4 stars out of 4. Immortal Western film.
“All I want is to enter my house justified.”
With these words Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) openly declares his intention of using a job transporting some gold from a mining village to a bank as the way he will begin to rebuild his own sense of purpose.
With his second film, Sam Peckinpah brought the Hollywood Western face to face with reality and made what can be considered the first truly elegiac Western. Life is full of such beauty but ultimately everything resides in death. Sam finds himself cinematically in making his own version of a true classic Hollywood Western. High Country takes place in stunning locations interposed with studio sets, creating this overall sense of clashing between Hollywood and real natural mountainside vistas constantly trying to overtake each other.
It’s almost as if Sam had to make a great traditional western in order to tear it all down. Though the seeds of discontent are readily apparent, High Country is one of the great traditional Westerns primarily because of its fondness for the past.
All of Sam’s famous themes are here; the aging heroic male, male bonding, women being treated terribly (just kidding…sort of) , a deep seated love for the outdoors, loyalty, adherence to personal moral codes, being out of place in a changing environment, and being surrounded by a world that wants nothing more than to destroy you.
Steve Judd arrives in town to take on his transport job for the bank. After years of being offered nothing up to the talents of an aging ex-lawman he sees this as finally an opportunity to do something of worth again. Despite the actual job being much smaller and less important than what was originally put forth, he takes it nonetheless with all of the respect and dignity he can muster. Steve then runs into an old friend and ex-partner Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) who is currently working in a sideshow traveling carnival hoodwinking dumb locals. Gil jumps at the chance to work at something again, though it seems to be at the prospect of gold instead of honest work.
Indeed, Gil wants to steal the gold for himself to live richly for once and plans to convince Steve to go along with him along the trail. He coerces his young partner Heck to go along with his scheme and so subtly tries to turn Steve’s opinion for the majority of the film.
The three make a stopover overnight along the trail with a domineering Bible quoting father and his daughter where there is unquestionable friction. Elsa Knudsen wants desperately to escape her father’s controlling presence and so joins up with the others on the trail in order to travel to the mining town and get married. She wants to marry the first man who ever laid eyes on her and is clear to all that she only desires this as an easy way out of her predicament. Heck begins to discover a deeper part of himself when unconsciously he begins to make protective advances towards Elsa. This manifests itself when Elsa reaches her prospective husband Billy Hammond who is revealed to be nothing more than a drunken louse who keeps company with his equally loutish brothers.
Gil and Steve begin collecting gold for the bank, and Heck can’t live with himself for letting Elsa go through with her childish notion. The two older men warn him of the futility of the situation and hold him back. Meanwhile Elsa wedding is held in the local brothel with a drunken judge loosely presiding over the union and the other Hammond brothers licking their lips at the thought of their impending night with the new bride…romance at its finest.
Elsa is married and when the truth of what she has foolishly done is made clear to her she screams for help. Against their own advice, Gil and Steve spirit her away for the night and incur the wrath of the Hammonds who resolve to get her back. Now, Steve, Gil, and Heck must get Elsa back safely to her father and get the gold back to the bank while avoiding the vengeful miners and the looming threat of betrayal.
It is this betrayal that becomes central to the overall meaning of the film. While Gil and Steve are two outdated, outmoded, and outdone statues of a bygone era, they represent the opposing sides of a coin. Steve has never forgotten himself and still holds himself steadfastly above temptation in all its forms. Gil is much more human and we can easily understand his desire for wealth. It is not a crime to desire a better life, but Gil has lost sight of his youthful idealism that Steve still retains.
High Country is composed of a series of mirroring events, ones that usually go unnoticed by most. Gil losing sight of what is really important in a decent man’s life recalls the story Steve tells of how he was straightened out as a youth by the local sheriff. Heck falling in love with Elsa and wanting to rescue her from a drastic situation directly recalls Steve’s own anguish at losing the love of his life because of his profession. It is this that gives Steve the resolve to rescue Elsa at the brothel, seemingly because he cannot stand by and watch another human being so ruthlessly and callously destroyed by a life of depravity. He bitterly tells Gil that his great love later married a successful man and now has had grandchildren.
Ride the High Country has a genuinely moving end, with one of the best damn closing shots ever filmed. This is one of those endings like many of Sam’s other films that bring grown men to tears and watery eyes because it is about the eradication of humanity in the face of insurmountable odds.
“All I want is to enter my house justified.”
Simply one of the truest things ever said. Possibly the epitaph to end all epitaphs.
EDITIONS: Warner’s DVD features a nice looking 16:9 anamorphic 2.35:1 image that looks representative of the original theatrical exhibition. The audio is standard Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, the track is clear and dialogue sounds fine. The commentary track by Peckinpah scholars sounds okay from what I sampled but not very interesting. The included featurette with Peckinpah’s younger sister recalling their childhood and time together is much more rewarding. The film is available as a standalone or in the Sam Peckinpah Legendary Westerns Collection (bundle with The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid). The boxset is a steal for three of the greatest Westerns ever made.
The disc dates from 2006, and I think an HD master has been made…so get on it WB! This would make a fine Blu-ray and you know it. Go ahead and revisit Pat Garrett and The Wild Bunch while you’re at it!
DVDBeaver’s review: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/dvdreviews20/ride_the_high_country_dvd_review.htm