Popularly viewed as Peckinpah’s first accomplished film following the compromised The Deadly Companions (1961), Ride the High Country (1962) has been mostly seen as the director’s farewell to the traditional Western formula while incorporating features that faintly anticipate future creative developments in his work (1). While offering no real challenge to the achievements of later Western masterpieces such as Major Dundee (1965), The Wild Bunch (1969), and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), Ride the High Country is a much more coherent achievement than its unfortunate predecessor. Despite the deceptive veneer of its depiction of the twilight of a passing era, the film is much more than a basic morality tale (2). With its variety of camera angles, expressive mise en scène and carefully designed movement, it has claims to be not only an accomplished work in its own right but one that anticipates the dark moral complexities that would fully emerge in Peckinpah’s later films. Close analysis of structure, style and specific pertinent lines of dialogue reveal a much more complex vision. Despite the fact that 80 per cent of Peckinpah’s revisions left the basic structure of the original screenplay intact, with the exception of switching from Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) to Steve Judd’s (Joel McCrae) death at the end, it is hard not to be aware of the director’s innovative vision in the final production.
Ride the High Country opens with a shot of a high mountain. It concludes with a similar shot after the dying Steve slumps to the ground. It suggests that an epic Western landscape represents Steve’s only realm of freedom from the constraints of age and anachronism. Yet despite the overtones of classical tragedy surrounding the death of a “last” Western hero, suspicion remains that even this magisterial environment could become another Coarse Gold (the film’s debauched mining camp). It is one of the many dualities that operate across the film. This critical undercutting of the supposed nobility of the final shot is also supported by other elements in the screenplay’s structure. Peckinpah’s additions to the script suggest his interest in the modern American Gothic that would come to the surface in his later films, especially Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) (3). The casting of two very familiar veteran Western stars, the incomprehension of the MGM establishment, as well as an overbearing musical accompaniment, has led to lack of recognition of the dark elements lying dormant beneath the film’s deceptive surface.
The screenplay’s structure divides the action into seven days that can be taken as an ironic reference to the biblical account of Creation (though it refers then to the death of a world Steve and Gil have not only helped create but now see dying before their very eyes). It is a world that the younger generation, personified by Elsa (Mariette Hartley) and Heck, have no knowledge. The figures that do, such as the inhabitants of Coarse Gold, find it better to reign in hell than serve in a civilised heaven aptly described by Banker Samson: “The days of the ’49ers are past and the days of the steady businessman have arrived”. No one is immune, as demonstrated by the declining economic condition of Steve and Gil as well as Joshua Knudson’s excessive charge of a dollar for each egg after the first one is ascribed to the Lord’s bounty. Ambiguities and paradoxes occur throughout the entire film.
Day one begins with Steve’s arrival at Hornitos and ends at night in a Chinese restaurant. The second day begins with the mission and ends at night in the Knudson farm. Elsa’s reaction to her father’s incestuous desires form a tragic, violent counterpart to the more comical conclusion to the preceding night showing Heck’s humiliation. Day three opens with Gil’s attempts to tempt Steve and ends with Heck’s rebuff of Elsa’s attempt at reconciliation following his clumsy attempt at lovemaking (an action that foreshadows Billy Hammond’s more violent advances). Day four opens with their arrival at Coarse Gold, Elsa’s encounter with her betrothed and his family, and moves on to an evening devoted to her wedding in the brothel/saloon and her rescue from “a fate worse than death”. This fate has ironic parallels to the world she has escaped from. She flees from her father’s incestuous desires and the dark interior of the farmhouse, only to discover the reality of her projected future existence and the Hammond brothers’ equally incestuous world of marriage and brotherly love. This is humorously anticipated by the brothers’ chorus of “When the Roll Gets Called up Yonder”, a formerly pious hymn now given incestuous “gang-bang” overtones by the brothers who also include themselves in the lyrics (4). Throughout the film, Peckinpah alternates comedic resonances with their more tragic counterparts, emphasising significant dualities often breaching that fine line dividing civilisation from atavistic chaos. Day five begins with Steve’s team leaving Coarse Gold, the Hammonds’ punishment of Judge Tolliver, and Gil’s final temptation of Steve ending with the latter’s famous line: “All I want is to enter my house justified”. Night is ushered in by Gil’s failed robbery and Steve’s feeling of betrayal. Day Six opens with the Hammonds’ first attack on the group who want Elsa back. Significantly, neither day six nor seven has a corresponding night scene since the focus during these days is on Gil’s redemption and his ultimate decision to join his partner in facing the Hammonds’ firepower as he would have in their former days of glory. Day seven is devoted to this redemption and the final encounter with the Hammonds. It restores order to chaos and evokes the first line of Genesis. Only in this case, Steve rather than God experiences his final rest on the seventh day.
