Both a nostalgic homage and a bold renewal of the genre, Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) was able to capture the essence of the American Westerns while questioning the place of its quintessential characters in an evolving and modernized society.
The storyline is plain and simple: Steve Judd (Joel McCrea), a former US marshal, is hired by a Californian bank to escort a gold shipment from a mining camp, in the beautiful but dangerous Sierra Mountains, back to the town in the valley below. To help him fulfill his mission, he is accompanied by his old friend and former partner Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) and Gil’s young protégé Heck Longtree (Ron Starr). Along the way the group is also joined by Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley), a farmer’s daughter who seeks to escape her secluded life (her father never lets her leave the farm to protect her from the dangers of the outside world) and join her fiancé Billy Hammond (James Drury). The action then takes place between the town and the mining camp, as Gil tries to assess if he will be able to convince Judd to steal the gold, or if he will have to betray his old friend and take the shipment for himself.
Ride the High Country is a cinematographic tour de force that managed to prove its worth even though all bets were against it. Indeed, despite a poor distribution that led to a commercial loss of 160,000 dollars, the movie was enthusiastically hailed by the major critics at the time and became a success in Europe, where it received several prizes, including the prestigious Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association in 1964. Even at a time when the popularity of Westerns was in decline, Sam Peckinpah thus managed to renew the genre, not by copying the old masters but by transposing the codes and the essence of the classics into the American industrial society.
Ride the High Country is not a Manichean movie in which good and evil face off through thrilling action scenes, but a subtle historical, social and psychological portrayal of characters from various generations who must adapt to the disappearance of the Western ideal. Indeed, the West is no longer an unknown land of easy fortune but a domesticated and industrialized territory in which even the lonesome hero must join the capitalist machinery in order to survive. Even as the characters ride through the majestic Sierra Mountains, and as the wilderness of the landscape is enhanced by the stunning cinematography and George Bassman’s grandiloquent music, we are constantly reminded that civilization is never far away, as the presence (or absence) of the gold shipment creates a subtle but constant tension. In the end, it is not a tale of man against nature but of man against his fellow man, as the whole movie relies on the tension between different characters (like between Gil and Judd, or Elsa and her fiancé, who tries to abuse of her love for him).
The story thus questions the place of aging Western pioneers in a world to which they don’t belong anymore, as Judd’s and Gil’s respective sense of morality clash through subtle and brilliantly written dialogues. This effect is enhanced by the fact that Peckinpah was able to master the codes of the genre while adding his own twist : for instance, instead of wearing a white hat (a costume trick meant to designate heroes) Judd is wearing a black hat, while Gil wears a white one, thus showing the depth and ambiguity of the two characters. The play with costumes can also be observed with Elsa’s character as she alternates between dresses that show her cleavage and others that cover her neck, endorsing the traditional roles of both the virtuous woman and the prostitute. Moreover, and more surprisingly, she also wears men’s clothes throughout the movie, thus breaking away from the usual depiction and roles of female Western characters
In the end, through its brilliant psychological portrayals, great acting performances and beautiful cinematography, Ride the High Country is not only a cynical revisionist western that questions a fading myth, but also a truly universal tale of morality, loyalty, love and betrayal.
Ride the High Country (1962)
Starring: Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Mariette Hartley, James Drury
Directed by: Sam Peckinpah
Produced by: Richard E. Lyons
Music: George Bassman
Distributed by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Running time: 94 minutes