Ride the High Country
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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."
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Producer: Richard E. Lyons
Screenplay: N.B. Stone Jr., Robert Williams (uncredited), Sam Peckinpah (uncredited)
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Music: George Bassman
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