Within this structure, Peckinpah also adds particularly resonant camera angles, lighting choices, and lines of dialogue that make Ride the High Country much more than a competent film made within the studio system. After the credit sequence, the image dissolves to reveal an overheard shot of a carnival in town prominently featuring “Little Egypt”, the first signifier of the sexuality that will echo throughout the film. It next shows Steve’s arrival and his mistaken point-of-view shots of the crowd until he realises they are not there to greet him. These point-of-view shots strongly contrast with those later in the film showing Elsa’s more astute perceptions when she arrives in Coarse Gold and realises the mistake she has made. This contrast is a telling reminder of Peckinpah’s ability to distinguish between female insight and flawed male perception, as several critics have noted (5). Although such overhead shots may appear as convenient framing devices, several scenes suggest they operate on a more critical level. During the unequal race between Heck’s camel and a group of horses, Peckinpah mixes overhead with conventionally angled shots during his montage sequence, insightfully noting the redundancy of the supposed equal competition between unequal competitors. Before Gil’s introduction, Peckinpah uses a similar overhead shot to that which ushers in the post-credit scene, but this time the camera pans left over the figure of Gil’s ”Oregon Kid” who uses buckshot in his weapon to demonstrate his supposedly superior shooting skills when challenged by rubes. Here we see him costumed as a Buffalo Bill-like figure whose red hair and whiskers not only anticipate his role as “satanic” tempter during Steve’s later journey into the high country wilderness, but also prematurely evoke the reddish furnishings of Kate’s Coarse Gold establishment (which is seen as hell in the eyes of Elsa) (6). Significantly, sorcerer’s apprentice Heck wears a red shirt in the early part of the film when he is most under Gil’s influence. Billy Hammond also wears a reddish coloured shirt during several scenes, while Gil’s red underwear is no longer visible at the top of his shirt when he decides to reform and help his partner against overwhelming odds.
At least five significant overhead shots appear during the final confrontation with the Hammonds. Although Weddle notes that the “raid cross cutting between camera angles” makes viewers feel “caught in the crossfire” – as in the alternation between the camera tracking back from the assured movements of the two older gunmen who have done this thing so many times before and tracking forward and zooming in to the less assured Hammonds whose hidden insecurity is conveyed by separate close-up – these overheard shots function in terms of a critical perceptive on the action itself (7). Far from having “a stately aesthetic distance” (8), as in a Ford or even Hawks movie, the shot offers a critical perspective on the action during the conflict rather than after it (as in that melancholic scene in The Wild Bunch when Deke Thornton views the carnage). The first overhead shot shows the protagonists entering the frame from different sides, the fourth shows the fallen Steve with Henry and the shooting of the last of the Hammond brothers, and the fifth reveals Gil, Elsa and Heck walking to the left away from Steve’s prone body before the film’s final celebrated shot. Although Billy sees the final confrontation in terms of “family honour”, and Elder (his brother) suggests devious tactics – in a reversal of his earlier moral admonition, “You got two brothers dead. You talk about running?” – these overhead shots suggest a more critical evaluation of a ritual that has now become redundant despite the heroic low-angle tracking-back shots of Gil and Steve. Despite the fact that two elderly Western knights slay the Hammond dragon, Peckinpah’s choice of angles suggests futility rather than an affirmation of the traditional Western. Less celebratory or heroic overheard shots appear significantly in two earlier scenes. One occurs after Steve has read the contract and he flushes the toilet, less as a distracting device to conceal his long sightedness and more as an expression of his (and the director’s) critical contempt for how low he has fallen. Like Pyle in Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987), he is now in “a world of shit”. The second of these shots occurs during the Knudson dinner when Joshua hypocritically describes the mining camp as “a sink hole of depravity, a place of sin”, projecting his incestuous desires onto a nearby hellish domain.
