Director: Sam Peckinpah
Writer: N. B. Stone Jr., William Roberts (uncredited), Sam Peckinpah (uncredited)
Producer: Richard E. Lyons
Cinematographer: Lucien Ballard
by Jon Cvack
The last Peckinpah film I saw before this was Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia - a pre-Tarantino revenge story, created during the peak of Peckinpah’s alcoholism. I had grown use to his raw style, considering Straw Dogs the top of his game, and finding the man’s history fascinating; reflecting a time of Hollywood that has long since left us. There is currently no raging alcoholic constantly fighting with Hollywood to make the stories he wants, and winning all so often. His stories embody that conflict. His films chart a path toward growing self-destruction. And that’s what makes Ride the High Country all the more incredible.
This synopsis sounds about as generic as it gets, with two men agreeing to escort a shipment of gold from the Sierra’s to a faraway town. What we don’t know is that these two characters are old men, nearing the end of their lives and providing a deep and beautiful meditation on that fact, directed by a man who was only 37 years old at the time.
Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) shows up to a town in a ragged outfit, having not worked in years. He recruits the help of his old friend and partner Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), who’s been making his living from selling himself as the sharpshooting Oregon Kid, bringing his sidekick Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) along for the mission.
They first end up at a lone and rural house, meeting Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong) and his daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley). Heck’s hormones go racing, and Elsa’s soon follow. Joshua’s wife has died and he keeps Elsa under a strict Christian and conservative command. When the group sits down at dinner, we discover this movie is exploring far deeper things than its generic plot was leading on. For instance, here’s the dialogue that takes place:
Joshua Knudsen: Heavenly Father, we thank thee for the food on this table. Teach thy children to be grateful for thy goodness; to walk in thy path, that they may not suffer thy wrath and thy vengeance. Bless us, O Lord, and these, our guests; and forgive them the mercenary desires which brought them here. [Pause] Amen.
Gil Westrum: I thank you for entering a plea in our behalf, Mr. Knudsen; but what's this about mercenary desires?
Joshua Knudsen: You're on your way to Coarsegold, ain't you?
Gil Westrum: Yes.
Joshua Knudsen: Well, them that travel there do so for one reason only: to traffic in gold... which to possess is to live in fear; to desire, to live in sorrow.
Steve Judd: But we're not trafficking, sir; merely transporting.
Joshua Knudsen: It says in the Book: gold is a stumbling block to them that sacrifice to it, and every fool shall be taken therewith.
Steve Judd: A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, loving favor rather than silver or gold – Proverbs, Chapter 22.
Joshua Knudsen: Into the land of trouble and anguish come the old lions, and they shall carry their riches on the shoulders of young asses, to a people that shall not profit them – Isaiah, chapter 30, verse 6.
The words are more important to see than to hear. Especially because I’ve spent a bit of time trying to understand what that last line meant, with “old lions” catching my eye, leading me to a Google search, producing this interesting page that features scholarly commentaries on Biblical passages - specifically the last line under the Benson Commentary, “....It is safer and better for them to stay quietly at home, seeking to God for help, than to go or send to Egypt for it”; that is, it’s better for Gil and Steve to stay home and enjoy the rest of life, than to be tempted by unattainable dreams; serving as a harbinger of things to come.
I’m sure some might be rolling their eyes, but keep in mind that a popular Western that MGM financed and figured was too cheap to be good went to win at the Belgium Film Festival and won the Paris Film Critics Association for Best Film. It was even nominatedfor AFI’s Top 10 Westerns.
There was no overblown violence, slow motion wagon chases, or flashy cutting. It contains no more than it needs, allowing us to see the more cerebral side of Peckinpah. His alcoholism at this point was fully developed, and in an eerie way it makes you wonder if, between the alcohol and the women, it’s where he saw himself headed; that he too would be an old lion, still tempted by gold, eventually leading to his early demise.
I keep wondering if I should enter into each subsequent scene and continue with what I think, except I think this is the type of film where to get into specifics diminishes what the film provides. It’s the rare type that functions like music; where, similar to this movie, we can’t explain why a particular song makes us feel a certain way, only that it does. What people take away from this film may not match from one person to the next, but it will leave anyone feeling something.
BELOW: Lenny digs it
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