Veteran cowboy stars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea portray aging gunslingers in the twilight of the Old West. McCrea's character, Steve Judd, signs on to transport a shipment of gold from a remote mining camp. Gil Westrum (Scott), an old crony now trick-shooting in a carnival, agrees to help but really aims to seduce Judd into stealing the treasure. The slow-building tension between longtime friends--one still true to the code he's lived by, the other having drifted away from it--anticipates the tortuous personal dilemmas played out to the death by Peckinpah's Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Benny and Elita in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
The action scenes are powerful, if only beginning to suggest the radical technique with which Peckinpah would astonish audiences in just a few years. But his feeling for flavorsome dialogue, Rabelaisian humor, and full-blooded character acting is already unmistakable. Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones, and John Davis Chandler are among the "redneck peckerwoods" complicating the journey, and Mariette Hartley is fresh and saucy in her big-screen debut. As for McCrea and Scott, they are simply superb. The two proposed that they swap roles before filming got underway, and the question of who got first billing was settled by flipping a coin. Both men retired once the film was in the can. They knew they'd never top it. --Richard T. Jameson
Sam Peckinpah's RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is one of the finest western adventures in cinematic history. Everything---the superb acting from old time veterans Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, the crisp and pointed dialogue, the camera work (and film editing), and the never-overdone elegiac underlay of farewell and warning, not just about the "old west" of the motion pictures (of the 1930-1960 period), but about the reality of the American frontier and the American spirit--adds up to excellence.
If two actors truly symbolized the Old West of public imagination, certainly those actors were Randy Scott and Joel McCrea. How fitting that RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY should be their "so long, pardner" to the genre! In 1962 the classic Western was dying, the genre changing, just as America was changing. The spirit of American innocence and optimism was subtly being transformed--while we longed for the return of Randy Scott, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and moral certainties, Vietnam would soon make us a nation of cynics and skeptics. Thus, RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is more than just a salute to two great Western actors and their farewell to that enduring American film creation the classic Western; RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY tells us, through two of the most admired cowboy actors of all time, about ouselves, about changing American society, and presents us with a classic morality tale. Steve (McCrea)Judd's remarkable words to Gil (Scott) Westrum, when Westrum gently suggests they might skip out with the gold they are charged with transporting, says it all: "All I want to do is enter my house justifed." It was the classic, optimistic American dream that motivated the pioneers of the old West just as it did the pioneers of Virginia or Massachusetts, the foundation of our society "to enter our house justified," to make a just and fair life for ourselves in a new land. RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY reminds us, this one last time, of our original national purpose, and shows us the pitfalls along the way--not just temptation but the "times" that threaten us.
In the end Westrum (Scott) returns (repents of his deviation from the moral course) to Judd's rescue...and Judd's response is: "I knew you would [return] all the time." Perhaps it is indeed too late, for Judd dies, alone, in one of the most amazing scenes in all cinema. Does his fervent dream of a "house justified" die with him? Does the older America of undbounded optimism and a moral code disappear with his departure and the end of the western frontier---and the end of "old time" Westerns? Peckinpah does not answer, and we are left to ponder. But one thing IS certain...we are never the same after watcbing this marvelous film.