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At a traveling sideshow, former lawman Steve Judd encounters an old friend, Gil Westrum, another ex-lawman fallen on hard times. The two agree to escort a gold shipment from a mining camp high in the Sierras to the town below. The temptation to steal the shipment gets the better of Gil during their journey, resulting in a bitter riff between the two former friends. And the journey is complicated by the presence of Elsa, a young woman running away from her stern fundamentalist father. When Elsa's wedding to one of the miners goes awry at a drunken celebration, she flees with the two aging lawmen and their hotheaded young companion, bringing the wrath of the miners down on them.
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Producer: Richard E. Lyons
Screenplay: N.B. Stone, Jr.
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Editing: Frank Santillo
Art Direction: Leroy Coleman, George W. Davis
Music: George Bassman
Cast: Joel McCrea (Steve Judd), Randolph Scott (Gil Westrum), Mariette Hartley (Elsa Knudsen), Ron Starr (Heck Longtree), James Drury (Billy Hammond), Edgar Buchanan (Judge Tolliver), R.G. Armstrong (Joshua Knudsen), Jenie Jackson (Kate).
Why RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is Essential
Sam Peckinpah's name today is synonymous with screen violence. Audiences with only a glancing familiarity with his work think of such films as The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971) as having been influential primarily for the way violence is used and depicted on film. Yet, Ride the High Country, despite a key Peckinpah sequence of a shoot-out among a barnyard full of chickens, is a bucolic and remarkably poetic demonstration of what this brilliant, erratic, often difficult artist brought to American cinema and to the motion pictures' depiction of the West.
Many have pointed to Ride the High Country as the film that initiated Peckinpah's great theme, the decline of the West. And while there is undeniable truth in that, there is more going on here - and in all his work - than simply a study of historical changes and the death of the frontier. Peckinpah used the Western genre as the perfect setting for his career-long focus on men who have outlived their times but cling to their moral code. He frequently played out that conflict through two protagonists, often mirror images, each one an example to the other of what he might have been under different circumstances and choices: Brian Keith and Chill Wills in his first feature film, The Deadly Companions (1961), Charlton Heston and Richard Harris in Major Dundee (1965), William Holden and Robert Ryan in The Wild Bunch, Jason Robards and David Warner in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). In Ride the High Country, Peckinpah takes a long look at two such men - Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) - in their twilight years, powerless to stop the changes in the world around them and struggling with themselves and with each other as they try to define themselves in relation to the new order.
McCrea and Scott were the perfect choices for the roles, each one having played iconic Western heroes almost exclusively for the latter half of their long careers. The elegiac sense of this film is amplified further by the two stars' advancing age and the fact that this was Scott's final picture before his long retirement. McCrea, too, was expected to end his movie career after this. Although he resurfaced four years later to make an additional four Westerns, they were minor at best, and many see the Peckinpah film as his true swan song.
For Peckinpah, however, Ride the High Country was just the beginning, and the themes he explored here for the first time form the philosophy that guided him through all his work. "I love outsiders," he once said. "Unless you conform, give in completely, you're going to be alone in this world. But by giving in, you lose your independence as a human being....I'm nothing if not a romantic, and I've got this weakness for losers on a grand scale, as well as a kind of sneaky affection for all the misfits and drifters in the world." He could as easily have been talking about himself and the life and career that would follow this early project.
Ride the High Country began filming on location at Mammoth Lake, near Bishop, California but a freak snowstorm forced the production to close down and Peckinpah was ordered to move his cast and crew to the MGM back lot at Bronson Canyon in Hollywood to complete the film. Although the movie was completed in only 26 days, Peckinpah ran into problems when Joseph R. Vogel replaced Sol Siegel as MGM's chief executive. The mogul allegedly fell asleep while screening the film and later proclaimed it "the worst picture I ever saw," dooming its chances for a successful commercial run.
