Sunday, October 01, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Ride the High Country (1962) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea star in the classic Western RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (1962), released on Blu-ray earlier this year by the Warner Archive.

This film, directed by Sam Peckinpah, was Scott's last movie, and it was McCrea's last screen appearance of any particular note. It's a more than fitting swansong for two of the screen's all-time great Western stars.

I first saw the film on a big screen as a teenager, at L.A.'s Vagabond Theater. At that point in my life, I'd seen Scott in a handful of '30s musicals and the comedy MY FAVORITE WIFE (1940), but I don't believe I'd seen him in a single Western.

McCrea, on the other hand, I'd knew from some Universal Westerns, including an early favorite of mine, SADDLE TRAMP (1950), as well as a few other films including THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942).

I was greatly moved by that first viewing of RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY but had not revisited it in the years since, as I'd found it quite an emotional experience.

In the years since my first viewing of RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY I've seen both actors in a great many additional films, including numerous Westerns...and so it was past time to finally circle back to it. I'm so glad I did. Watching them again in this, fully appreciating it in the context of their careers and their stature as Western stars, was deeply moving.

McCrea plays Steve Judd, a poor but honest former lawman who's getting on in years but still needs a paycheck. He lands a good job escorting gold to a bank from a mining camp in Coarsegold, California, and he recruits Gil Westrum (Scott), his one-time deputy, to help. Westrum brings young Heck (Ron Starr) on board as well.

While Judd focuses on getting the job done -- and from time to time proves he's lost none of his edge despite advancing years -- Westrum can only see dollar signs where the gold is concerned. He plots with Heck to steal the gold, with or without Judd's help.

Heck, meanwhile, is distracted by Elsa (Mariette Hartley), who has begged the trio to help her get away from her mean father (R.G. Springsteen) so she can marry Billy Hammond (James Drury) in Coarsegold. Unfortunately Elsa quickly finds it will be from the frying pan into the fire with Billy, especially as his brothers seem strangely...possessive...of her.

This short and sweet 94-minute film, shot on locations including Mammoth Lakes, builds to a conclusion which is both moving and a bit of a stunner. No one who's seen it could ever forget the last shot, a moment which reinforced to me exactly why I'd put off revisiting the film for so long. But despite having to choke back tears, it was very much worth it. The dialogue and the performances, most of all in that final scene and moment, combine for a work of art.

McCrea and Scott are each nothing less than superb, and perfectly cast in their respective roles. I don't believe McCrea could have played any part other than the supremely honorable Judd; while Scott always played heroes, he sometimes had an angry edge which works well here in his more ambiguous role as Westrum.

This was Hartley's screen debut; I've been fortunate to see her in person a couple of times, both performing in a play and at a parade. (Photos of the latter event are here.) She's an appealing and rather unique presence here, playing a young woman whose beauty has been hidden away by her disturbed father.

Starr does well as the impetuous young Heck; if the film had been made a decade earlier, I could easily see someone like Jeffrey Hunter in the part. The cast also included Warren Oates, Edgar Buchanan, L.Q. Jones, John Anderson, Percy Helton, and Byron Foulger, who illogically was cast as Helton's son though they were close in age.

RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY was photographed in CinemaScope and Metrocolor by Lucien Ballard.

The Warner Archive Blu-ray is pristine, a visual feast for the eyes right down to the sparkling creeks. Extras carried over from the original DVD release include a trailer, a commentary track by four film historians, and a 23-minute featurette titled A JUSTIFIED LIFE: SAM PECKINPAH AND RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY.

Highly recommended.

March 2020 Update: The Warner Archive Collection has now also released this film on DVD.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.


Blogger Patrick said...

Great review as always,Laura!! Going back into the Old West myself very soon!

11:12 PM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

Love your heartfelt review of this great, moving western, Laura. That final scene IS a hard watch, isn't it? But McCrea and Scott together were a magic combination.

11:23 PM  
Blogger DKoren said...

