining that the hole in his boot is a masterpiece of the shoemaker’s art, a clever method of hidden ventilation, at each point deflecting a wily tongue probing for weakness. Steve is soon revealed as anything but a gunman past his past, or even a bare-knuckled fighter, knocking out cold a disbelieving Heck.
The romance is well done, Heck convinced he has prised Elsa away from her father, only to discover he is not included in her plans, and the isolated virgin unlikely to respond to male ardor. But when the reality of marriage strikes home, a slap in the face required to guarantee compliance, Elsa is extremely lucky not just to find Steve and Gil willing to come to her rescue, but for the less upstanding Gil to take legal matters into his own hand, although you can’t help feeling, in terms of the subsequent mortality rate, this is a hell of a price to pay for a young girl who was not aware of the realities of married life. But, hell, every decent western requires sacrifice.
Peckinpah introduces some excellent twists on more common scenes. A horse race is won by a camel, belly dancers instead of saloon girls, the restaurant bust up in the traditional fistfight is Chinese, Steve assumes the crowds lining the streets to witness the race are extending a hospitable welcome to him, courtesy of his previous exploits. And to Gil’s consternation, the fat pot of gold, literally, diminishes by the minute, the original quarter of a million dollars reduced first to twenty thousand and then a mere eleven, almost hardly worth reneging on a lifetime friendship. Unusually, the lusty young Heck begins to question turning criminal. And the clue to Joshua’s behavior is visual, as we glimpse his wife’s headstone, marked “harlot.”
But when it comes to the showdown you will see an early rehearsal of the famed shootout in The Wild Bunch. But here observation takes the place of action and the steady drip-drip of Gil’s moans serve to highlight a life wasted in community service and Steve’s stoical insistence on law and order, a code that demands good humor in the face of adversity.
This was a splendid last hurrah for Randolph Scott (Western Union, 1941) , well past his Hollywood heyday and now consigned to B-movie westerns, though lucky enough to team up with Budd Boetticher for the seven late-1950s pictures known as the Ranown Cycle, now held in very high esteem. Joel McCrea (Union Pacific, 1939), too, was on the downward Hollywood slide, pretty much restricted to westerns for the whole of the 1950s. This proved to be his final movie of this decade and he only made three more. So, for both, Ride the High Country, was a fitting send-off. Future Wild Bunch alumni Warren Oates and L.Q Jones had small parts.
Ron Starr (G.I. Blues, 1960) and Mariette Hartley (Marnie, 1964) were unlucky that their performances did not reach a wider audience, especially among producers, because they both created multi-faceted characters. Sam Peckinpah was far luckier, Ride the High Country becoming a calling card among foreign critics.