Despite the poor distribution, Ride the High Country managed to attract the praise of the country's leading critics. Newsweek wrote, "That Hollywood can't tell the gold from the dross has seldom been so plainly demonstrated. Ride the High Country, deemed unworthy of a first-class run, has been gradually leaked - like a secret - to various theatres around the country. When it reached New York last week, Ride, a modest, meaningful and faultlessly crafted film, was dumped carelessly as the bottom half of neighborhood double bills, playing in the abysmal company of The Tartars . In fact, everything about this picture has the ring of truth, from the unglamorized settings to the flavorful dialogue and the natural acting, Ride the High Country is pure gold."
by Rob Nixon & Jeff Stafford
Ride the High Country (1962)
Unlike the more sanitized cinematic West of earlier generations, Peckinpah's grittier view of daily life contrasted against beautiful, majestic landscapes heavily influenced the look of Westerns made after Ride the High Country. The Sierra mining camp, in particular, with its ramshackle, makeshift shelters and hard-looking prostitutes (versus the glamorized "saloon girls" of earlier Westerns) strongly calls to mind Robert Altman's film of several years later, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971).
Peckinpah is credited with having contributed much to a change in the style and substance of the Western, offering an often sad, grim portrait of the American frontier in its last days. His impact is felt in such movies as Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and in the work of Clint Eastwood, particularly the Oscar®-winning Unforgiven (1992), which has much to do with an aging man facing a changing West.
Peckinpah is probably best known for his stylized and extreme violence, which is relatively benign in Ride the High Country compared with such later films as The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971). His work became so synonymous with violence that it was spoofed by the British comedy troupe Monty Python on their TV show, which featured an episode of an aristocratic English period piece ("Salad Days") staged with much pain and gore by the director.
Ride the High Country was arguably the first time the term "peckerwood" was used in a Hollywood picture. Peckinpah heard a friend's black girlfriend use it to describe a bigoted white person and decided to put it in as McCrea's slur against the "Southern trash" Hammond boys.
"The picture keeps following me around. People still talk about it all the time. It was a real high point in my career. But you never know how good it is when you're doing it."- James Drury
"It was a pleasure to do a picture with a man who can write, direct, and knows the West. I saw the picture at the studio and think everyone connected with it did a good job. I hope the public likes it as well as I do. If so, we have a hit. I'll expect to hear big things about you in the years ahead." - Joel McCrea, in a letter to Peckinpah shortly after the film's completion
by Rob Nixon
Ride the High Country (1962)
Sam Peckinpah was born in 1926 in California and got a master's degree in drama from USC. He worked as a stagehand, first in theater then at a local TV station. He broke into pictures as a dialogue director for Don Siegel, then moved into television directing and writing, often on Western series. He made his film debut with The Deadly Companions (1961), a Western starring Maureen O'Hara and Brian Keith.
After Ride the High Country, Peckinpah made 14 more features. His behavior became more difficult and erratic as the years went on, due to alcoholism and various chemical dependencies, and his later pictures didn't achieve the stature and success of his earlier work. He died of a stroke in 1984, just a few months short of turning 60.
A man who seemed equally at home in a dinner jacket or cutting up in a witty Preston Sturges comedy, Joel McCrea's true life ambition was to be a cowboy. If he couldn't do that, he would settle for playing one on screen. His easy-going charm and clean-cut good looks earned him a place as a popular leading man of the 1930s. He was equally at home in dramas, comedies, and adventure films, and played opposite some of the screen's most glamorous actresses. In the 1940s, he was one of Hollywood's most bankable stars and worked with many top directors. Beginning in 1946, with enough clout by that time to call the shots in his career, he went exclusively into Westerns, turning in solid performances for notable directors and making only one non-Western, an urban crime thriller, for the remainder of his career. He was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1969, seven years before his last screen appearance and 21 years before his death.
Like McCrea, Randolph Scott was a handsome, All-American leading man of the 1930s who found his true calling in the Western genre in the 1950s. Early in that decade, he formed a partnership with veteran producer Harry Joe Brown. Under the production company banner Ranown, he found new success when other stars of his generation were slipping in popularity. As a weathered, aging Western star, he became one of the top box office draws of the decade, and his work with director Budd Boetticher is critically important to the history of the genre and its recognition as cinematic art. Over the course of seven films between 1956 and 1960, the two created an archetype of a solitary man. It was a protagonist that was not always a "hero" or stereotypical good guy, one who faced great odds and tough moral dilemmas. Although generally considered mere second-feature programmers in their day, these Westerns (Ride Lonesome, 1959, Comanche Station, 1960, etc.) were immensely popular and in recent years have earned much critical re-evaluation and respect. Scott retired after this movie and was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1975, 12 years before his death.