The dialogue of Ride the High Country is full of unexpected ambiguities. Although Steve sees Heck as a younger version of himself before his disciplining by Paul Stanniford, he also tells Gil that “When I became a lawman the world lost a first class book keeper”. This adds resonance to an earlier scene where Steve encounters the Samsons in a cramped environment that suggests he could have ended up exactly as they did. When we later see the Hammond brothers, Billy introduces Henry (Warren Oates) to Elsa, a character peculiarly privileged by an initiating close-up showing a crow on his shoulder, with the line, “Henry’s sort of our banker”. These lines suggest that Steve could also have remained a wild kid who used his bookkeeping skills for the forces of disorder. The Hammonds represent the dark family of classic American literature and Hollywood cinema, as seen in the Bush family in J. Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie, the Clantons in Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), the Cleggs of Ford’s Wagonmaster (1950), the Grissoms of Robert Aldrich’s The Grissom Gang (1971), the Sawyers of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre films and the Barker family of Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama (1970), the latter having explicitly incestuous associations that Peckinpah can only hint at in Ride the High Country. Significantly, Sylvus Hammond (L. Q. Jones) wears a frilly apron as the family cook, anticipating the similar domestic costume of Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974). Does Henry’s crow evoke Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”, a poem from an American author whose work also contained dark incestuous fantasies? As the family accountant he offers a dark Gothic parallel to Steve’s possible fate and it is significant that he is the last of the Hammonds to die. The Hammonds not only embody the repressed desires of Joshua Knudson but also evoke the other path that Steve and Gil could have chosen had they not become impoverished lawmen. These parallels are significant since they occur several times in the film. Steve and Knudson know their Bible, as seen in their verbal duel at the table, and Steve seems ready to abide by the verdict of the miner’s court if they decide to return Elsa to Billy. Significantly, Gil, who knows Steve all too well, intervenes to influence the verdict in a manner suggesting his role as the unrepressed side of Steve. Billy has made two visits to the Knudson farm and Elsa’s marriage ceremony represents a sexually satanic version of a Holy Communion, with Kate as Elsa’s bridesmaid and the prostitutes as flower girls. Had the wedding reached its consummation, Elsa would have become another version of her mother to Knudson’s perverse delight. After Billy is deprived of marital bliss with Elsa on his wedding night, a group of prostitutes leads him away to a more perverse ceremony that will fulfil the lines of the Hammonds’ favourite hymn, “When the roll is called up Yonder, I’ll [we’ll all] be there.” His brothers have a chance to participate, as they seem to have done during other family weddings.
Ride the High Country significantly foreshadows those dark features that characterise Peckinpah’s later work that are indebted to the American Gothic tradition as well as developing those elements of perverse sexuality and religion previously seen in his episode of The Westerner, “Jeff” (30 September 1960), and in relation to the primal male horde of “The Marshal” (21 October 1958) episode of The Rifleman, where James Drury and Warren Oates perform earlier versions of their future roles in Ride the High Country. Viewing Ride the High Country in the light of recent work on the Gothic that sees it as “a mode rather than a genre, that it is a loose tradition and even that its defining characteristics are its mobility and continued capacity for reinvention”, one may appreciate Ride the High Country as Peckinpah’s initially successful, subversive break with the traditional Western formula that will lead towards his greatest achievements (9).
1. Terence Butler notes contemporary critical comparisons to the traditional Western but cautions that “the moral complexity that results from character interaction and the bitter edge to its elegy for the decline of the frontier make it more than the companion piece to True Grit it has frequently been called”. See Crucified Heroes: The Films of Sam Peckinpah, Gordon Fraser, London, 1979, p. 38.
2. David Weddle comments that while Peckinpah would extend and refine the themes of Ride the High Country in his later work, a cluster of similar films and novels dealing with the irrelevance of the traditional Western mythology had also appeared and therefore reflected a prevailing mood. See “If They Move… Kill ‘Em!” The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah, Grove Press, New York, 1994, p. 220.
3. For an early exploration of the relationship of Peckinpah to the American Gothic see Butler, pp. 11-33. Christopher Sharrett has brilliantly explored these dimensions of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia in his definitive article, “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia: Peckinpah the Dramatist”, Film International 8 July 2014: http://filmint.nu/?p=12659.
4. James Drury confirmed my “gang bang” interpretation at the Memphis Film Festival on 14 June 2013, mentioning not only that it was an unscripted improvisation, as other critics have noted, but also that he also mimed words since he could not sing!
5. Note, especially, the audio-commentary on the 2006 Warner Home Video DVD by Weddle and others.
6. In a class discussion after a screening of the film in a 1976-77 Warwick University class, Andrew Britton emphasised the satanic setting of Kate’s establishment.
7. See Weddle, p. 214.
8. Weddle, p. 214.
9. Alexandra Warwick, “Feeling Gothicky?”, Gothic Studies vol. 9, no. 1, 2007, p. 6.
Ride the High Country (1962 USA 93 mins)
Prod Co: MGM Prod: Richard E. Lyons Dir: Sam Peckinpah Scr: N. B. Stone, Jr. [with uncredited contribution by Peckinpah] Phot: Lucien Ballard Ed: Frank Santillo Art Dir: George W. Davis, Leroy Coleman Mus: George Bassman
Cast: Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Mariette Hartley, Ron Starr, Edgar Buchanan, R. G. Armstrong, James Drury, Warren Oates, L. Q. Jones, John Anderson