Thursday, April 20, 2006


Riding the trail alone

By Edward Copeland
Sam Peckinpah was 37 when he made Ride the High Country in 1962 after nearly a decade of television work, mostly on Westerns, and one other feature film. Since that is the genre that Peckinpah is most widely identified with, it seems only appropriate that was the genre that gained him cinematic notice. Within Ride the High Country though, you could see themes that would reoccur throughout Peckinpah's filmography aside from the obvious Western touches.

Starring Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, who were 64 and 57 respectively when the film premiered, their characters of aging gunslingers foreshadowed the gang Peckinpah would assemble seven years later in his seminal Western, The Wild Bunch. Scott portrayed Gil Westrum, the shadier of the pair, and McCrea played Steve Judd, an ex-marshal committed to his own moral point of view, who team up with young upstart Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) to work for a bank paying for gold claims in a California mining town. Along the way to the town, they come across Elsa, a young woman (Mariette Hartley in her film debut) frustrated with life on the ranch of her moralizing father (R.G. Armstrong) and eager to hook up with Billy Hammond (James Drury), a man who promised to marry her and one of a clan of slimy brothers working in the mining town. Needless to say, complications ensue.

On the road to the town, Heck develops a lustful interest in Elsa that nearly leads to rape, but which is nothing compared to what happens when she finally hooks up with Billy and agrees to become his bride, despite the fact he clearly intends on sharing her with her brothers (particularly the odious Henry played by future Peckinpah regular Warren Oates in one of his earliest feature films). The assaults on Elsa foreshadow what Peckinpah will depict in his greatest non-Western, Straw Dogs, in 1971. Gil and Steve see the trouble that Elsa has gotten herself into, but only Gil is willing to bend the law to save the girl as Steve continues to insist that they must be bound by it. On top of that, as they move to return the girl to her home, Gil and Heck have other plans for the bank's money.

With all these story strands, Peckinpah tells the story with amazing efficiency, clocking a running time that is barely more than 90 minutes. He also creates some astounding visual vistas, making his film debut in CinemaScope and failing to blow the chance as some first-timers do.

There also is something interesting in the violence in the film, given that violence is the first word that comes to mind when most people mention Peckinpah. Granted, he couldn't get away with things in 1962 that he'd be able to do later, but he is extremely cautious with it. In fact, one scene of a violent attack occurs completely offscreen where you can hear it, but you don't see it and you never see the end result.

There certainly have been better Westerns than Ride the High Country and Peckinpah would go on to make much greater films, but it's interesting to watch to see parts of the foundation being formed for Peckinpah's later films.

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It came to my attention a couple years back that Tom Cruise mentioned that he was interested in remaking THE WILD BUNCH (and LOCK STOCK) and I believe he even went as far as aquiring the rights to do so. I'm praying that this isn't so. Peckinpah is one of the few greats where any kind of remake of his films would never amount anywhere close to his superior vision and masterful storytelling.
I had heard talk of a Wild Bunch remake, but I hadn't heard Cruise's name connected to it, though I'm against remaking it no matter who is involved.
I love RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. I think it's almost as good as THE WILD BUNCH. That widescreen cinematography by Lucien Ballard is breathtaking. Just imagine if they had let Peckinpah keep filming on location, and not dragged him back to Hollywood. And I think Altman must have seen those mining camp scenes, because MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER reminds me very much of HIGH COUNTRY's roughhouse feel, especially that hallucinatory wedding nightmare in the cathouse. And, god, I miss Warren Oates.
I second that little round headed boy, Warren Oates made every film he was in better - and was particularly well suited for Peckinpah. I recently watched Ride the High Country, again, after watching a lot of older westerns, and it's fascinating how you tied it to his later pictures. It's also very traditional to the genre - for Peckinpah, at least. Part of that may be because of the veteren stars, but then, The Wild Bunch had veteren stars, too. Regardless, it's great bridge movie.
Agreed on 'McCabe'. I too recently re-watched this and enjoyed it. I also quite closely afterwards watched 'Major Dundee' again, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I think I recall the production of 'Major Dundee' was troubled.
Glad you liked it. I rewatched it a couple of weeks ago. There seems to be a consensus here for a deep and abiding love for Warren Oates. I'm down with that. The scene where the brothers force him to take a bath is great. It's like the dwarves giving Grumpy a bath. The way the scene closes with a soaking wet Oates, so addled and threatening, while brandishing his knife this way and that, is priceless. A very good movie. The only thing I am torn on is the musical score. I think I would like the score on its own, but it's so gushing with aria-like emotion that I'm not sure it helps the movie. Or maybe it's just that I'm such a fan of the later Jerry Fielding scores. And I didn't catch that Statler Bros. post title until you told me. Randolph Scott is good and ragged here, but I watched RTHC in conjunction with the stunning SEVEN MEN FROM NOW, where, for the first time ever in my life while watching Randolph Scott, my Gaydar was going off. What a difference 6 years and different director makes! Randolph was ramrod straight in this amazing movie, and looking damn good. Duded-up to the nines, he practically sparkled. Heck, now that's the Dude I want to walk right into THE GULCH with! On the commentary they said that Boetticher consciously modelled Scott on western icon William S. Hart, and I can totally see it. Of course, my Gaydar is very defective and I sure as hell wouldn't want to navigate by it. I have no idea about the veracity of all those rumors, and I guess I don't really care. Shoot, sleeping with Cary Grant doesn't make you gay, because who the hell wouldn't sleep with Cary Grant! If I was in the same room as Cary Grant, well, I can almost hear Cary's voice already, "Wagstaff, why are you looking at me that way."

And to continue with my theme of gayness, I crossed another unseen Best Picture off my list by watching GIGI. I'll add a comment about it to the Oscar thread later on.
"...a deep and abiding love for Warren Oates" Yep, that's what we was doin'!
Mr. Copeland:
I thought your review was fine, but I must point out a factual error within it: You say that "Ride the High Country" was Sam Peckinpah's debut as a feature film director (after an extensive TV career). This is incorrect. Peckinpah directed the feature film "The Deadly Companions" the year before (1961). It starred Brian Keith, the star of his much much underrated TV series "The Westerner", and Maureen O'Hara.
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