Although she has appeared in many features and many television appearances over the past 40 plus years, Mariette Hartley is most often recognized as the female partner to James Garner in a long-running series of ads for Polaroid cameras. The two made such a good team in the commercials that many people thought they were married in real life.
Gravelly-voiced character actor Edgar Buchanan appeared in countless Westerns during his nearly 40-year career. He was the rascally Uncle Joe on the TV sitcom Petticoat Junction in the 1960s.
Several of the supporting players became a stock company of sorts for Peckinpah, working with him several times: R.G. Armstrong (four pictures), L.Q. Jones (five), John Davis Chandler (three), and Warren Oates (four, including the starring role in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, 1974).
Shortly after completing this movie, James Drury took the lead role in the long-running TV Western The Virginian.
Lucien Ballard's film career spanned more than 50 years. After an auspicious start as the cinematographer on several Josef von Sternberg films in the early 30s, he shot many Three Stooges comedies as well as some B Westerns over the next decade. Some of his finest early work was uncredited: Morocco (1930) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935) with von Sternberg and Dietrich, Howard Hughes's The Outlaw (1943), and the noir thriller Laura (1944). He worked with Peckinpah on The Wild Bunch (1969), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), Junior Bonner (1972), and The Getaway (1972).
In 1944, Ballard married Merle Oberon. The actress's face had been scarred in an auto accident several years earlier, and Ballard invented a special light (nicknamed "Obie" in her honor) to conceal her scars. It was mounted next to the camera and lit the subject's face head on, reducing unflattering lines and facial shadows. He used it to light his wife in four films before their divorce in 1949.
Years later, Ballard was asked by film critic Leonard Maltin about a striking close-up of McCrea near the beginning of the picture. Ballard explained it was there because they had to avoid the water towers and other contemporary objects in the background of the Metro lot. "Everything in this business is a compromise," Ballard said. "Chances are we had to do it because of necessity."
Screenwriter N.B. Stone was not helped at all by Ride the High Country's critical acclaim. By most reports a disoriented and barely functioning alcoholic, Stone's script was completely rewritten by William Roberts, with substantial additions and changes by Peckinpah. But because his name was the sole credit on the picture, many producers hired him. However, it quickly became evident they could not get a coherent page out of him. According to producer Richard Lyons, they would then call him and ask how he ever got a decent script out of Stone for Ride the High Country. "And I'd have to say, 'Well, it wasn't easy.'"
Editor Frank Santillo began his career as an assistant to montage specialist Slavko Vorkapich. He received editor credit for the first time in 1954. Santillo worked with Peckinpah two more times and earned an Academy Award for his work on Grand Prix (1966).
The tents in the mining camp were made of material that had been used for the ship sails in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962).
Famous Quotes from RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY
SAMPSON (Percy Helton): I must say, Mr. Judd, I expected a much younger man.
JUDD (Joel McCrea): I used to be. We all used to be.
SAMPSON: The day of the Forty-niner is gone. The day of the steady businessman has arrived.
JUDD: Boys nowadays. No pride, no self-respect. Plenty of gall but no sand.
KNUDSEN (R.G. Armstrong): Levity in the young is like unto a dry gourd with seeds rattling around.
WESTRUM (Randolph Scott): Like the fellow said, gold is where you find it.
JUDD: If it's not yours, don't covet it.
WESTRUM: Don't worry, boy. The Lord's bounty may not be for sale but the devil's is. If you can pay the price.
WESTRUM: Do you know what's on the back of a poor man when he dies? The clothes of pride. They're not a bit warmer to him dead than alive. Is that what you want, Steve?
JUDD: All I want is to enter my house justified.
ELSA (Mariette Hartley): According to my father, every place outside this farm is a place of sin.
ELSA: Every single man is the wrong kind of man. Except you.
WESTRUM: (noticing the hole in Judd's boot) Dandy pair of boots you got here.
