A much-loved revisionist Western, director Peckinpah's second feature film proved to be a bittersweet swan song for the Old West and a classy farewell to the screen for actors Scott and--for some years--McCrea. Set at the turn of the century, the film opens in the town of Hornitos, which
is in the midst of a celebration. Down the crowded main street rides Steve Judd (McCrea), an aging former lawman who has seen better days. He mistakenly thinks the cheers of the crowd are for him, but is abruptly reminded of the changing times when a car nearly runs him over. Steve has been hired
to escort a gold shipment from the mining town of Coarse Gold back to a bank in Hornitos, but the banker is taken aback by his age. (An especially good scene has Steve reading over his contract in the bathroom so the banker can't see that he needs spectacles.) The old lawman is finally given the
job, and he sets out to hire help for the trip. He runs into Gil Westrum (Scott), a fellow former lawman who has survived by dressing up as the dandified "Oregon Kid," selling out his former heroic image. Steve hires Gil and his young sidekick Heck Longtree (Starr), but Gil plans to steal the gold
at the first opportunity.
In RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, director Peckinpah began what was to be an obsession with men who have lived past their era in history and find it difficult to adapt to changing times (THE WILD BUNCH; THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE; and PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID all share this theme). His two
protagonists, in some ways mirror images of each other, are wracked with guilt for sometimes failing to live up to the standards they have set for themselves. What separates them, though, from the scoundrels they invariably encounter is a personal code of honor they both try to uphold. Eventually,
these tortured souls attain a sort of grace because they do what it takes to regain their self-respect. Soon after producer Lyons talked McCrea and Scott into doing the film, McCrea--who had originally agreed to play the part of Gil Westrum, the lawman gone bad--felt uncomfortable with the role
(he had never played a villain before, albeit, here, a sympathetic one) and asked Lyons if he could see how Scott felt about switching parts. Later that same afternoon, Lyons received a call from Scott who confessed that he was feeling insecure about his role and wondered if McCrea would mind a
swap. Much to the actors' relief, the roles were switched. The only problem left was to decide who would receive top billing, but a public coin toss at the Brown Derby restaurant solved that one.
Shooting was planned on location at Mammoth Lake in the High Sierras, but after four days it began to snow, and cost-conscious MGM insisted the production be moved to a more workable area, using soap suds to simulate snow. Shooting was completed in an astounding 26 days, but a shake-up at MGM saw
Peckinpah supporter Sol Siegel ousted and replaced by Joseph R. Vogel, who barred the director from the studio, forcing him to consult with editors and sound mixers by phone. The film was dumped onto the bottom half of double bills, but proved an astounding popular and critical success in Europe,
winning First Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the Grand Prize at the Brussels Film Festival (beating out Federico Fellini's 8 1/2), and the Silver Goddess from the Mexican Film Festival for Best Foreign Film. Peckinpah's attention to detail and character makes this film a multifaceted jewel to
be studied and enjoyed again and again. The honest, subtle, and consummately skillful performances by Scott and McCrea and promising newcomer Mariette Hartley continue to draw viewers in.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: A much-loved revisionist Western, director Peckinpah's second feature film proved to be a bittersweet swan song for the Old West and a classy farewell to the screen for actors Scott and--for some years--McCrea. Set at the turn of the century, the film open… (more)