Ride the High Country (1962)
Elsa Knudsen: My father says there’s only right and wrong – good and evil. Nothing in between. It isn’t that simple, is it?
Steve Judd: No, it isn’t. It should be, but it isn’t.
Director Sam Peckinpah’s elegy to the Old West, Ride the High Country, is a movie that transcends genre. Even if you think you don’t like Westerns, this movie is worth watching because it’s quite simply a well-told story, beautifully filmed in stunning locations, and featuring great performances by two legendary actors. It’s the story of the end of an era, a changing world, and the true, timeless things that remain behind.
Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) are old friends and former lawmen who take on the dangerous job of escorting gold from a mining camp in the mountains to a bank in town. Steve is a good man who is satisfied to do his job and earn his pay. Gil, having grown disillusioned by how little living an honest life has gotten him, secretly plans to steal the gold – with or without Steve’s cooperation.
Gil brings a brash, disrespectful young co-conspirator named Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) along for the journey. Whether Heck will continue in Gil’s footsteps or be influenced by Steve’s example is one of the more interesting questions of the movie.
Along the way the three encounter a religious zealot, Mr. Knudsen, and his daughter, Elsa (Mariette Hartley). Elsa is bullied and oppressed by her father, so when Judd, Westrum and Longtree leave the Knudsen home for the mining camp, Elsa runs away and follows them. She plans to meet up with her fiancé, gold miner Billy Hammond (James Drury). She has only met Billy a few times, but she’s anxious to get married in order to escape from her father.
It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for the naive and sheltered Elsa, however, when her fiancé and his brothers turn out to be violent, drunken brutes who think that everything should be shared among them – even one brother’s wife. Judd, Westrum and Longtree are forced to rescue Elsa from her new husband and his brothers, who pursue them with vengeance in mind.
Steve Judd is a pillar of quiet, manly virtue. Joel McCrea, with his clear blue eyes and calm, laconic manner, touchingly portrays Judd’s inherent decency and attempt to live a life of honor. In a world where Judd is told he’s in the way and that he’s too old to do his job, he’s determined to keep his self-respect and do what’s right. “All I want,” he says, “is to enter my house justified.” Not only does he succeed in that for himself, but in the end he points his old friend Gil in that direction as well.
Gary Cooper was initially considered for the part, but he died before the movie was made. As great as Cooper no doubt would have been, it’s hard for me to picture anyone else as Steve Judd after watching McCrea in the role. He makes this character so strong, warm and real. It’s one of the best things he ever did.
Randolph Scott gives Gil Westrum roguish humor, a good bit of cynicism and, in the end, a second chance at integrity and honor. It’s a wonderful performance. This was Scott’s last movie before he retired, and talk about going out in style.
McCrea and Scott have a great rapport as their characters. As you watch them interact and reminisce there truly seems to be a history of shared experience and friendship between them. Steve and Gil worked together for years and lived through the same times, but they’ve ended up in very different places morally and ethically. The conflict that causes between them is quite moving.
You also see how the years have taken a toll on these once celebrated lawmen, in ways both humorous (Steve needing his spectacles to read a contract) and touching (Gil asking Steve to untie his hands after Steve captures him for trying to steal the gold, because “I don’t sleep so good anymore.”).
Ride the High Country was filmed in the Inyo National Forest, and it’s absolutely gorgeous too look at. The score by George Bassman is terrific, especially the beautiful and evocative main theme which you can hear in the trailer below.
The film manages to be both an exciting story and also an excellent character study full of quiet, human moments. There are top-notch performances by everyone involved, from the two stars to the supporting actors.
Even if you’re not much of a Western fan, Ride the High Country is a movie that deserves to be put on your to-watch list.