JUDD: Juan Fernandez made those boots for me in San Antone. Special order. I had a hell of a time getting' him to put that hole in there. A fine craftsman, Juan, but he never understood the principle of ventilation.
WESTRUM: I remember Juan. Always felt the boot should cover the foot.
JUDD: Short sighted.
ELSA: My father says there's only right and wrong, good and evil. Nothing in between. It's not that simple, is it?
JUDD: No it isn't. It should be but it isn't.
WESTRUM: Don't worry about...about anything. I'll take care of it, just like you would have.
JUDD: Hell, I know that. I always did. You just forgot it for a while, that's all.
Compiled by Rob Nixon
Ride the High Country (1962)
Producer Richard Lyons got his start in the B unit at Twentieth Century Fox. He caught the attention of producer Sol Siegel with a low-budget movie, The Sad Horse (1959). Siegel brought him over to MGM with the directive to produce a small Western (it was budgeted at $800,000), primarily to release in European markets to offset the expenses of big budget pictures, such as the studio's Mutiny on the Bounty (1962).
Lyons mentioned to his friend William S. Roberts, who had written the script for The Magnificent Seven (1960), that he needed a good script for his assignment. Roberts recommended one written several years earlier by a friend of his, N.B. Stone, Jr., about two aging lawmen who get one last chance in life, called Guns in the Afternoon (it was later released in Europe under this title). Roberts put Lyons in touch with Stone.
Lyons soon found out that Stone was an eccentric character, an alcoholic and agoraphobic who wouldn't work anywhere but his apartment and who would have huge memory lapses about what he had written and where he had put it. It was a struggle for Lyons to get the full script out of Stone, and after about two months, and much pressure from the studio, he got a 145-page script the producer described as "just awful." Roberts read the script, too, and feeling guilty that it was so bad, offered to do an uncredited rewrite. Although all anecdotal accounts credit Roberts with the major overhaul of Stone's script, the movie only carries Stone's name on the credits, a decision of the Screen Writers Guild. Many sources, including published versions of the shooting script, while correctly listing Peckinpah as an uncredited writer, also list the uncredited Robert Creighton Williams, author of about three dozen B Westerns since 1952, but make no mention of Roberts.
There was no doubt in Lyons's mind who should play the leads. Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott had spent more than a decade establishing themselves as iconic Western heroes. Lyons signed McCrea for the part of Gil Westrum, the former frontier lawman who has gone bad. Burt Kennedy, who had written many of the scripts for Scott's films with Budd Boetticher, interceded to get his commitment for the role of Steve Judd, the old marshal who is dedicated to doing his job with integrity and honesty. Very soon, however, McCrea decided the role went against the grain of his usual screen image and asked Lyons if Scott could be approached about switching parts. Burt Kennedy offered to function as intermediary; it turned out he had to do nothing since Scott was equally eager to switch, without knowing of McCrea's desire, so that he could play something other than the "straight, honest guy" for a change. According to McCrea, however, he approached Scott directly himself and found he was interested in swapping parts. (McCrea also claims that it was Scott who initiated the film and came to him about co-starring.)
There have been rumors that other directors were first considered for the project, including Budd Boetticher, who had directed a string of superlative Westerns with Randolph Scott in the 1950s and early 60s, and Burt Kennedy, Boetticher's screenwriter, who had recently made his directorial debut with the Western The Canadians (1961). There was also a rumor that director John Ford was the one that got Peckinpah the project. Lyons said he never considered anyone but Peckinpah to direct and chose him on the recommendation of a mutual contact at William Morris, the agency that represented both the producer and Peckinpah. Lyons watched a few episodes of the short-lived TV series The Westerner, created and directed by Peckinpah, and knew he had found his director.
Peckinpah had already proved himself a good fit for the genre with his direction of several other TV Westerns, including The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, and Zane Grey Theater. He was also no stranger to feature films, having been assistant and dialogue director for Don Siegel and director of one feature film, the Western The Deadly Companions (1961).
Peckinpah loved the script but said he would only direct if he could do rewrites. According to Lyons, Peckinpah's contributions sharpened and polished the story to "really bring out its brilliance." He worked three to four weeks on the script, giving the story much more impact, Lyons believed, by changing which character died at the end.
