Ride the High Country (1962) ****

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.

The Split (1968) ***

You could not have a more explosive start. In the wake of the seismic slap Sidney Poitier delivered to an arrogant white man in In the Heat of the Night (1967) heist mastermind McClain (Jim Brown) bursts out of the traps by: picking a down-and-dirty knuckle-duster of a fight with hardman Bert (Ernest Borgnine); ramming a limo driven by Harry (Jack Klugman); locking technical wizard Marty (Warren Oates) in an electronic cell; and bracing marksman Dave (Donald Sutherland). It turns out these are all auditions for a $500,000 robbery from the Los Angeles Coliseum during a football match. Nonetheless, the point is made. Despite explanation for the ferocity it scarcely masks the fact that here was a hero unwilling to take any crap from anybody.

The Split follows the classic three acts of such a major crime: recruitment, theft, fall-out. Gladys (Julie Harris) sets up the daring snatch, entrusting a down-on-his-luck McClain –   attempting reconciliation with divorced wife Ellie (Diahann Carroll) – with pulling together a gang with particular sets of skills. The clever heist goes smoothly, the cache smuggled out in a gurney into a stolen ambulance, itself hidden in a truck, and spirited away to Ellie’s apartment until the ruckus dies down.

But someone else has a different plan. The stolen money is stolen again. McClain, responsible for its safekeeping, is blamed for its loss, while he suspects all the others. Adding to the complications is a corrupt cop (Gene Hackman). So it’s cat-and-mouse from here on in, McClain dodging bullets as he attempts to clear up the mess, find the loot and evade the cops.  

British release in a double bill with “Woman without a Face
originally released in the U.S. as “Mister Buddwing.”

The title refers to the way the way the money is intended to be shared out but it could as easily point to a film of two halves – recruitment/robbery and fall-out. The first section has several stand-out moments – a split-screen credit sequence, Marty’s desperate strip inside the cell to prevent the electronic door closing, an asthma attack mid-robbery, the beat-the-clock element of the heist, Dave’s targeting of tires to create the massive gridlock that facilitates escape. Thereafter, the tension grows more taut, as the thieves fall out with murderous intent.

One of the joys of the picture is watching a bunch of actors on the cusp. Jim Brown (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) was in the throes of achieving a stardom that would soon follow for Hackman (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967), Sutherland (also The Dirty Dozen) and Oates (Return of the Seven, 1966). Brown is tough and cynical in the Bogart mold, a loner with lashings of violence in his locker. Of the supporting cast, Sutherland’s funny maniac, complete with mordant wit, is the pick and he has the movie’s best line (“The last man I killed for $5,000. For $85,000 I’d kill you seventeen times.”) Hackman reveals an intensity that would be better showcased in The French Connection (1971) and Borgnine, Oscar-winner for Marty (1955) reverts to his tough guy persona. Having said that, you only get glimpses of what they are capable of.

Making the biggest step-up is Scottish director Gordon Flemyng whose last two pictures were Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion Earth A.D. 2150 (1966). He helms the picture with polish and confidence, allowing the young bucks their screen moments while wasting little time in getting to the action and pulling off a mean car chase.

Crime writer Richard Stark’s (pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake) was careful to sell the rights to his books one-by-one so that no single studio could acquire his iconic thief Parker. That accounted for him being renamed Walker in Point Blank (1967), Edgar in Pillaged (1967) and McClain in The Split, which was based on Stark’s The Seventh (that fraction being the character’s share of the loot).

Major Dundee (1965) ***

Best viewed as a rehearsal for his classic The Wild Bunch (1969), this Sam Peckinpah western covers much of the same thematic ground – feuding friends, Mexico, betrayal, comradeship, brutality, and a grand gesture climax. But the set-up is more complicated than The Wild Bunch. This time out Unionist Charlton Heston in the titular role and former friend Confederate Richard Harris team up towards the end of the American Civil War to hunt down a band of Apaches. Heston’s prisoner, Harris faces the choice of joining his unit or being shot. Since both lived in the South, Harris sees Heston as a traitor for siding with the North. After the Apaches are destroyed, Harris plans to kill Heston.

