The Western genre, with its roots in the changing landscape of the American west, is the perfect allegory for history’s pervading tempest. Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) picks two old-timers caught on the cusp of change: Joel McCrea, the moralistic loser searching for pride, and Randolph Scott, the side-show gunslinger who’s self worth is as empty as his pockets. McCrea hires Scott and his young cohort to transport gold from the mine to town, while Scott has plans of converting his old friend and running off with the gold. It’s a story of camaraderie, fading glory, missed opportunities, and the disillusionment of living to see your youth wither and amount to nothing. The themes are the same as Peckinpah’s later film The Wild Bunch (1969), but neither film seems to stepping on each other’s toes. Whereas Ride the High Country adds to the mix a young buck, nervy cowboy out to sow his oats, making Peckinpah’s story multi-generational, The Wild Bunch lets the cowboys die off; there are no inheritors, and nothing to inherit.
More than the birth of a new society, Ride the High Country is about the death of an aging one. Modernization is equated with the depersonalization of the West, and the dismantling of a community founded on your self-worth. You are only as big as your name, and there’s no room to rest on your laurels; this extends beyond gun slinging and bank-robbing and into less glamorous territories such as friendship and trust. But Peckinpah makes it seem less cheesy than that. His narrative style is, by this point, well oiled. As Andrew Sarris points out, the film lacks the infinite supply of bullets of so many Westerns, as well as other mythologies so readily accepted. Instead, this film strives for a less romantic realism, mixed with a less saturated vision of violence that would become Peckinpah in only a few more years. In retrospect, one can already feel the Western genre begin to feel its age; it doesn’t slow down, and Ride the High Country is perhaps a peak in the genre, but like the characters that Scott and McCrea portray, they realize they are in a changing society that will never go back to the way it once was.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.