You Ain't Seen Me, Right? – Ride The High Country (1962)


17th June 2011

You Ain’t Seen Me, Right? is the weekly feature that rummages around in a vast library of films and dusts off a movie that no one has thought about in years in order to discuss its many merits. You’ll thanks us later.

You Ain't Seen Me, Right? is brought to you by Daniel Palmer, of Part-Time Infidel web fame. He’s seen more Woody Allen films than Woody Allen.

Ride The High Country (1962)
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Ride The High Country

Depending on your point of view, Sam Peckinpah reinvigorated the Western, or irreparably damaged it; modernised its ossified conventions, or sullied the venerable genre’s time-honoured traditions with cruel revisionism. For better or worse, Peckinpah systematically dismantled the myths of the Old West, slaughtering the sacred cowboys in as violent a manner possible. Ride the High Country - also known as Guns in the Afternoon - may lack the Grand Guignol of The Wild Bunch (1969) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), but it develops many of Peckinpah’s preoccupations and hints at the carnage to come; laying bare the savage heart beneath the frontier tropes.

Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) are aging ex-marshals who reunite to transport gold from a mining village through a dangerous trail, where six miners have been killed trying to do so. They are accompanied by Westrum’s hot-headed sidekick, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr), and Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley), who is escaping her priggish father to marry her miner fiancé, Billy Hammond (James Drury). As the journey progresses, Heck and Gil’s intentions become apparent: they intend to steal the gold. Elsa is horrified to discover that Billy’s intentions are less than honourable, and calls upon her travelling companions to save her from Billy’s psychotic brothers.

Shoe-gun Assassin.

The opening scene of Ride the High Country is a perfect expression of Peckinpah’s outlook. As Judd rides into town, a crowd has gathered to greet him; or so he thinks. He is told to get out of the way of the race that is in progress: a camel turns the corner, trailed by a pack of horses. In a matter of moments, Peckinpah undermines two central tenets of Western folklore - the hero riding into town and the supremacy of the horse. On the surface, Ride the High Country is a standard studio Western; with its exaggerated sound design, portentous score, elegantly lit interiors and sun-drenched vistas, but it is a story of regret and redemption with darkness and foreboding at its core.

Pairing McCrea and Scott was an inspired piece of casting; two of the most beloved and enduring Western stars, they were immediately familiar to audiences, bringing with them a set of expectations that Peckinpah took great pleasure in confounding. In his final film, Scott’s cynical, detached persona is a perfect counterpoint to the stoic, upstanding McCrea; both men embodying the wounded pride and disillusionment of men who have nothing to show for their service. Hartley turns in a creditable debut performance as a tough, wilful character that doesn’t conform to female stereotypes, Peckinpah regular Warren Oates is unnervingly convincing as the oddball of the Hammond clan, and Edgar Buchanan elevates his minor role as a dissolute judge with some exceptional drunk acting.

A line spoken by Elsa, in reference to her father, is a great summation of the Peckinpah credo: “Good and evil, right and wrong; it’s not that simple, is it”. Peckinpah dealt in shades of grey, reconciled to the fact that heroism is largely a matter of circumstance.
Never thought I’d say this, but I actually feel like watching an old western now. Can you guess what the movie will be covered in You Ain't Seen Me, Right? next week? I’ve got £5 on ‘Avatar’.

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