Peckinpah also tailored much of the character of Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) to reflect his own father. Judd's most memorable line, "I just want to enter my house justified," was a Bible-reference line he often heard his father say. On seeing the finished film, Peckinpah's sister cried, struck by how effectively and completely he had captured the essence of "the old man" on screen.
Peckinpah put a number of other details and impressions from his own life into the script. His ancestors were true Westerners, and there was a mountain named for the Peckinpahs near Coarse Gold, the real-life town where the two lawmen in the movie ride to retrieve a shipment of gold. In his childhood, Peckinpah had been taken by his grandfather to a town very much like the mining town in the movie. McCrea and Scott thought Peckinpah's rewrites were brilliant.
The question of billing was settled over a lunch at the Brown Derby, during which Scott won a coin toss to see who would be billed first.
With the two leads in place, it was up to Peckinpah to cast the rest of the picture, and for the second leads he wanted newcomers who were fresh and natural, rather than familiar players with previous film associations. The part of Heck, the brash young sidekick, went to Ron Starr, a former car salesman with only two movies to his credit.
Mariette Hartley, whose previous acting experience was only on stage and who came from a relatively sheltered background, later admitted she didn't even know who Joel McCrea was when she showed up to audition for the part of Elsa. Peckinpah kept Hartley all day, having her read with various actors auditioning for the role of Heck (including Wayne Rogers). Although she was flattered, she really didn't realize that meant she had the role.
Hartley's hair was cut short from playing Joan of Arc on stage in Chicago. For the screen test, the studio put her in a long wig, closely matching her natural red hair, that Deborah Kerr wore in Quo Vadis (1951). Peckinpah hated it. She used her own close-cropped look for the film.
For the other roles, Peckinpah cast a number of actors he had worked with on TV. Many of them such as Warren Oates and L. Q. Jones became part of Peckinpah's regular ensemble company, appearing frequently in his subsequent films.
R.G. Armstrong, cast as Elsa's stern fundamentalist father, was a regular on the TV series The Rifleman, but had quit to return to the theater.
Peckinpah originally offered the role of Billy Hammond, the young miner Elsa marries, to his friend Robert Culp, who wanted to break into movies. But Culp had his sights set on a leading man career and was afraid if he played Billy, "I would have wound up like Bruce Dern, playing crazies." He turned down the role to his eternal regret; Peckinpah never offered him another one. Instead, the role went to MGM contract player James Drury, who Peckinpah had also directed on television.
by Rob Nixon
Ride the High Country (1962)
Shooting began on Ride the High Country at the beginning of October 1961 in the Mammoth Lakes region of the High Sierras near Bishop, California. Peckinpah, insisting the background terrain had to change noticeably during the trek to and from the mountain mining town, had convinced the studio to let him shoot the riding sequences on location rather than on a back lot.
After four beautiful days in the mountains, the weather changed. Unseasonable snow made shooting impossible. Without even consulting Peckinpah, producer Richard Lyons and the studio pulled the plug on location shooting, and the director woke up one morning expecting to work but instead was forced to decamp. Mariette Hartley recalled, "Literally five miles down the road, the weather was clear. It just got him in the gut....he wanted it to be a true Western, and he didn't want to fake it." Peckinpah was so upset and angry, he rode in the bus with cast and crew rather than the car the studio provided for him.
The ironic thing was that the story called for snow in the mining camp scenes. On location in Bronson Canyon, in the middle of Hollywood's Griffith Park, director of photography Lucien Ballard suggested blowing liquid soap under pressure onto the miners' tents. The foam read perfectly as snow, but only lasted a few minutes under the intense heat, so the set had to be frequently "re-snowed."
Much-acclaimed veteran cinematographer Ballard included a Chapman crane in the list of equipment he needed to shoot the film. He and Peckinpah put this to its most memorable use in the scene where McCrea rides ahead, leaving Scott and Starr behind to speculate on the possibility of stealing the gold. As the two ride on to join McCrea, the camera cranes up to follow them through the golden aspens in the brilliant autumn sun and picks all three up on the trail on the other side of the trees. It is one of the film's most beautiful and memorable shots.