McCrea and Scott are so wonderful together in this movie, and I love that ending so much, even though it makes me cry. This movie really cemented my love of McCrea. Steve Judd is one of my favorite Western characters. The scenery, of course, is wonderful. Last time I was up at Mammoth I walked down to the lake they ride by. Unfortunately it was awhile back and it was super smoky from fires, so my pictures were terrible.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

We all agree that the final scene and shot are exceptionally moving and beautiful. But I have to say, unlike you, that this is exactly the thing that has most drawn me back to this movie so often over so many years now.

Is there anything wrong with crying in a movie? Really, I think the catharsis is kind of good for the soul. Not all movies should be sad of course; some should be joyful. But both kinds of movies have an equal place.

One thing that movies do is to connect powerfully with how we feel about certain things, how we respond to certain modes of behavior and values, like Steve's quietly but carefully held sense of honor ("I just want to enter my house justified"--one of the great lines and readings in any movie) and Gil's road back to redemption in the climax, a tonic part of the whole ending.

At the same time, no one is really killed here; the characters are made up, the actors glad to have such good roles (and as you point out, it especially meant a lot with these two stars), everyone involved surely proud to create such a fine work of art. So, really, rather than any occasion for sadness, it's a cause for celebration and to remember what really matters in life.

Along these lines, I guess my idea of a really sad ending is a film that shows a life badly used or wasted in the end. And those movies also can be meaningful to us and I don't say they are bad. But here, though it does have emotional force to see such a good man die, it's in a way that he himself would be most accepting of, acting in the way he knows is right, while at the same time we get to see the two old partners reconciled and their friendship validated. So in the more eternal sense, it is perhaps not so deeply sad, the sadness being within the moment and not in the greater meaning of their lives.

Guess it's obvious how I treasure this film (and I didn't even mention Mariette Hartley this time!). I consider it one of the greatest of all Westerns and easily the masterpiece of Peckinpah.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

Some really nice thoughts there, Blake, on what is true sadness.

I agree with your last sentence 100%!

2:56 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all so much for sharing your thoughts on this great film.

Jerry, I know it's a huge favorite of yours so was thinking of you as I watched.

Deb, we're going to have to make a "locations" detour in Mammoth and check out the area where they filmed.

Blake, enjoyed your thoughts! It's interesting, with some films I can get more of an emotional distance, but in a way it's a tribute to this film's artistry that despite knowing all I know about moviemaking, I can't get that "it's just actors" distance with it. That last scene just tears me up, despite knowing Joel got up and walked away when it was done! :) Nothing wrong with crying in a movie, I just have to work myself up to it. I like what you say about certain movies connecting powerfully, as this one certainly does. And you have some beautiful thoughts about what the movie says about both Steve and Gil. Despite my tears I think I'll be willing to revisit this one without letting decades pass this time!!

(The three movies which have caused me to cry more than any others? WEST SIDE STORY, a favorite film which gets me any and every time, and teenage viewings of MRS. MINIVER and LOST HORIZON which must have hit at vulnerable times and really triggered the waterworks on my first viewings!)

Best wishes,

8:57 PM  
Blogger Kristina said...

Really enjoyed your review, I need to watch this again soon, and agree about how magical and powerful everyone's work was here. Must look fabulous on blu!

11:12 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

I recognize that this must be a terrific film, and I love both of those stars. But...personally, I saw it only once, in the theater on its first-run. And it left no impression on me.

I imagine it was simply that, at 12 years of age, I just didn't get it. At any rate, I don't even remember the last scene of the movie which seems to have affected everyone so much.

It's certainly not that movies don't get to me in general. I cry at one out of three movies that I watch, and I seldom watch movies designed to draw tears.

I guess I'll watch this again sometime. I do love westerns and those guys, but, on the other hand, I normally try to avoid those tears.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Michael Taylor said...

Great review of a wonderful movie. Some of Randolph Scott's earlier work is worth a look a well, albeit for different reasons, particularly the westerns he did directed by Budd Boetticher - "The Tall T" being a prime example.

Still, nobody made films about the passing of the Old West - the end of one era and the beginning of another - quite like Sam Pekinpah. With "Ride the High Country" and "Wild Bunch," he pretty much said it all.

10:41 AM  

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