The Perfect B Film
“Ride the High Coutry” opens with a retired marshal by the name of Steve Judd (Joel McCera) riding in to a booming western town. A car almost runs him over when he tries to cross the dusty street, and immediately we see that Judd is a man that has a hard time coping with the changing times. And right then and there it is also clear that despite appearances this is indeed a Sam Peckinpah film. But more on that later.
Judd is in town because he was hired by the local bank to traverse the rough terrain and go to a mining settlement and deliver back a shipment of gold from there. Judging the work to be too much for him alone, he decides to hire as help his old friend Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) and his assistant Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) who just happen to be in town by chance – performing with a traveling circus. But Gil and Heck (what great cowboy names) have ulterior motives, they plan to convince Judd to steal the gold with them, or if he refuses to take it for themselves anyway.
This western is not large in scope but the story it tells is spellbinding non-the-less. It's a much more personal story and the film around it is intricately crafted in every conceivable way. I'd actually go as far as to call it the perfect B-movie, as it takes its genre seriously and explores it in ways that big movies never could with its smaller but still thematically poignant story. It never cheapens the experience and instead of big movie stars and heroes on white stallions it shows us flawed and relatable characters played by character actors with serious acting chops. The script is wonderful as well, full of dramatic turns and irony.
In many ways all this makes "Ride the High Country" my favorite kind of film because it is a full-blooded genre film but it is also never a prisoner to the tropes and expectations of its genre. In fact it relishes in subverting said tropes and expectations. But unfortunately films of this caliber where rare when they where making B-movies in droves, let alone today where the studio B-movie is all but dead. It's kind of tragic because I think that medium sized genre pictures could actually be the answer for the current crisis that Hollywood is going through. But I'm getting off track.
Anyway, the acting in "Ride the High Country" is very befitting a classical American western. Sure it may seem kind of hammy by today’s standards but for me there’s a lot of charm in that, and the starring duo of Scott and McCera is really amazing as the two grizzled veterans of the west. They bring a fantastic sense of nostalgia for the good old days that translates wonderfully in to the then waning (and now waned) popularity of the western genre. And the two youngsters that follow them are excellent as well – especially Mariette Hartley who plays Elsa, the farmer’s daughter that joins them on their trail.
I also have to say that this is a beautifully shot film that unfolds mostly on mountain trails and forest pathways, so the scenery and the vistas it provides are very pleasing to the eye and also add to that nostalgia that I mentioned before. One of my favorite moments in the film is actually when Judd scolds Heck, telling him "These mountains don't need your trash." after Heck litters. It's not a naive PC environmentalist message as you'd see it today but a love and respect for the land and the wish to see it unchanged that rings true in that line. There is emotion and proper context and intent behind it.
But as I said this is also a Sam Peckinpah film and its thematic underbelly will be very familiar to any fan of the great director’s work. Although the classicist presentation is very unlike the style, cynicism and grit of his later westerns there are still quite a few revisionist touches sprinkled throughout the film. This is still a far cry from the grotesque and chaotic violence and stylization and elongation, but a good case could be made that in “Ride the High Country” he makes his first step towards that trademark Peckinpah style. Like for example the very unpleasant wedding scene found later in the film could easily fit in to one of his signature westerns.
“Ride the High Country” is rightfully considered by many to be Sam Peckinpah’s first great film. It was certainly the film that put him on the map and the film that opened many doors for Peckinpah, and it’s easy to see why. Even if it doesn’t have that unmistakable style of his it still clearly shows a director who brings an absolute understanding of the genre and knowledge of what makes it so iconic and cinematic. This film is a perfect little gem delivered with confidence by the man who would single-handedly reinvigorate and reshape the genre he loves.
Randolph Scott - Gil Westrum
Joel McCera - Steve Judd
Mariette Hartley - Elsa Knudsen
Ron Starr - Heck Longtree
James Drury - Billy Hammond