Ride the High Country was shot on various locations in and around Los Angeles, including Malibu Canyon and the Twentieth Century Fox back lot. Smoke from fires raging in Topanga Canyon and Bel Air darkened much of the sky over the area, seriously complicating shooting.
One other location compromise reportedly involved cast and crew sneaking onto the set of MGM's epic How the West Was Won (1962) to film the confrontation scene between Scott and McCrea.
To emphasize the enmity between the Hammond brothers and the lawmen, Peckinpah kept all the actors playing the mining family away from the others, having them eat by themselves and do everything as a unit. He would continually remind them, "You hate everybody here!"
Peckinpah apparently took an inordinate interest in Mariette Hartley's costume, taking her into the bowels of the MGM costume department to find the right dress, then having the wardrobe department pad it until he thought the chest was sufficiently full. "Sam always liked breasts," Hartley said, adding that by the time he was done she was "literally walking at a tilt."
Peckinpah also liked to tease the naive, inexperienced Hartley. At one point, having been tipped off that Hartley had worn the wrong socks for a scene in which they would not even be seen, Peckinpah pretended to have a major fit, accusing her of ruining the shot. He also kept telling her that if she didn't perform to his liking, he would give her part to Joan Staley, another aspiring young actress of the time. But Hartley took the ribbing good-naturedly and had nothing but admiration and affection for her director.
By most accounts, Peckinpah had not yet developed the difficult behavior that was to plague his productions in later years. Hartley did note, however, that on the bus coming down from the Sierras, he started drinking and playing cards. At one point he snapped at her viciously. Having had an alcoholic father, she recognized the behavior at once but also said it was the only time she was aware that he drank during the production.
Many of the actors in Ride the High Country said they got on well with the director. L.Q. Jones said he and Peckinpah almost came to blows over how to do a scene, but in the end he always realized Peckinpah was right. James Drury said the cast of Ride the High Country was lucky to have worked with him when "he was a happy man. We knew him at his best and most likeable." Drury also praised him for being "innovative, imaginative, always anxious to work with actors on their characters" without over-directing. And he noted that Peckinpah, McCrea and Scott had a tremendous amount of respect for each other.
McCrea said that although he got along very well with Peckinpah, he didn't like the way the director treated the crew. Like John Ford, Peckinpah used to berate someone mercilessly if they made a mistake or failed to do what he wanted. Lyons said on this picture, Peckinpah began his practice of firing people for one mistake, such as a young sound boom operator who allowed the boom to creep into the shot. The harsh practice became such a habit that even Peckinpah acknowledged he was prone to it, giving Lyons a photo of himself signed "To Dick Lyons - Get rid of 'em - Sam Peckinpah."
Peckinpah, who tended to edit in his head as he went along, didn't shoot much extra coverage beyond the footage he knew he needed for each scene. After viewing the rushes, MGM management sent him a note: "Who do you think you are, John Ford?"
Shooting on Ride the High Country was completed in less than a month, ending in November. MGM's chief editor, Margaret Booth, disliked the daily rushes and thought the film would be impossible to cut. But studio production head Sol Siegel had had faith in Peckinpah and offered him the rare chance to make the first cut on the picture. Peckinpah went into intense editing sessions with veteran editor Frank Santillo, who Lyons said taught the director about editing. Santillo, however, also spoke of how impressed he was with Peckinpah's ideas and changes, bringing out character nuances and other hidden potentials by substituting different shots, trimming and refining. But before they could complete the cut, things took a downward turn.
Siegel was ousted in a feud with studio executive Joseph Vogel, who took over Siegel's job himself. After sleeping through a screening of the rough cut of the film, Vogel declared it the worst picture he had ever seen and barred Peckinpah from the studio.
Despite Vogel's interference, Lyons and Santillo set about cutting the film the way Peckinpah wanted, consulting with him covertly. They even got his input and approval for sound mixes by playing them to him over the phone. Vogel decided to ignore the picture; he thought it so bad that no amount of time or money could save it.
by Rob Nixon
Ride the High Country (1962)
MGM had no faith in Ride the High Country and dumped it on the market as the lower half of double features, despite the protests of Peckinpah and producer Richard Lyons. It was ludicrously paired with such movies as the sex comedy Boys' Night Out (1962) and the Italian-produced medieval drama The Tartars (1961).
