Ride the High Country

(Sam Peckinpah, USA, 1962)


At moments when the classical Western seems to be undergoing a rebirth – such as in Wyatt Earp (1994) – it is interesting to look at a film which marked the death of the Western in 1962, Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country.

Although it is a favourite cliché of journalists to cite the revisionist Westerns of the 1970s (like Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller [1971]) as films that supposedly killed the genre in a single disrespectful blow, the passage from old-style to new-style Westerns is in fact much more gradual and evolutionary.

Peckinpah is one of the filmmakers who ensured that evolution. Like John Ford's The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) or Howard Hawks' El Dorado (1967), Ride the High Country changes the genre from within. It is not an action film but a reflective, even elegiac piece focusing on two gunfighters way past their prime, on their final adventure into the wilderness. The choice of Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott for these roles makes the movie a canny amalgam of some of the key Westerns of the 1950s – the community-building theme of Jacques Tourneur's Stars in My Crown (1950) combined with the tense psychological intrigues of Budd Boetticher's The Tall T (1957).

While Ride the High Country anticipates some of the harsher elements of the new 1960s Western – particularly in the harrowing scenes devoted to a grotesque wedding in a gold mining town – its leisurely manner harks back to William Wyler's The Westerner (1940). Each moral dilemma is resolved elegantly and decently, with dialogue making explicit the lesson to be learnt by the viewer. It is hard to credit that, only a few years later, all these niceties of the classical Western would be swept away – by Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Monte Hellman's The Shooting (1966) and, supremely, Peckinpah's epoch-shaping The Wild Bunch (1969).

© Adrian Martin July 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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