The American West in Film: Critical Approaches to the Western

by Jon Tuska; Greenwood Press, 1985

RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY ( M-G-M, 1962) cast Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott in the lead roles. It was the first picture Scott made after his series, produced by Harry Joe Brown and directed by Budd Boetticher, ending with COMANCHE STATION ( Columbia, 1960). I have already quoted Boetticher saying, "In every one of the Scott pictures, I felt that I could have traded Randy's part with the villain." That is precisely what Peckinpah did in casting RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. In the script, as originally written, both McCrea and Scott are former lawmen who are hired to transport a gold shipment; the Scott character was to try and steal the shipment; and, at the end, he was to die. Peckinpah altered that. The Scott character still tries to steal the gold shipment, still fails, but in the shootout at the end it is the McCrea character who dies and, in dying, inspires the Scott character to transport the gold shipment the rest of the way, his honor restored by upholding the McCrea character's code of honesty. Had McCrea lived and Scott proved himself and regained his integrity, the plot would have been as dozens of others: reform and redemption through the example set by the hero. Had the Scott character proved himself and regained his integrity, but died in the process, it would have been a severe judgment: do not fall from grace even for a moment if you hope to be among the elect. Had it been a Boetticher plot, the Scott character would have been an outlaw who would decide in the course of the journey either to do the right thing, because of the hero's example, or the wrong thing and be killed by the hero. But this is a Peckinpah ending. He was not about to let Scott, at the end, ride off toward Mexico with the gold. He was not then sufficiently bitter and disillusioned. McCrea says at one point: "All I want is to enter my house justified." He does; and, as Peckinpah intended, so does the Scott character.

On their way to Coarsegold to pick up the shipment, McCrea, Scott, and Scott's protegé, Heck Longtree played by Ronald Starr, stop over at the Knudsen ranch. When a child, Peckinpah had been taught passages from the Bible by rote by his father. In casting R.G. Armstrong as Knudsen, Peckinpah initiated the prototype of the religious fanatic who runs as a thread through all of his Westerns. Peckinpah's marriage to Marie Selland--she was in her fourth pregnancy--had become a concentrated torment for him. He put his own frustrations into the mouth of Judge Tolliver, the Justice of the Peace in Coarsegold, played by Edgar Buchanan: "People change . . . the glory of a good marriage doesn't come in the beginning . . . it comes later on . . . it's hard work." Neither the judge's sermonizing nor Knudsen's quoting of the scriptures means a damned thing: what matters is personal loyalty to an ideal, the sense of one's own honor and integrity. They can even make a bad man good.

Mariette Hartley was cast as Knudsen's daughter. She wants to escape from her father's tyranny, run off to Coarsegold, and marry one of the Hammond brothers, Billy, played by James Drury. She joins up with McCrea, Scott, and Starr. On the trail, she comments to McCrea: "My father says there's only right and wrong, good and evil, nothing in between. It isn't that simple, is it?""No, it isn't," he replies. "It should be, but it isn't." Jean-Louis Rieupeyrout in LA GRANDE AVENTURE DU WESTERN, who saw in this film "a perfect and very personal synthesis of the moral instruction dispensed by the best part of the contemporary Western, films directed by Ford, Mann, and Aldrich," after quoting this dialogue between McCrea and Mariette Hartley, found he had to add: "Isn't that a response worthy of being applied to this contemporary Western so rich in intentions as in contents? We surrender to the evidence: the course that since 1950 we have traveled via successive stages of the genre has already marked the truth of these words. . . ."

As willing as I am to concede this point, I would have expected it to have been made with reference to THE WILD BUNCH ( Warner's, 1969). What makes the statement particularly impressive is that Rieupeyrout made it in 1964, fully five years before THE WILD BUNCH and, therefore, saw RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY continuing a tendency toward moral ambiguity which for him already had been discernible in Westerns for a long time.

Mariette Hartley and Heck fall in love. There is fulfilled romance, therefore, and restored honor, but the tone is sad. McCrea and Scott are old men; most of the gold mined in Coarsegold ends up at the brothel; the amount they are to transport is less than it might have been and, in a way, Scott is a fool, since, although his honor is saved, he will likely return to the artificial life of being a showman, pretending to be someone he is not, where he was when the viewer first met him. Peckinpah obstinately retained a fantasy. He was paid $15,000 to direct this film while its stars, whatever their roles, from investments they made with money earned playing heroes were multi-millionaires, Scott indeed being one of the ten wealthiest men in the State of California. There was an irony in this, a greater irony than Peckinpah's romantic vision permitted him to show.


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