Director: Sam Peckinpah
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Over the last couple of months, I have been drawn to Westerns. Living and working in a densely populated metropolis has started to give me that hemmed-in feeling, and if there’s one thing you can count on in Westerns, it’s at least a few shots of wide-open vistas. That’s the mythic place the West holds in our imaginations—almost limitless space waiting for the solitary seeker to enter and make things up as he or she goes along.
Ride the High Country was one of Sam Peckinpah’s early films, done before he developed his reputation for extreme violence. It evokes a humorous and mainly sweet nostalgia for the mythic West in part by starring two elder statesmen of Western dramas: Joel McCrea, in his second-to-last film, and Randolph Scott, in his last film. Unlike the vigorous Western icons they played in countless films, McCrea and Scott wind up their careers playing two gunslingers who are coming to the end of the trail.
There are few genres that can so quickly and iconically set a mood as a Western, and Peckinpah takes no liberties with the convention: We get our long shot of open country to start the film. Soon we are drawn into human commerce. Steve Judd (McCrea), who once had a name to be reckoned with, comes to town to take a job with a bank hauling $250,000 worth of gold from miners in the high country who wish to make deposits. Several couriers have already been killed by bandits, and the father and son bankers Abner and Luther Sampson approached Judd because of his reputation with a gun and as a lawman.
The scene during which the deal is struck is a comic gem. First, the milquetoast actors Bryon Foulger and Percy Helton, who play the Sampsons, were actually the same age. Watching them playing father and son in the same nervous, mousy way, looking very much alike, is a sly commentary on the essence of the bean counter. When Judd learns that the actual amount he’ll be protecting is about $20,000, the Sampsons say, “Well, it’s still a respectable sum.” We have to wonder if it is worth the risk of another life, but that’s not the Sampsons’ concern. Judd, on the other hand, is quite a bit older than they expected, and their rueful glances tell us everything about what it’s like to be an older worker—an especially difficult transition to uselessness for a Western hero. Judd says he’d like to look over the contract alone, and he is shown to the toilet. He pulls out his glasses, examines the document, folds his glasses away, and then for no apparent reason, flushes the toilet. He asks for $40 a day, $20 for him and $10 each for the two men he intends to hire.
Before going to the bank, and after dodging a horseless buggy, Judd runs into his old partner Gil Westrum (Scott), who is running a crooked carny act. He tells Westrum about his job and asks him and Westrum’s young assistant Heck (Ron Starr) if they’d like to ride with him. After he leaves to meet the Sampsons, Westrum confides to Heck that they’ll ride with Judd to steal the gold. “What if he doesn’t go along,” asks Heck. Westrum says they’ll get the gold with or without Judd’s cooperation.
Halfway up the mountain, the three men stop at a farm to see if they can spend the night. The pious farmer Joshua Knudsen (R. G. Armstrong) agrees to let them sleep in the barn. Just then, a figure we saw scurry into the house on seeing the men’s approach and throw off some scruffy farm clothes emerges from the house. It is Knudsen’s daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley), and she has on a lovely and revealing dress. We learn what a stern father Joshua is when he angrily scolds her and tells her to put on proper clothes. She’s dying to get out from under his thumb and away from the isolated farm. Heck is smitten with her and encourages the older men to take her with them. They refuse, but Elsa follows them anyway and says she is going to the mining camp to marry Billy Hammond (James Drury). She becomes drawn to Heck as the trip progresses, but his advances are too aggressive, and she bolts for Billy as soon as they reach camp.
The marriage is a disaster from the moment it is official. The drunken revelries end in the near rape of Elsa by Billy’s four brothers. Just as she runs screaming from the bridal bed in the camp saloon/hotel, Judd shows up, decks Billy, and says Elsa is coming back with them. The Hammonds call a camp court—the only justice available in this isolated place—but Westrum forces the justice of the peace (Edgar Buchanan) to say that he wasn’t licensed to marry anyone. The court must find in Judd’s favor. Off camera, the Hammonds beat up the alcoholic preacher and then set out to reclaim Elsa. The film ends in a final showdown at the Knudsen farm between the aged gunslingers and the Hammond brothers.
Although this is not a flat-out, mature Peckinpah film, there are more than glimpses of his savage, macabre style. The wedding scene is filled with grotesques—whores dressed in their gaudiest finery to act as bridesmaids, their obese madam decked out in a green, satin gown with a cone-bustier top that puts Madonna’s cone bra to shame, the preacher drunk and drooling. The virgin Elsa, with her short Joan of Arc hair (in fact, Hartley had just finished playing the Maid of Orleans on stage), looks like the perfect sacrifice. The entire scene resembles Buñuel’s famous beggars orgy in Viridiana, but in vivid color and tinged with wild West abandon to rev up the Western conventions. We get another comic grotesque scene before the final shootout. Peckinpah photographs a gaggle of chickens and lingers on them for quite some time. It is only after we have dismissed this interlude as a throwaway shot that Peckinpah pans up to the wide-eyed and bloody face of Knudsen, dead and draped across a rail near the chicken coop.
This film has been called an elegy to the West, but I see it as very much a traditional Western. The important relationships in it are between men, setting up father-son and brother-brother associations that, at first, look unique, but actually are very traditional. The caricature father-son and brother-brother relationships are the Sampsons and the Hammonds. The heart of the film is the brotherlike relationship between Westrum and Judd, which becomes severely strained when Judd discovers Westrum plans to betray him. Judd embodies the noble sheriff type who plays clean and stands up for what is right. He came to this position through hard knocks and a lifetime of playing both sides of the fence. He represents the wisdom of age and self-knowledge. Westrum, a weaker and more worldly character of less renown than Judd ever had—he lies about his accomplishments on his carny marquee—is clearly the junior member of the team and was, perhaps, in the son position in years gone by. It is Heck who finally shows the choice that must be made between good father and bad father. When he adopts Judd’s ethics, he shows that there is a future for the West after all. In the end, Peckinpah reveals his belief in the salutary myths of the Old West. Imagine that.