Despite favorable reviews, the poor marketing resulted in a commercial disaster for Ride the High Country. But it became a critical and box office smash in Europe, where it was released as Guns in the Afternoon and garnered awards. In the course of its foreign run, it became one of MGM's biggest grossing films in Europe.
According to one of the cast members, L.Q. Jones, when the studio discovered that the real moneymaker on the double bill was Ride the High Country and that audiences weren't staying around for the main feature, they re-released it to better results.
As a result of the renewed attention, Ride the High Country became a dark horse Academy Award contender for direction and screenplay. But Peckinpah, who received no credit for his script work on it, told both MGM and the Academy, "If this film is nominated for Best Screenplay without my name on it as writer, I will sue every one of you!" The movie received no nominations.
Ride the High Country won first prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Grand Prize at the Brussels Film Festival and the Silver Goddess for Best Foreign Film at the Mexican Film Festival.
In 1992, the film was chosen by the National Film Preservation Board to be one of the motion pictures preserved on the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
Mariette Hartley was nominated by the British Academy as Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles.
"That Hollywood can't tell the gold from the dross has seldom been so plainly demonstrated. Ride the High Country, deemed unworthy of a first-class run, has been gradually leaked- like a secret- to various theatres around the country. ... Everything about this picture has the ring of truth, from the unglamorized settings to the flavorful dialogue and the natural acting. [It] is pure gold."- Newsweek, 1962.
Under Sam Peckinpah's tasteful direction, it is a minor chef d'oeuvre among Westerns. [It] has a rare honesty of script, performance and theme. ... When actors with the unforced dignity of McCrea and Scott go, the old breed of Western will go with them."- Time.
"From the opening scene, the film projects a steady, natural blend of wisdom and humor, excellently photographed in color against some lovely vistas."- Howard Thompson, New York Times
"It works, with a difference. The film presents an offbeat and attractive heroine..., the pleasure of watching two old pros working comfortably with what is for them unaccustomed material, and the most deglamorized version of the West since the old William S. Hart movies."- Saturday Review.
"Perhaps the most simple and traditional and graceful of all modern Westerns. ...The cinematography is by Lucien Ballard at his peerless best."- Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (Henry Holt, 1984). Kael saw the film for the first time on a double bill with Peckinpah's Major Dundee (1965) and was so excited by it, she tracked the director down at his home in Malibu to tell him how much she liked it. She became one of his biggest critical champions and a friend for years to come.
"Peckinpah's finest achievement, and one of the best westerns ever made..." - Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic (Fireside).
"A nice little conventional unconventional western_ - Stanley Kaufmann.
"It is Sam Peckinpah's direction, however, that gives the film greatest artistry. he gives N. B. Stone Jr.'s script a measure beyond its adequacy, instilling bright moments of sharp humor and an overall significant empathetic flavor." - Variety Movie Guide (Prentice Hall).
"..unpretentious, intelligent, droll, and full of quiet charm....Peckinpah lovingly reflects the beauty of the landscapes, obtains performances from Scott and McCrea that are among their best, and creates some of his most memorable scenes..." - Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Films (University of California Press).
"Peckinpah's superb second film...with a couple of great set pieces (the bizarre wedding in the mining camp, the final shootout among the chickens). ... Truly magnificent camerawork from Lucien Ballard."- Tom Milne, Time Out Film Guide 2000 (Penguin Books).
"..a complex and inspiring western.." - Peter Cowie, Eighty Years of Cinema (A.S. Barnes).
"Ride the High Country is, I think, a masterpiece; and it marks an important milestone because in a way it's both the last of the old Westerns and the first of the new. And actually as well as symbolically it represented a turning point in the history of Western films: it marked the retirement of both McCrea and Scott..." - Brian Garfield, Western Films (Rawson Associates).
Compiled by Rob Nixon & Jeff Stafford
Ride the High Country (1962)
An elegy for a vanishing West and a moving tribute to a genre which began to fade in popularity in the sixties, Ride the High Country (1962) deserves its reputation as a great Western. Not only did it establish Sam Peckinpah as a gifted director (It was his second feature film), it also provided a fitting farewell to Randolph Scott in his final film role. Scott is probably best remembered for his critically acclaimed Westerns (Seven Men From Now (1956), The Tall T, 1957) in collaboration with director Budd Boetticher.
