' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Ride the High Country (1962)

Friday, July 12, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: Ride the High Country (1962)

Sam Peckinpah’s “Ride the High Country” (1962) opens with the camera looking down on a street in Hornitos, California through which Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) rides his horse. McCrea was a Western staple, of course, and each of those roles feeds directly into the character of Steve, his bolo tie giving him a stately presentation while the conspicuous grey hair on his temples evokes the time it takes to earn that stature. It’s easy to assume, for us and for him, an ex-lawman known for cleaning up tough towns, the cheering throng lining this street are there for him. That’s why Steve waves at them, almost despite himself, only to then be nearly run off the road as a race between horses and a camel barrel in behind and then past him like he’s not even there. It’s a bizarre, comical image, one implicitly suggesting the world passing him by. It is, after all, the early days of the 20th and any motion of the noble cowboy has melted along with California’s milk and honey.

Steve has shown up for a job guarding a shipment of gold High Sierra mining camp back down to Hornitos, one, alas, he cannot do on his own, causing him to enlist an old colleague, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), reduced to a huckster running a rigged pistol shooting game, suggesting the grizzled Impresario of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” if he’d been Wyatt Earp in a previous life. Gil signs up and brings along a young buck named Heck (Ron Starr) who demonstrates his worth in a bar fight, a playful scene belying Peckinpah’s patented and emergent no holds barred nastiness. Indeed, though the scenery is spectacular and frequently feels untouched there is a moral rot to the land, one that a certain kind of western would have blithely disregarded, which makes it all the more profound that characters played by these two stalwarts of the genre are forced to confront it, as if McCrea and Scott are answering for the mythos they helped sculpt.

That rot is evinced when they spend the night on the farm of Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong). He might tithe one egg to the men out of respect to the Lord, but he overcharges them for the rest, suggesting that Christian doctrine and business principles do not mix, and domineers his daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley), essentially considering all men beneath her even if she’s engaged to a miner, Billy Hammond (James Drury), at the same camp where Steve and company are headed to pick up gold. The name Joshua evokes the movie’s Biblical bent, not just in he and Steve exchanging bullets by way of out-of-context Bible verses, as if prophesizing a modern-day phenomenon, but Steve later explaining his life’s mission is to enter “my house justified”, paraphrasing the Book of Luke and transforming Scripture a personal code. That’s why when later that night in the barn Heck kisses Elsa and then won’t stop kissing her even as she asks him to, Steve sets his wayward colleague straight.

Then again, this moment foreshadows Elsa’s forthcoming plight by summarizing a woman’s place in this man’s world, which is why she’s dressed like one when we first meet her, working on the farm, as if such manual labor might cause her ovaries to fall out. She is pointedly portrayed as having no agency, which becomes viciously clear when she flees from her father and catches up to Steve, Gil, and Heck, going along with them to Coarse Gold Mine Camp to wed Billy. The camp, however, lives out its name to a tee, populated not just by Billy but all his brothers, louts improbably evoking Pete Hogwallop and Delmar O’Donnell of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” filtered through the brutal villains of Peckinpah’s own later film “Straw Dogs”, as if the greed of the gold rush has mutated these men into vulgar sadists. If Steve, Gil and Heck detect straight away the sort of scum they’re dealing with, the same can’t be said of Elsa (Mariette Hartley), who allows herself to be whisked back to Hornitas and married in a ceremony that quickly becomes clear is more about officially deeming her personal property of all The Hammond Brothers than Billy’s wife.

Her fate becomes intertwined with that of the gold, a shipment that Gil and Heck long to steal, a plot which Steve divines before it can play out. As a reprisal looms from the Brothers Hammond, however, for these do-gooders having absconded with Billy’s bride, Steve needs his old friend’s help, a back and forth that both is and isn’t as simple as right and wrong but much more murky, evoked in the black hat that Steve wears and the white one adorning Gil’s head. Indeed, the marriage might well be legal, and Steve might well be a man who bends toward the law, but he also knows right and wrong, an internal code that Steve verbalizes, yes, and that McCrea also just possesses in his dignified air. That the judge who married them is drunk suggests the view “Ride the High Country” takes toward the letter of the law, ruling in favor of the spirit of the law instead, an ethos evinced in the closing shot, a pan up to a mountain peak, the doorframe of the Lord’s house Steve is about to enter, content, at least, in his own heart.

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