Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #38/Peckinpals Project #2 Ride the High Country (1962)
Welcome, friends, to the thirty eighth installment of Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the career and site-sustaining column where I give YOU, the big-hearted Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron, an opportunity to choose a movie that I must then see and write about in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge to the site’s Patreon account. The price goes down to seventy-five dollars for subsequent choices.
1962’s Ride the High Country is a special case, however. It’s the second entry in a monthly project that will find me writing about all of the films of Western maverick and consummate auteur Sam Peckinpah in chronological order at the behest of an insanely generous patron. I’m calling it the Peckinpals project out of the late filmmaker’s famous love for puns and cutesy wordplay.
We began, of course, at the beginning, with 1961’s The Deadly Companions, a low-budget western that reunited Peckinpah with his The Westerner leading man Brian Keith that I enjoyed but does not occupy a place of distinction in the legendary filmmaker’s oeuvre. From the perspective of today, Peckinpah’s first film as a feature film director looks more like a modest extension of Peckinpah’s impressive career in television than a proper debut.
Peckinpah’s film career really began with 1962’s gorgeous and haunting Ride the High Country, another low-budget western that doubles as a sad elegy for a dying way of life and a lovely vehicle for a pair of screen titans at the end of magnificent film careers: Joel McCrea, who would appear in only a handful of other films before his death in 1990 and Randolph Scott in his final film role.
Incidentally, when I was a ten-year-old my father rented the 1935 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical Roberta, where Randolph Scott played Astaire’s jock sidekick. I was a weird kid. Thank God I grew out of it. For reasons I will never know, my dad said afterwards, “Hey, you know Randolph Scott and Cary Grant were gay lovers, right? They lived together even though they were both famous movie stars.”
I believe my response was something along the lines of, “Wow! I did not know that! Also, what’s “gay” and who is Cary Grant?”
So it wasn’t until later that I realized that Randolph Scott was primarily seen by the public as a very accomplished, ruggedly macho Western star and not as a famous homosexual who appeared in musicals.
Like John Huston’s strangely simpatico The Misfits, which was filmed around this time with legendary leads who similarly would not be making more movies on account of being dead, Ride the High Country derives a lot of emotional power from the iconic baggage its stars bring to their roles.
Joel McCrea of Sullivan’s Travels and many other classic films, looks every one of his fifty-seven years as Steve Judd, an honest, exhausted former lawman who gets a gig in the early 20th century transporting gold from a mining outpost to a nearby town in exchange for what was supposed to be a kings bounty of 250,000 dollars but ends up being less than twenty-thousand dollars. McCrea’s face is wrinkled and creased. His clothes are worn, ragged and plain. He seems tired on an existential level.
To help him with his dangerous assignment he contracts the services of old friend Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), who rides with brash young gun Heck Longtree (Ron Starr). Scott and McCrea have gloriously lived in chemistry. These are men who know and admire and even love each other, whose complicated, intense and dramatic history together as friends, colleagues and kindred spirits informs every conversation, every affectionate glance.
Ride the High Country is one of those movies that get us to see beloved old figures through admiring new eyes that allow us to look at them in a revelatory new light. Peckinpah gives screen icons decades removed from their creative and commercial prime an opportunity to be their best possible selves, to be great actors tearing into juicy, complicated and nuanced roles and characters, not just fading movie stars with infinitely more yesterdays than tomorrows.
In their travels, these cowpokes of a certain age and their youthful sidekick encounter Joshua Knudsen (R.G Armstrong) and his daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley) and stay the night at their home despite the domineering, bible-thumping and poisonously hypocritical father correctly sizing up Heck as a man who will try to have sex with his daughter as soon as he can.
He may present himself as a paragon of rock-ribbed Christian morality but Joshua nevertheless hits a daughter who longs to escape his cruel grasp. It’s strongly implied that Joshua molests her as well, or at least keeps her in a prison of unrequited incestuous desire, with marriage to a respectable gentleman as the only possible escape, the catch being that no man could ever be good enough in the sinister patriarch’s eyes.
To be a woman in Peckinpah’s Old West is to exist in a state of perpetual danger, much of it sexual in nature. Sure enough, Elsa musters up the courage to finally leave her awful father so that she can travel with the trio to the mining town where she can marry Billy Hammond (James Drury).
What Elsa does not realize is that Billy might just be the worst person in the world, with the notable exception of his four brothers. She similarly doesn’t seem to realize that when she made the terrible mistake of marrying Billy she was also essentially marrying his entire family, with the unspoken implication being that Elsa, poor, sweet, vulnerable Elsa, will also be expected to have sex not just with Billy but with all of his brothers as well, whether she wants to or not.
There has never been an outlaw clan quite like the Hammonds. In behavior, looks and vibe, they suggest an Old West version of the Manson family crossed with the McPoyls from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, with a little of the family from The Hills Have Eyes thrown in for good measure. These aren't just memorable creeps: they’re unclean on a seemingly biological level. I don’t even want to imagine what they must smell like or how toxic their breath might be.
Peckinpah was a great director of actors, particularly the tough guy character actors who made up his impressive repertory company. The great Warren Oates was still a relatively young man when he was cast as Hammond brother Henry, but he nevertheless carries himself with the sinister air of someone who has done enough horrible things for several eventful lifetimes. Fellow Peckinpah repertory company player L.Q Jones is similarly unnerving as Sylvus Hammond, another brother who does a terrible job of hiding his excitement over getting to know his new sister-in-law in the biblical sense.
Not unlike Vanilla Ice at the beginning of his career, Peckinpah did everything to the extreme. If he was going to have a creepy clan in one of his movies it wouldn’t be just any garden variety aggregation of freaks and misfits. No, he’d find the most badass, disturbing character actors alive and create a brood for the ages, a viscerally disturbing collection of bad dudes you would not want to run into under pretty much any circumstance.
The old men and their youthful sidekick can’t leave the clearly, and justifiably terrified Elsa at the mercy of a pack of animals like the brothers so they leave with Elsa, much to the consternation of the Hammond clan. Gil, meanwhile, wants to steal the money they’ve been paid modestly to transport but cannot convince his old friend to abandon the straight and narrow path and join them on the other side of the law for one last payday. Don’t they deserve it? Other men their age have homes and wives and grandchildren and businesses. Men like them, men of violence, have only guns and memories and codes of honor and sometimes they do not even have that.
Ride the High Country is a film of shocking brutality that artfully conveys all manner of depravity and perversion without spelling everything out. But it’s also a film of extraordinary beauty and grace that is never more captivating than when Scott and McCrea are shooting the shit, two old warriors delighting in each other’s company at the direction of a man who represented the grim, gritty future of the Western, just as Scott and McCrea represented the genre’s dusty, glorious, much mythologized and more gentlemanly past.
Very late in Ride the High Country Elsa wonders aloud, “My father says there’s only right and wrong, good and evil, nothing in between. It isn’t that simple, is it?”
It sure is not that simple, of course, and Peckinpah spent his brilliant career masterfully exploring the grey areas between right and wrong, good and evil, lawmen and outlaw in melancholy masterpieces like this.
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