Ride the High Country is the tale of Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), two former lawmen who have fallen on hard times. Eager for an opportunity to make some money, they agree to escort a gold shipment from a mining camp high in the Sierras to the town below. The temptation to steal the shipment gets the better of Gil during their journey, resulting in a bitter riff between the two former friends.
Originally, McCrea was cast as Westrum and Scott had the part of Judd until the two actors realized the film would work better if their roles were reversed. After producer Richard Lyons approved the switch, he brought Sam Peckinpah on board as director. Peckinpah changed the ending of the original script which had Westrum dying in a gun battle and rewrote some of the screenplay including dialogue; the famous line "All I want is to enter my house justified" was attributed to the director's father. He also cast newcomer Mariette Hartley as Elsa Knudsen, the young woman who accompanies them on their journey to the mining town of Course Gold. According to author Marshall Fine in Bloody Sam, his biography of Peckinpah, the director personally supervised Hartley's wardrobe and hair style and even instructed the studio tailor to pad her chest more fully. Hartley commented, "Sam always liked breasts and he wanted me to be larger than I was. He kept padding until, in profile, I looked like a busty lady. By the time we finished the afternoon, I literally was walking at a tilt."
For the role of Billy Hammond, the backwoods redneck who proposes to Elsa, Robert Culp was the first choice but turned it down (The part went to James Drury). Culp later said, "I didn't want to do it because I was trying to create a career in features and I was fighting to be a leading man. If I'd done that, I would have wound up like Bruce Dern, playing crazies. In terms of mistakes in my life, that was one of mine. He never forgave me. And he never offered me another part. All the people who were part of his stock company were his friends and, as an actor, I was bitter at not being one of them that he called on. It was because I turned him down."
Ride the High Country began filming on location at Mammoth Lake, near Bishop, California but a freak snowstorm forced the production to close down and Peckinpah was ordered to move his cast and crew to the MGM backlot at Bronson Canyon in Hollywood to complete the film. Although the movie was completed in only 26 days, Peckinpah ran into problems when Joseph R. Vogel replaced Sol Siegel as MGM's chief executive. The mogul allegedly fell asleep while screening the film and later proclaimed it "the worst picture I ever saw," dooming its chances for a successful commercial run.
Despite the poor distribution, Ride the High Country managed to attract the praise of the country's leading critics. Newsweek wrote, "That Hollywood can't tell the gold from the dross has seldom been so plainly demonstrated. Ride the High Country, deemed unworthy of a first-class run, has been gradually leaked - like a secret - to various theatres around the country. When it reached New York last week, Ride, a modest, meaningful and faultlessly crafted film, was dumped carelessly as the bottom half of neighborhood double bills, playing in the abysmal company of The Tartars. In fact, everything about this picture has the ring of truth, from the unglamorized settings to the flavorful dialogue and the natural acting, Ride the High Country is pure gold."
While Peckinpah later became a much more controversial figure in Hollywood due to his drunken rages and ferocious battles with studio executives over creative control, he was on his best behavior for most of the filming of Ride the High Country. James Drury, in Fine's Peckinpah biography, said, "He was innovative, imaginative, always anxious to work with actors on their characters. He'd get involved in heavy-duty discussions but he didn't overdirect - he'd consult. He had a tremendous amount of respect for McCrea and Scott and they had a lot of respect for him. They were pleased to be working in the picture. At that point, he was a happy man. We knew him at his best and most likable."
Producer:Richard E. Lyons
Screenplay:N.B. Stone Jr., Robert Williams (uncredited), Sam Peckinpah (uncredited)
Art Direction:Leroy Coleman, George W. Davis
Principle Cast:Joel McCrea (Steve Judd), Randolph Scott (Gil Westrum), Mariette Hartley (Elsa Knudsen), Ron Starr (Heck Longtree), Edgar Buchanan (Judge Tolliver), R.G. Armstrong (Joshua Knudsen), Jenie Jackson (Kate), James Drury (Billy Hammond)
C-94m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford