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TCMFF 2021: Ride the High Country (1962)

I’ve made no secret of my fondness for westerns, particularly those of the middle of the twentieth century. While the western is one of the most classic and quintessentially “American” of genres, in the history of cinema it has also been one of the most able to evolve. Throughout the middle of the 1960s, westerns transitioned away from the “white hat good/black hat bad” morality which prevailed in the early years of the genre to a far more violent and complex examination of contemporary culture. One of the filmmakers at the forefront of this shift was Sam Peckinpah. However, he didn’t spring to life as a fully formed director with the The Wild Bunch. This weekend, the TCM Classic Film Festival gave audiences an opportunity to check out one of his earliest works: Ride the High Country.

Ride the High Country follows the story of an aging lawman (Joel McCrea) who is hired to assist with a gold transport through the dangerous wilds of the old west along with an old friend (Randolph Scott) and his protege (Ron Starr). Along the way, there’s women, booze, double crosses and plenty of gunplay. Mariette Hartley, Edgar Buchanan, James Drury, and R.G. Armstrong co-star in the film. Sam Peckinpah directs from a script by N.B. Stone Jr.

I found myself taken aback and frankly, pulled out of the movie by the violent sexual politics on display in Ride the High Country. As the sheltered daughter of a religious zealot, it seems Elsa’s (Harltley) main role in the film is to fend off multiple attempted rapes. She experiences sexual violence coming at her from all directions, one of which is Longtree (Starr) who is the closest thing the narrative has to a juvenile male lead. The script adds insult to potential injury by then forcing Elsa apologize for “not being more into it” read: the attack.

Ultimately, this is Judd’s (McCrea) story, so it is a testament to Hartley’s performance that I found myself wishing Elsa would be granted a fantastic revenge arc. Throughout the narrative, she’s subjected to some truly brutal behavior by men on both sides of the action and she receives little recourse. In the grand scheme of things, Elsa is little more than a plot device. Despite all of this though, Hartley injects so much sympathy and likability into the type of character who, in movies like these, are often lucky to even have a name. Speaking honestly though, it’s often easier (watching this film as a woman) for these women to remain anonymous. Their lack of power and agency in these narratives often make these movies too hard to watch.

However, the draw of Ride the High Country is unmistakably the Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott chemistry. Furthermore, both stars’ gorgeous performances add a striking sense of poignancy to the narrative as both were entering their twilight years.

By this point, Joel McCrea had been a fixture on movie screens for more than thirty years and he shines as aging marshal Steve Judd. McCrea turns in a complicated and sensitive performance as Judd deals with not only the usual perils of life as a gunfighter, but questions of age and how that effects manhood and masculinity during this era.

The film comes from director Sam Peckinpah, who audiences would come to know thanks to his violent but iconic revisionist westerns like The Wild Bunch. At this point in his career though, he only had one other feature film to his name, The Deadly Companions. He previously worked steadily on television going back to the late 1950s on westerns like The Rifleman and The Westerner.

So, that’s a long way of saying, while Peckinpah would soon be recognized as a legend, as a filmmaker, he was only at the beginning of his career. However, in watching Ride The High Country, it quickly becomes clear that Peckinpah was already finding his voice as a director. Despite its issues, the western drama feels fully realized and it is not only competently directed (an impressive feat, considering much of Peckinpah’s early experience came on the small screen), but perhaps even more notable is that the young director seems already in possession of the authorial traits he brought to many of his later works.

All in all, Ride the High Country is far from a favorite of the festival for me. While, the performances are incredibly strong and this film looks amazing, the story proved to be a formidable roadblock keeping me from really enjoying it. Ultimately, Ride the High Country felt like a studio western dressed up as a revisionist western I struggled with a number of the narrative plot points. The format needed some more time to simmer.

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