When it’s on: Saturday, 14 April 2012 (11.00 am)
Ride the High Country was an early film directing job for Sam Peckinpah, but elsewhere it’s all about the endings. It was released toward the end of the Western’s ‘Golden Age’, as the genre was losing popularity and becoming more introspective in tone. It marked the last film role for classic Western actor, Randolph Scott, who seemed determined to go out on a high. The action is set during the final days of the ‘wild west’. Cars are replacing horses. Cowboys perform for the public and Joel McCrea’s ageing former lawman rides into town to take on a last job. He’s hired by a bank to protect the traffic of gold from a nearby mine and it’s work he intends to take seriously. His character knows the gold will be moving through some dangerous territory, so he enlists an old, trusted friend (Scott), along with his protege (Ron Starr) to help, only he doesn’t realise they’ve both signed up in order to steal the gold. Neither does Scott appreciate just how ‘straight’ McCrea has become. ‘All I want is to enter my house justified,’ he tells Scott, which defines everything his character does, whether protecting the virtue of a young girl or telling Starr not to drop litter.
The rift between these old men of a vanishing frontier emerges over the course of the piece, yet earlier it focuses on their mutual affection, the shared stories and nostalgic feelings about what their world used to be. It also becomes clear that the west is going to be a worse place without them. The younger characters are all, to varying degrees, unscrupulous chancers, especially the psychotic Hammond brothers, who emerge as the film’s main villains.
At a shade under 90 minutes in length, Ride the High Country packs a lot into its running time. The plot passes economically, allowing for insights into all the chief characters’ motivations whilst never sagging (I can’t say the same for The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah’s later and generally higher regarded Western, but perhaps that’s just me). Long-time Peckinpah collaborator and Director of Photography, Lucien Ballard, provides some gorgeous shots of the disappearing frontier, ever catching McCrea’s longing glances at the horizon as though both he and the camera realise it’s all about to change.
It’s a real treat of a film and Randolph Scott belongs on the kind of Saturday matinee screening provided here by Film4.
Ride the High Country: ****