Sunday, July 6, 2008

Target #222: Ride the High Country (1962, Sam Peckinpah)

TSPDT placing: #561
Directed by: Sam Peckinpah
Written by: N.B. Stone Jr. (written by), Robert Creighton Williams (uncredited), Sam Peckinpah (uncredited)
Starring: Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Mariette Hartley, Ron Starr, Edgar Buchanan, R.G. Armstrong, James Drury, L.Q. Jones, John Anderson, John Davis Chandler, Warren Oates

I feel as though I'm unqualified to properly appreciate a film like Ride the High Country (1962). Sam Peckinpah's second film provided his earliest critical acclaim, and is one of the most commonly-cited examples of the Revisionist Western. This sub-genre, most prominent in the 1960s and 1970s, actively critiqued the ideals of the traditional Western hero, and took advantage of slackening censorship guidelines to present a Wild West that was substantially darker, meaner and favoured realism over romanticism. Peckinpah uses the weathered faces of Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, both classic Western stalwarts, to further explore the myth of the Western hero, to unveil shades of their characters that had been largely obscured in their younger years. Yet, how can one possibly appreciate the film's dissection of the Western genre if one has only a rudimentary knowledge of it? Previously, I'd only seen Scott in the Astaire/Rogers musical Follow the Fleet (1936), and McCrea in The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and Hitchcock's spy thriller Foreign Correspondent (1940). Their Western personas were complete strangers to me.

Similar to Gary Cooper's tired, faithless sheriff in Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952), here Sam Peckinpah explores the romanticised artificiality of traditional Western heroes. N.B. Stone's reflective screenplay highlights the considerable cost of nobility, and the film's beaten cowboys, who would once have acquired a certain nobility in our eyes, have spent the remainder of their lives almost regretting that they opted to tread the respectable, yet unprofitable, trail. Whereas one former-hero, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), collapses under pressure and temporarily chooses a path of crime and betrayal, battle-weary Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) clings however narrowly to his morals, asserting that wealth is meaningless if he is unable to "enter my house justified." Ron Starr {who, despite a solid performance, hardly made another film} plays Heck Longtree, Gil's impulsive and inexperienced sidekick. Heck falls in love with a smothered farm-girl (Mariette Hartley), who has plans to marry a greasy gold-digger, unaware that he plans to prostitute her to his repulsive brothers (who include Peckninpah-regulars Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones).

Currently my #9 film of 1962:
1) Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean)
2) La Jetée {The Pier} (Chris Marker)
3) Le Procès {The Trial} (Orson Welles)
4) To Kill A Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan)
5) Birdman of Alcatraz (John Frankenheimer)
6) Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson)
7) The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer)
8) Dr. No (Terence Young)
9) Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah)
10) Nóz w wodzie {Knife in the Water} (Roman Polanski)

What others have said:

"Sam Peckinpah was 36 years old when he made Ride the High Country, but it feels like the work of a man who’s somewhat farther along in years. That’s not because the film speaks so knowingly about the difficulties of aging... but because of its air of potent, self-aware nostalgia. A film of abundant visual beauty, it’s also a highly literate one, rich in allusion and irony, through whose heart blows a chill valedictory breeze. Ride the High Country is a modern Western in the way it uses the Old West, not just as a colorful setting, but as a concrete part of the American experience."

"One of Peckinpah’s first westerns, Ride the High Country bridges the gap between the old conventions of the genre and the changes he would introduce, and it’s one of the director’s most satisfying films. The plot is not innovative; it’s well-worn and comfortable, full of echoes and reminisces of earlier films... Ride the High Country is moralistic even as westerns go, but it takes a half-step away from simplicity. The farmer is a tormented sinner obsessed with scripture (a staple character in melodrama); the girl’s marriage turns bad before it begins. In every case, moral prejudices can be deceptive."


ackatsis said...

Occasionally I get a complete mind-blank and find that I have nothing meaningful to write about a film ("Cool Hand Luke (1967)" was another example).

In these cases, I can usually only manage two paragraphs. You must forgive my laziness - my next review is much more substantial!

tosser/ressot said...

I will never forgive your laziness. Damn you!

ackatsis said...