‘Ride the High Country’ or — Altitude Sickness?

What initially struck me watching ‘Ride the High Country’ (1962) for the first time last night was just how many of director Sam Peckinpah’s concerns are already fully present: old timers out for one last ride; the intrusion of technology into the “West”; the passing of an age; loyalty and violence. “This is quite like ‘The Wild Bunch’ in many ways”, I thought to myself as aging lawman, Steve Judd (Joel McCrea), convinces his one-time partner, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), to join him for one last job. Except this job, to transport some gold from the mountain top mine down to the local bank, will be legitimate. Steve wants to enter his house justified. Gil might still have enough rebelliousness left in him to consider other options.

Either way, these two are soon at ease back in each other’s company and it’s not long before they’re having dinner, watching some good-natured brawls, washing their feet, checking the holes in their shoes and complaining about saddle-sores. “Hang on!” I said to myself, “This isn’t like ‘The Wild Bunch’ at all. More like ‘The Mild Bunch’” I snorked to myself.

Now don’t get me wrong as I was very much enjoying myself so far. Peckinpah’s attention to period detail is delicious to behold, there’s some gorgeous cinematography and it was a blast watching McCrea and Scott bounce off each other with grizzled affection. The film is packed with character moments such as when McCrea pretends to read his contract whilst having a shit to disguise the fact he has to wear reading glasses whilst Scott looks so elemental that he could’ve stepped out of the periodic table. They’re both fantastic and it’s all rather sweet in a tea-and-slippers kinda way.

But sweet’s all well and good but where is the drama? Where is the threat, that impetus towards action? Because for the first fifty minutes or so ‘Ride the High Country’ is surprisingly short of both overt threat and/or explicit drama. Sure, there’s intimations of possible betrayal further down the line (and a lot of Biblical references as warning signs) and, after stopping at a ranch for the night, they pick up a young woman, Elsa, who is escaping her abusive father and who decides to head to the mine to marry her boyfriend so tags along so there’s some drama there, but that feels very much included (or so it seems) to provide a female character to this story. Heck Longtree, Gil’s young partner, pushes himself on Elsa sexually but is immediately (thank god) slapped down for it so, again, there’s not much threat or danger going on here. Oh well, maybe when they reach the mine things’ll get dangerous.

When they do reach the mining village, named Coarse Gold, high up in the mountain it’s seems as though not all is right with the place, almost as though a combination of the rarefied atmosphere and gold precludes any humanity from existing. All authority seems to have broken down or become inert at this altitude, the thin air leaving only baser instincts able to function. This high country seems very unhealthy.

Steve and Gil collect the gold, which is less than they expected (I loved how the gold, normally the focus for such stories, gradually seems to lose its value and relevance as this tale goes on), whilst Heck leads Elsa to her fiancé, Billy Hammond, and his four brothers so she can start her new life of matrimonial bliss in Coarse Gold. Although I suspect something might be a teeny-weeny bit amiss here because one of Billy’s brothers is Warren Oates with a black raven perched on his shoulder so maybe there might be some drama and threa… SHIT!!! Run, Elsa! Fucking RUN!!!

Good god, when we discover just what married life is going to mean for Elsa it’s horrible and horrifying, and I mean HORRIBLE and HORRIFYING, and had me shouting at my TV for them all to just get the hell out of Coarse Gold ASAP!!! Well, I wanted drama and threat and boy, do I now have drama and threat!

From here on ‘Ride the High Country’ never lets up as all the previous focus on character, loyalties and location (the three levels — low, middle, high) all pay off big time. Not only that but all parties have differing driving motives resulting in a complex web of competing desires. So, as an illustration, Gil and Steve are carrying gold but to the Hammond brothers the gold is totally irrelevant to what they want. Meanwhile, for Gil, it’s the other way round. Either way, everyone now has a reason to fight.

What also increases the intensity is the story telling which is incredibly efficient to the point where I was wondering if the film had been drastically cut prior to release. “How are they going to fit all this in when so little time is left?” I wondered. Turns out it’s because Peckinpah knows how to be brutally concise with his plot. For example — to ensure Elsa can justifiably and legally either stay or be allowed to leave Coarse Gold it’s decided to hold a “miner’s tribunal”.

“What are you doing, movie?!” I yelled inside my own head, “You’ve just built up a great head of steam and vibrant momentum so why are you throwing it all away now to grind the film to a halt with a bloody tribunal scene?”

But Peckinpah knows what he’s doing (more so than me, that’s for sure) so simply has Randolph Scott walk into the Judge’s office, have a few words with him at gunpoint and then, in the blink of a fade, we’re on the road out of Coarse Gold without the slightest stumble. Not only that but the story has been pushed along, Gil’s character has acquired further depth, authority satirised, legal loose ends tied up and all achieved in the space of a few seconds. It is very well structured, and compelling, storytelling.

The final showdown is violent, intense, touching and surprisingly moving. Indeed, I almost shed a tear when I realised that Gil and Steve’s relationship is, essentially, a marriage and it’s heartbreaking when we have to see it end.

‘Ride the High Country’ is excellent. It’s tough and shocking (the movie contains some very strong language with swear words such as “tinhorn” and “peckerwood” being frequently used) but also tender, emotional and visually beautiful. But be cautious of that deceptively easy going opening as it only appears to breeze along with apparent laidback ease but is actually tightening itself up, coiling up the firing mechanism with us barely noticing until it is too late and all that latent tension must be released. And when it does it’s a pounding shock. This is a phenomenal piece of work.

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.