The Archivist #61: Western Legends United for RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (1962)

Before he reinvented the Western, Sam Peckinpah mastered it.

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and Blu-ray discs (which, unlike the DVDs, are factory pressed rather than burned). Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

A cinematic lightning strike, Ride The High Country brought together an incredible singularity of old and new creative forces. Beloved aging western legends Randoph Scott and Joel McCrea, each a leading man with a mile-long filmography stretching back to the late 1920s, were paired together for the first and only time under the leadership of an as-yet unknown director — Sam Peckinpah.

Packinpah’s second film is generally hailed as his first masterpiece, and rightly so. While the director is best known for his later “revisionist” Westerns like The Wild Bunch which emphasized violence and a demythologization of the classic treatment of the genre, Ride The High Country is a Western of the old fashioned mold, and a last hurrah or farewell of sorts to two of the greatest actors who represented that world. (It would be Scott’s final film, and one of McCrea’s last as well).

Set in the beautiful California wilderness, the film casts its two stars as longtime friends who have served long careers together as lawmen in different towns. Steve Judd (McCrea) invites Gil Westrum (Scott) and his young protege Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) to join him on his next and perhaps last big adventure. He’s been contracted to transport a fortune in gold from a mountain quarry, and will need help to get the job done.

A chance encounter puts a young woman named Elsa (Mariette Hartley) in their company as she heads to the mining town to find her fiance, a man she met just once before and pledged to marry.

Things take a huge turn for the worse when Elsa realizes she’s made a terrible mistake. Her betrothed and his brothers are disgusting, hard-drinking, rapey scumbags, and she’s horrified to discover her wedding and honeymoon are taking place at the local brothel, with prostitutes standing in as her bridesmaids.

I’ve made a huge mistake.

Heck, Steve, and Judd step in to protect her and remove her from the dangerous situation, incurring the wrath of the psychotic brothers who pursue them across the mountains. But even as they evade their foes, a wedge of betrayal is driven between Steve and Gil as they clash over a fundamental disagreement. This will all culminate in a classic Western showdown, but who will be fighting who?

The plot may sound slight, but it’s an absolutely beautiful treatment of the material. Steve and Gill are really lovable and relatable characters with a deep sense of rapport, personal history, and affection for each other, which makes their eventual clash all the more painful and saddening.

McCrea and Scott are both really wonderful in how they inhabit these their roles, and there’s a unique sense of parallel between the actors and their characters; legendary but aging men who are masters of their respective fields, facing the ends of their careers.

The Package

Ride The High Country is now available in a newly restored Blu-ray edition from the Warner Archive Collection.

Special Features and Extras

A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and The High Country (23:05)
2006 Featurette. Sam’s sister Fern recalls their rural California childhood and family dynamics which impacted Sam’s personality and storytelling. SD sourced with significant combing.

Theatrical Trailer (2:43)

Audio Commentary
by Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmon, and David Weddle — these names may be familiar to fans, as their insightful commentaries have frequented other Peckinpah discs like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Convoy.

Left to Right: Great Vengeance and Furious Anger

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
Ride The High Country – [Blu-ray] | [DVD] | [Instant]

All 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied (except for the title card which may be cropped). Screenshots may have slight compression inherent to file formats. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

Previous post The Male Gaze vs. MISS SADIE THOMPSON on Twilight Time Blu-ray
Next post Two Cents: It’s Motherfucking OLDBOY