Even though many people know Joel McCrea from all the westerns he appears in, I remember him mostly from “Sullivan’s Travels (1941)” and “The Palm Beach Story (1942),” films in which he’s most definitely a city guy. However, he makes a dapper cowboy who’s capable of pathos, comedy and violence with high levels of artistry, and a knack for being an inquisitive, intelligent and sympathetic character.
A high point in movie western history came about in 1962 with “Ride the High Country,” an excellent and constantly riveting Western directed by Sam Peckinpah. The movie gives an excellent performance by McCrea as Steve Judd, an aging ex-lawman hired to transport a load of gold from a high Sierra gold camp to a bank in a small town. He requires help for this task, so he enlists an old colleague, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), to ride with him to the mining camp. The young and excitable Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) tags along with the older men. Even though Steve and Gil are old friends, Gil plots with Heck to steal the gold from Steve during the trip back.
In a movie filled with so many interesting characters, Peckinpah, keeps the focus on the subtly evolving relationship between Steve and Gil. Gil hopes to interest Steve in his plan, and constantly provides clues in his dialogue and actions to convince him that delivering the gold to the bank would be foolish. Heck’s loyalty to the plan becomes tested when the three men stop at a farm to rest before heading for the mining camp. They meet a religious farmer, Joshua Knudsen (R. G. Armstrong) and his naive daughter, Elsa (Mariette Hartley). Heck falls madly in love with Elsa, whose willfulness and eventual rebellion against her stringent father puts herself, Steve and Gil at great risk.
When Steve and his team take off from the Knudsen farm, Peckinpah treats us to a wonderful second act, full of intrigue, artistic shots, skillful editing and great characterizations. In the bizarre and dirty gold camp, they encounter the wild Hammond family — five crazy, immoral and violent brothers whose honor Steve and Gil manage to offend. Elsa puts herself in grave danger, which provides the catalyst for a major change in Gil and Heck’s plans. Peckinpah handles the relationships between the numerous characters beautifully. Minor characters stand out, but they do not overwhelm or clutter the story.
MGM made the movie in widescreen Metrocolor. Peckinpah and his cinematographer, Lucien Ballard, provide encompassing wide shots and acute angles with exquisite framing that allow the viewer to truly feel the environment. As a native of Fresno, California, Peckinpah certainly knew the terrain. The movie feels like an epic, even though MGM make it on a relatively low budget, and even filmed some of the “Sierra” scenes in Griffith Park, Los Angeles.
I should also mention that Ride the High Country adds a unique perspective to the Western genre, which seems very traditional but presents strong images and a storyline about changing times. For instance, at the beginning of the movie, Gil is a sharpshooter at a carnival wearing a costume and face makeup that resemble Buffalo Bill’s character. But Ride the High Country is anything but a parody; it’s a serious Western and an example of truly great filmmaking.