If the set-up was as straightforward as that, it would have probably resulted in a better film. But once Heston’s soldiers cross the Rio Grande they also come up against the French. And the timescale of the picture covers a complete campaign from November 1864 to April 1865, barely a month before the end of the Civil War so the pace is sluggish despite being packed with incident.  And it struggles with allowing the weight of narration – via the cliched diary – to fall on a young bugler (Michael Anderson Jr.), the only survivor of an Apache attack.

That said, the action sequences are terrific, especially the battle on the Rio Grande itself. Like the best military movies, there are clever maneuvers and deceptions – from both sides. And since the unit comprises not only the quarreling Heston and Harris but warring Unionists and Confederates, freed former slaves and a bunch of criminals in the same league as Robert Ryan’s Wild Bunch gang the tension remains high throughout. Subsidiary characters are given a full story arc – the raw lieutenant (Jim Hutton) making his bones, the bugler losing his virginity. Added to this, Major Dundee is clearly in the last chance saloon, his posting seen as a punishment, and several times his military decisions are, rightly, called into question. His attitude to command is also questionable, minus his uniform in the field and legs on the table while addressing junior officers. And, as with The Wild Bunch, this is no idealized Mexico, but an impoverished, savaged, ravaged country.

There was no romance in Peckinpah’s original take on the story. But the presence of Senta Berger as a widowed Austrian stranded in Mexico brings out the humanity in Heston. Unlike many of her more volatile Latin counterparts, Berger is soft-spoken and gentle. Here, that acts very much as a counterbalance to the pugnacious Heston. She is fearless, effectively acting as the leader of the Mexican village the soldiers initially intend to pillage, persuading them otherwise. She demonstrates considerable intelligence: “The war won’t last forever,” says Heston; “It will for you,” she replies. But, ultimately, she is betrayed by the womanizing Heston.

In the duel between old friends, Harris comes off best in terms of principle. He defuses an ugly racial incident and clearly commands more authority among his men. When difficult action must be taken regarding a deserter again he does not hesitate to act. And he keeps to his word of honoring a flag he despises as long as he is under Heston’s leadership. In some senses, he has the better part since he has to keep normal impulse in check. Many critics considered Heston miscast but that was mostly after the fact when Peckinpah was able to line up a more dissolute William Holden in The Wild Bunch because by that time the actor was already wasted physically from alcoholism. But Major Dundee’s inability to meet his own high standards is exactly the kind of role you want to see a physical specimen like Heston take on.

Senta Berger was the cover girl for “Showtime,” the monthly magazine for the Odeon cinema circuit in the U.K. and there was also feature inside on the film’s star Richard Harris.

Half a century after initial release, another dozen minutes were added to the movie as part of an overall restoration, and the film was acclaimed by critics as a lost masterpiece. That was a rather rose-tinted perspective and, although the extra footage clarified some points, in general it did not lift the confusion surrounding the narrative. The movie needed fewer minutes not more. The deletion of the entire French section would have prevented the movie sinking under the weight of its own ambition. Certainly, the studio Columbia played its part in undermining the movie by shaving too much from the budget just as shooting was about to begin. It is still a decent effort and without it, and perhaps learning from his mistakes, the director might never had turned The Wild Bunch into a masterpiece.

Virtually the entire marketing program for “Major Dundee” was based around the military. The film appeared on the centenary of the ending of the Civil War. The movie most likely to take advantage of that anniversary – Gone with the Wind – was in cold storage, having already taken advantage of the centenary of the start of the war for its umpteenth reissue. So exhibitors were encouraged to put on displays of battle flags sourced from a museum or collector or to arrange a parade with buglers enrolled from youth groups or the church. A horseman dressed in Union colors could ride through the streets to raise awareness and the cinema lobby could be decorated with military equipment and both Union and Confederate flags. Any local person named Dundee might be rounded up. On a different note, Charlton Heston had rustled up his own version of Mexican chili and the recipe was being offered to newspapers. Harry Julian Fink had novelized his screenplay so there was the possibility of bookshop displays and Columbia Records had issued the “Major Dundee March” as a single. Unusually, there was an 8mm film about the film’s stunt men which was intended for sale in cinema lobbies.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

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