Judge Ryan Keefer feels for the horse that would have to take him through the mountain country of Nevada.
Our review of TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Westerns, published June 17th, 2010, is also available.
"All I want is to enter my house justified."
After a somewhat accomplished television career, Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) managed to establish himself as a cinematic artist with Ride the High Country. Featuring a couple of aging western stars, along with newer ones that would become part of Peckinpah's de facto "stock" company, does Ride the High Country still pack a punch as much as "Bloody Sam's" other films?
Facts of the Case
Steve Judd (Joel McCrea, Buffalo Bill, The Virginian) is an ex-marshal that has been hired to transport some gold through the Nevada Mountains, to make sure it isn't stolen. While in town, he sees an old friend of his in Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott, Seven Men From Now, Comanche Station.) He hires Gil, along with Gil's younger friend Heck Longtree (Ron Starr, This is not a Test) to help him with the job. Along the way, they run into a religious widower and his daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley, Encino Man). Elsa runs away from home and join Heck, along with the aging Gil and Steve, to go into town to get married to a longtime boyfriend named Billy Hammond (James Drury, The Young Warriors).
Things get complicated when Elsa decides, after marrying Billy, that he's not the man for her, so she rejoins Gil, Steve and Heck, with Billy and his family hot on their heels (including future Peckinpah regulars Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones). And the gold remains a tempting factor too, so much so that Gil tries to double cross Steve and take the money, but Steve catches him before that happens. So with a crazed husband and brothers chasing them, and a longtime friend being tied up so as to steal the gold, how does Steve make it through?
With the help of David Weddle's outstanding biography on Peckinpah, If They Move, Kill 'Em!, here are some historical details surrounding the production. Originally titled Guns in the Afternoon, Peckinpah was originally unsure about taking on the project until he read it. He fell in love with the story, about aging cowboys that were facing a new American west, and he took a pay cut to direct the film. He asked producer Richard Lyons if he could rewrite the script without changing the story and he managed to overhaul the screenplay while still maintaining its 90-minute runtime. The film was an outstanding effort, the cast knew it (not initially though, as McCrea and Scott almost left, before the decision was made for them to switch roles to the ones onscreen), but when it came to screenings, the film almost didn't make it to a theater. The studio president was so disenchanted with it that he almost didn't release it until finding out most of the work had already been completed. Peckinpah was barred from the lot, and post-production work was done over the phone with Peckinpah on the other end. While it was not popularly received, the critics enjoyed it, and rightfully so.
Much has been made about how McCrea's role was modeled after Peckinpah's father. But the interesting thing to me when watching the film was that if there was a character that one could somewhat attribute to Peckinpah himself, it would be that of Elsa. Like Elsa, Sam was trying to break out of a somewhat rigidly structured family life (his family were primarily businessmen and judges that perhaps stifled what he thought was his true calling), and perhaps once he got what he wanted, maybe (without realizing it) things were a bit overwhelming for him? That can be left for other more knowledgeable fans of Peckinpah to debate over.
For the times, this movie was quite daring and very smart, and that still holds true to a large degree. In the first few minutes, a topless Hartley (with her back to the camera) appears, something that for the times was a little bit shocking, but it's done in such a way that makes it revelatory to the story. McCrea and Scott were both admittedly past their prime and are brave enough to let that show through the course of the film, such as a scene where McCrea reads a contract and has to use glasses in order to read it. The first scene where McCrea runs into Scott is actually somewhat funny, as Scott's character is wearing a Buffalo Bill costume. I've only seen McCrea in the title role of that underrated 1944 classic of the same name, and I wonder if both men realized that the tongue was firmly planted in the cheek on that. There are other small stylistic touches and performances that would be the foundation of future Peckinpah movies. Oates as Henry Hammond was extremely enjoyable to watch, and Jones has a death scene that is somewhat similar to Slim Pickens' death in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and is quite frankly, a pretty cool death for any actor.
The show is McCrea and Scott's to deliver and they do with flying colors. Even as Scott double crosses McCrea, it's hard to see him realistically going though with it, because, by and large, he's a tough, fair man (take, for example, the scene where he and McCrea punch Heck within a few moments of each other). If McCrea was modeled after Peckinpah's father, it's easy to see why there was a lot of respect given to him by Sam as a boy. This is one of the first Peckinpah films I can ever recall seeing, and to see it all over again was a treat.
In terms of extras, Weddle, along with fellow Peckinpah experts Nick Redman, Garner Simmons and Paul Seydor all join forces for a commentary track. Moderated by Redman, the four discuss their thoughts on the film within the western context and Peckinpah's body of work. The commentary does a great job in deconstructing the film from various aspects. Aside from the commentary, there are trailers of other Peckinpah westerns, as well as for The James Dean Collection. There's also a 25-minute look at the director, entitled A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the High Country, featuring Peckinpah's sister Fern, as she recalls his infatuation for the scenery out west and her brother. Fern also remembers her parents and grandparents in great detail, and there are some photos of them and a younger Sam. She also has a wealth of recollections about Sam and his brother Denny as well. It's a very fond remembrance by a loving family member, and very nice to see.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is a nice tidy package, all rolled into an inexpensive DVD. Weddle, Redman, Simmons and Seydor discuss it a little bit, so I won't pile on too much, but the score was done with a little too much activity. That does indicate a sign of the times. I mean, it seemed like every film in the late '50s and early '60s had so much music in it, the only thing that the film could be missing was a theme song, sung by Hartley. Otherwise, no complaints to speak of.
Along with the other Peckinpah westerns, Ride the High Country is a welcome change of pace from similar old films of the genre. The performances by McCrea and Scott are tremendous, and it's very welcome to have it finally be given the presentation it deserves.
The court completely exonerates the cast and crew of this fine production.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary with Biographers/Historians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle
Review content copyright © 2006 Ryan Keefer; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.