As I’ve written about several times on this blog, I have a great love for Westerns (books, movies, and TV). And recently when I noticed that the library didn’t have Ride The High Country, which is one of my absolute favorite movies in the genre, I remedied the situation by requesting we add it to the collection. Thanks so much to Julie for buying it!
In the early 20th century, stalwart but aging lawman Steve (Joel McCrea) is tasked with transporting gold from a rough mining town in the High Sierras. Accompanied by his irascible friend Gil (Randolph Scott), a green youngster (Ron Starr), and a feisty but sheltered bride-to-be (Mariette Hartley), the ragtag group quickly winds up with more trouble than they bargained for when they meet the girl’s future husband (James Drury) and his rough brothers. (You know they’re bad news when they include a young Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones.) Complications ensue. . . .
Ride The High Country is an early Sam Peckinpah movie. Peckinpah went on to later fame with his blood-soaked classics like The Wild Bunch, but as much as I enjoy that movie and Peckinpah’s work in general, his quieter earlier work (like this movie) is actually my favorite.
It still subverts expectations–I love the fact that it is set much later than most Westerns and in an unusual-for-a-Western setting, and rather than following exciting heroes, it instead chooses to follow two lawman who are far past their prime. Down-on-their-luck former legends can be a staple of the genre, but it’s a trope that is rarely presented with the same realism as it is in this movie. You can genuinely feel Steve and Gil’s surprise and dismay at feeling like the world has left them behind. This isn’t a story that resolves neatly, and the devastating ending that Peckinpah himself insisted on is all the more powerful for it.
The Sierra Nevada also provide a breathtaking and unforgiving backdrop for the movie’s plot. Peckinpah himself grew up in the general area only a couple of decades after the movie’s setting, and that firsthand experience undoubtedly helps him bring the unique setting (especially the mining town of Coarsegold) to life.
But beyond the wonderful writing and cinematography, it’s also an exceptionally well-acted movie. McCrea and Scott were both aging stars in the genre when the movie was made, and they turn in some of their best performances of their entire careers in this movie. On the flip side, some of the younger performers (especially Hartley, Oates, and Jones) were early in their own careers but hold their own against two screen legends well.
Ride The High Country isn’t just a great Western–it’s a great movie in general and is well worth watching for any fan of good cinema. It manages to blend a nontraditional Western setting with exciting action, compelling character drama, an elegiac meditation on changing times, and a thoughtful inversion of the tropes you’d expect to see in a Western.
Are you a Ride The High Country fan? Do you have a favorite Peckinpah movie? What else are you watching? Tell us in the comments! As always, please follow this link to our online library catalog for more information on this movie or to place it on hold.