Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Beginnings and Endings: Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962)

Well, here we have it.  A bonafide Peckinpah classic.  It only took him two attempts.  This one hits on some themes that Peckinpah will use throughout his career; friendship, betrayal, growing old during changing times, etc.  Also, gleefully shooting chickens for the hell of it as well as a heoine who's in constant peril.  Unlike his previous film (The Deadly Companions), Ride the High Country is eminently rewatchable and endlessly quotable.  Unlike the majority of Peckinpah pictures, it features a central character we can get behind 100%.  Joel McRea, as Steve Judd, is a good man whose only ambition is to walk into his home "justified." 

Judd's an aging ex-lawman.  A man the world is quickly passing by.  He rides into a Californian town, a town immersed in carnival atmosphere, looking for work.  Peckinpah is not subtle in this scene with townspeople referring to Judd as "old man", "old timer", "gramps", etc.  It's in this town that Judd runs into an old friend (also, former lawman) Gil Westrum, played by Randolph Scott.  Westrum has been relegated to running a carnival shoot-em-up game while dressed as Buffalo Bill.  Judd's got a job offer from the local bank.  Transport a quarter of a million dollars in gold bullion from a mining town called Coarsegold back to the bank's vault.  Unfortunately, after meeting with the bank managers, the bounty has been lowered to twenty thousand dollars.  An undertaking of great importance has suddenly become something like "eh, take it or leave it...what do we care?"  Still, a jobs a job.  He wants Westrum to be his partner, just like old times.  Westrum wants to bring along his new friend, the young, brash, and incredibly named Heck Longtree (Ron Starr).  Our introduction to Heck comes as he races a camel against a thoroughbred, wins, and then punches out the losing jockey.   That's so Peckinpah (I don't know what that means).

So, we got this threesome, two old friends and one arrogant son of a bitch, riding over the High Sierras to collect some gold and return it to the bank for forty dollars a day (split three ways).  Time's sure have changed, but it's an honest living.  At least, that's the way Judd looks at it.  Longtree and Westrum have other ideas.  Well, one other idea.  The plan, along the way, is to convince Judd to make off with the gold for themselves and retire somewhere nice.  Westrum's got a few days to convince him in his own subtle ways.  He tells him shit like "a poor man dies with only his clothes of pride on his back" while Longtree's got other, more blunt, methods: "Let's just bend the gun barrel over his head."  After all, splitting the gold two ways is better than three ways.

Like most good Peckinpah movies, this one's full of some colorful characters.  They spend one night in a farmer's barn.  The farmer, Joshua Knudson, is played by Peckinpah regular, R.G. Armstrong.  He's the kind of character that often shows up in his films.  Bible fearing, apt to quote scripture at the dinner table, dead wife, etc.  I could be wrong, and it's been a while since I seen it, but I think Armstrong plays the exact same type of guy in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.  I'll let you know when I watch it again.  Well, this Knudson fellow also happens to have a lovely,  young, tom-boyish daughter named Elsa.  If you read my previous entry in this series, you can only imagine what kind of shit she endures.

Eventually, our three gold transporters make it to Coarsegold with Elsa in tow.  Long story, but Elsa is somewhat betrothed to a miner in town and decided to run away from home after her father slapped her around.  Course, she was talking to Heck at the time, so in Joshua's eyes, she deserved it.  Slut.  Anyway, she's to marry this guy in town named Billy Hamlin.  Unbeknownst to her, Billy's got four brothers, all scum bags.   One of those scum bags is another Peckinpah regular, L.Q. Jones.  It's possible you know him as the director of A Boy and His Dog.  It's probable that you don't.  Another brother, my favorite brother, is named Henry and played by Warren Oates (yep, you guessed it, another Peckinpah regular).  Oates doesn't clean up too well.  In preparation for Billy and Elsa's wedding (to happen that very night she wanders into town) the brothers drop him in a trough.  So, Elsa's to be married and, apparently, whored out by her new husband to his four brothers.  Meanwhile, Steve, Gil, and Heck continue into town to collect their gold. 

Well, shit, sometimes the good movies are the hardest to write about.  And this one's pretty great.  The script is simple, yet fairly profound.  We got lots of great dialogue like when Judd talks about the younger generation: "Boy's now adays.  No pride, no self respect....all gall and no sand."  There's not much in the picture's technique that makes me think Peckinpah; we got no slow motion (he still hasn't worked up to that yet), we got no shooting of mirrors, we got no freeze frames.  It's all in the feel.  There's a sadness hanging over every frame.  The dying of the west, a new breed of men taking it over, things becoming more cut throat, friendship meaning less than the ever loving dollar, etc.  Also, women still getting smacked around.  Some things are timeless, I guess.

The score is nearly iconic.  Fuck, it's great and wasn't even a Jerry Fielding score.  It's by George Bassman who did things like The Wizard of Oz and The Road to Zanzibar.  The script (which Peckinpah was actually allowed to tinker with before shooting) is chock full of great little character moments.  Like the scene where Judd lectures Heck about littering on the mountain.  I particularly liked the drunken judge who, upon marrying Billy and Elsa, says "a good marriage is like a rare animal, hard to find."  Then Billy takes Elsa into the honeymoon suite to begin their, ahem, consensual consumation only to be knocked out cold by a falling bookshelf.  Of course, in to the honeymoon suite struts two of his brothers, more than prepared to uphold that value which the Hamlin family holds most dear, the value of sharing.

A late night rescue ensues, followed by a flight across the mountains, pursuit by those idiot Hamlins, betrayal, mountaintop gunfights, escape into the valley, and....spoiler....ultimate tragedy.  The very end of the film is moving in the way that most great films are.  It's legitimate.  It's earned.  The last image, of Judd looking up into the high country, should be famous.  We rode with these characters and we cared for them.  They're not two dimensional (well, maybe Elsa...and the Hamlins).  The one who surprised me the most was Heck Longtree who evolved into a god damned, fully formed individual by the time this thing ended.  And then there's Warren Oates, who, in the middle of a hectic, edge of your seat, fight for your life, climactic gun battle starts shooting the heads off of bothersome chickens.  Ah, that's so Peckinpah.

Next up:  Charlton Heston tries to run Peckipah through with a sword

Motifs: aging men in changing times, friendship, betrayal, drinking, abused women, shooting the heads off of chickens

Peckinpah regulars:  R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Warren Oates

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