Directed By: Sam Peckinpah
Starring: Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Mariette Hartley
Trivia: The canvas used to make the tents in the mining camp came from leftover sails from MGM's Mutiny on the Bounty
Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), two former lawmen, are well past their prime, and forced to take any odd job that comes their way. So when Judd is hired by a small-town bank to guard a shipment of cash, which is headed for the nearby mining community of Coarse Gold, he asks Gil to ride along with him. But while Steve Judd is still an honest man, Gil’s faith in the law has wavered over the years, and only agrees to go because he wants to steal the money. Joined by his young accomplice, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr), Gil bides his time, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
Along the way, the trio makes a rest stop at the house of Joshua Knudson (R.G. Armstrong). Knudson’s only daughter, Elsa (Mariette Hartley), wants to leave home so she can marry her fiancé, Billy Hammond (James Drury), who, as fate would have it, lives just outside the mining community. Against the wishes of her domineering father, Elsa packs her bags and joins Judd and the others on their trek to Coarse Gold. She eventually reaches Billy’s campsite, but, after meeting his four brothers (John Anderson, L.Q. Jones, Warren Oates and John Davis Chandler), she starts to have second thoughts about the whole arrangement.
Ride the High Country is a study in contradictions, beginning with its two lead characters. Steve Judd is the prototypical western hero, an upstanding former lawman who can always be counted on to do the right thing, whereas Gil would rather steal than earn an honest buck. This, however, is only the beginning, because scattered across Ride the High Country's picturesque landscape (which Peckinpah captures wonderfully) are some of the most loathsome characters in the history of western films. Joshua Knudson, Elsa’s father, is a religious zealot who sometimes beats his daughter, and Billy’s four brothers, most of whom haven’t had a bath in months, fully expect to “share” Elsa with Billy (in every conceivable way). The movie’s most poignant contradiction occurs during Elsa’s and Billy’s wedding, which is being held inside a Coarse Gold saloon / brothel. Amidst all the loud cavorting and drunkenness, the Judge (Edgar Buchanan) performing the ceremony, himself a drunk, gives a heartfelt homily on the nature of relationships, arguably the finest, most beautiful speech ever delivered in a western.
The Wild Bunch will always be my favorite Sam Peckinpah movie, but Ride the High Country could very well be his best. A magnificent, sometimes moving motion picture, it’s one that every film buff, regardless of whether or not they’re a fan of westerns, should experience.