The westerns of Sam Peckinpah come from a place informed by the director's boyhood amongst real-life cowboy types and his absorption of their reminiscences of the waning days of the old west, and RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is the film where the Peckinpah oeuvre as we came to know it got started. Originally intended as nothing more than a B western, in Peckinpah's hands RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY stands as a solid and very entertaining tale of two aging lawmen whose era has come and gone.
Western cinema legends Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea as Gil Westrum and Steve Judd.
Western legends Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott star as Steve Judd and Gil Westrum, once partners in law enforcement, but now considered over the hill. When Judd takes a job transporting what's quoted as a quarter of a million dollars-worth of gold from a mountain mining camp, he encounters Westrum for the first time in years and enlists his old friend's aid as a second hand for the job. But while Judd has stayed true to his path as a lawman, Westrum has fallen to working as a carnival games gunman in the Buffalo Bill mold and engaging in endeavors of questionable legality with the young and impetuous Heck Longtree (Ron Starr), and, at Westrum's suggestion, the two plot to go along with the trusting Judd and steal the gold once it's transported away from the mining camp. Longtree's an excitable kid with no impulse control and a hair-trigger temper, so he spends a considerable amount of the story fucking up and getting his ass handed to him by a number of opponents, including the elder lawmen who both rightly think he needs to get his shit together as a man. A major stumbling block on Longtree's path of development enters the narrative in the form of Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley in her screen debut), a lovely young woman who leads a restrictive and sheltered life with her fanatical preacher dad (R.G. Armstrong), a man of the cloth who sees sin in everyone and everything, so he has done everything in his power to keep his daughter away from the outside world. (There is a strong hint of the preacher thinking that no man is good enough for his daughter except for himself, a point that his daughter calls him on and earns her a hard smack in the mouth for her efforts.)
Upon seeing Elsa, Longtree immediately puts the moves on her, but finds out that she is engaged, a point that frustrates him because Elsa is clearly attracted to his rough-and-tumble bad boy charm (isn't that always the case?). Much to her father's consternation, Elsa tags along with Judd and his cohorts since they are on their way to the camp where her miner fiancee, Billy Hammond (James Drury) resides, and during the trip Longtree attempts to get "ungentlemanly" with the shocked Elsa, an act that earns him a back-to-back ass-kicking from the elder gunslingers. All the while, Westrum schemes to steal the gold, fully aware that he would be betraying his old friend in doing so, but an old dude's gotta do what an old dude's gotta do...
Upon arriving at the mining camp, Judd begins collecting the gold while Longtree, now pissed off about Elsa leaving, escorts Elsa to the area where her fiancee lives with his four brothers. Much to Elsa's horror (and Longtree's, for that matter), it very quickly becomes apparent that once married to her loutish fiancee, Elsa will be expected to share her body with her husband's brothers, a scurvy and unwashed bunch comprised of, among others, L.Q. Jones and the always sleazy (and awesomely so) Warren Oates.
That prospect is bad enough on general principle, but it's made worse by the simple fact that Billy's brothers are about on par with the ass-rapin' hillbillies from DELIVERANCE or the cannibal mutants in THE HILLS HAVE EYES, only displaying a rather sociopathically redneck sense of humor.
The naive Elsa gets a hard dose of reality when the wedding ceremony, held at the divey local saloon/whorehouse, swiftly degenerates into a Fellini-esque parade of human freakishness and poor behavior fueled by booze that culminates in her attempted gang rape at the hands of the Hammond brothers. Fortunately, Elsa's screams attract the attention of our heroes and they rush to her rescue, holding off her would-be attackers at gunpoint and hauling her ass out of there. The Hammonds are not at all pleased with this development and challenge Judd and company's right to Elsa in a miner's court, but Westrum resorts to a necessary underhanded move (that I won't spoil for you) to ensure Elsa does not end up returned to what would be a lifetime of unwilling sexual slavery, and our heroes leave to return her to her father. But just before they set off to take Elsa home, it is revealed that the estimated quarter-mil to be transported is actually less than one tenth of that figure, but Westrum's desperate enough to continue on with his plan, something that does not sit well with young Longtree, who has come to respect Judd and re-consider his partnership with the duplicitous Westrum. When Judd twigs to Westrum's intended treachery, things take a turn for the worse, only to be compounded by the very pissed-off Hammonds who are bent on getting Elsa back by many means necessary...
I've only related the basic elements of the film's plot, but several of what would become recurring themes in Peckinpah's films are set in stone with this narrative. The plight of the elder gunslinger becoming a dinosaur with the advent of the 20th century, examinations of masculine loyalty, the redemption of men who have lost their moral way, it's all here, plus a very sympathetic female character in Elsa. Who can't understand the sadness of her desire to escape her smothering life on her dad's farm, only to have her dreams of a better, more exciting life utterly crushed by her filthy fiancee and his disgusting, drooling brothers? Peckinpah is obviously very much on Elsa's side, despite her naivete, thus shooting down his oft-cited reputation as a misogynistic pig.
RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is truly one of the great westerns and should not be missed by serious students of the genre or even the casual DVD watcher. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for a great many reasons that I will leave you to discover for yourself.