May 22, 2017

On Blu-ray: Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country (1962)

One of the most amusing things about Ride the High Country is that as aging cowboys, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea are in some ways playing themselves. While director Sam Peckinpah was at the beginning of his career, and still finding the style that would have film fans cooing about "balletic violence", these two were ready to head for the hills. Their retirement-minded insouciance gives this entertaining western a soulful feel that elevates it to classic status. Now the film is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

McCrea is Steve Judd, a retired lawman who is hired to guard a gold shipment. He enlists his longtime friend Gil Westrum (Scott) and the young Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) to help. The two hired men are planning to steal the gold for themselves, hoping that Steve will go along with their plot. He catches them in the act though, and plans to make them pay for it once they reach civilization.

The trio encounters further complications when they spend a night at the farm of an overbearingly religious father and his fed-up daughter Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley). She makes a comment that gives you the feeling he hasn't been so holy with his daughter, so it isn't surprising when she insists on joining the trio so she can meet up with her beaux and get married at his mining camp. He's a rotten guy though, who doesn't seem to mind his leering brothers taking liberties with her (Warren Oates is perfectly cast as one of the sleazy siblings). Steve, Gil and Heck rescue her, bringing even more trouble on themselves.

While they try to variously enrich themselves, save their skins and find redemption for a lifetime of sins, Gil and Steve bond over their contemplation of old age. When a bar full of young toughs launches into a fight, they watch with amusement, perhaps remembering how they used to live for that kind of chaos, though they want nothing to do with it now. They talk about the women they have lost, how they now have husbands, and grandchildren, while the two men haven't changed much themselves.

Steve and Gil see a greater future in Elsa (and Heck is turned on to the point of aggression). She is sharp and energetic and arouses in them a romantic longing for the days they could court her, in addition to fatherly concern. They protect her out of decency, and perhaps for the better way of living she represents. Though young, Hartley already has a stronger moral compass than these men ever had and they seem to admire her character as much as her beauty.

Though it doesn't go for a strictly happy ending, in Ride the High Country there is the feeling that violence is inevitable, but true good can prevail. These old cowboys know that they are good enough, though they haven't much more to offer than their honor. They begin to see it as their legacy and that takes the edge off their disappointments.

This would be Randolph Scott's final film. McCrea had also planned to retire, but while this was his last notable performance, he did get pulled back in the saddle for a few more flicks.

The disc image is clear and clean, with a nice bit of grain to it. Special features on the Blu-ray include the previous DVD featurette A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the High Country and commentary by Peckinpah biographers/documentarians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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