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Ride the High Country: The Essentials
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RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY: The Essentials

Saturday December, 29 2018 at 06:15 PM

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SYNOPSIS

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).
C-94m. Letterboxed.

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 [1961]. 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

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