THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Wednesday, March 6, 2013




DIRECTOR: Sam Peckinpah;  PRODUCER: Richard E. Lyons;  WRITERS: N.B. Stone, Jr. and Sam Peckinpah (uncredited);  CAMERA: Lucien Ballard

CAST: Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Mariette Hartley, Ron Starr, Edgar Buchanan, R.G. Armstrong, Jenie Jackson, James Drury, L.Q. Jones, John Anderson, John Davis Chandler, Warren Oates, Byron Foulger, Percy Helton

Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott):  "Do you know what's on the back of a poor man when he dies?  The clothes of pride.  They're not a bit warmer to him dead or alive.  Is that what you want, Steve?

Steve Judd (Joel McCrea):  "All I want is to enter my house justified."

Randolph Scott had decided to retire after COMANCHE STATION (Ranown/Columbia, 1960), and the film would have allowed him to make a graceful exit. 

His interest in a comeback was aroused when producer Richard Lyons showed him a story by N.B. Stone titled Guns in the Afternoon, a tale about two old friends, Steve Judd and Gil Westrum, two aging ex-lawmen who are hired to deliver a gold shipment.  Judd, attempting to maintain his code of honor to the very end, tries to execute the job with as much integrity and human dignity as he can muster, while Westrum, the more complex and interesting character, decides to steal the gold.

The plot also concerns the liberation of a young woman (Mariette Hartley in a memorable film debut) from her domineering father (R.G. Armstrong), some hilarious mining camp shenanigans that resulted from splendid character performances by Edgar Buchanan, as a drunken judge, and John Anderson (always underrated), Warren Oates (always good), L.Q. Jones, John Davis Chandler, and, surprisingly, James Drury, as the trashy, creepy, and degenerate Hammond brothers.

Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley):  "My Father says there's only right and wrong -- good and evil.  Nothin' in between.  It isn't that simple, is it?"

Steve Judd (Joel McCrea):  "No, it isn't.  It should be, but it isn't."

Scott was able to interest his old friend of long standing, Joel McCrea, in starring with him in the film.  McCrea had been off-screen since 1959 when he had starred as Bat Masterson in THE GUNFIGHT AT DODGE CITY (Mirisch/UA)Scott told the veteran performer to choose the part that he wished to play; McCrea selected the role of Gil Westrum.

Deciding which actor would receive top billing was decided in a time-honored fashion.  They flipped a coin.  Scott won.

The two also decided that McCrea had chosen the wrong role.  McCrea was uncomfortable with the role of the man who decides to steal the gold; it did not bother Scott to play the role, and the change was made.  That move made everybody appear to be geniuses.  It is easy to see Scott in either role, but McCrea was better suited for the role of the straight and narrow, honest and dignified to his last breath (literally)Steve Judd.  McCrea's screen persona was always more one-dimensional than Scott's and he was perfect as Steve Judd.

RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is a classic Western and one of the best films, Western or non-Western, of the 60's, and one of the best Westerns of any era.  However, it was a big surprise when the accolades began to pour in, and no one was more surprised than the studio's executives, for they did not realize what they had.  They viewed it as just another sagebrush saga -- and not a good one at that.  The studio released the film as a second feature and it initially played the lower half of double features at theaters and drive-ins.

Despite a lack of promotion or publicity the film was named by Newsweek and Film Quarterly as the best film of 1962; it won first prize at the Venice Film Festival; and copped the grand prize at the Brussels Film Festival.  It became a hit in Europe before it captured the fancy of American film audiences.

Lost in all the hullabaloo surrounding the film is the fact that it is a medium-budget Western much like the products that Scott and McCrea had been starring in for years.  Nevertheless it stands as a monument to the director, producer, cinematographer, and the two stars.  It is a classic example of what superb professionals can do with limited finances and a good story.


Sam Peckinpah, who had established his reputation in television as a writer and director, was hired to polish the script and direct the film.  He did a major re-write of the script, changing the ending and adding some of the film's best lines, including Judd's "house justified" line, one he had heard his father say. 

His career had begun as Don Siegel's dialogue director; from there he gravitated to TV where he wrote scripts for various series, including Gunsmoke; he also directed several episodes of the series. In addition, he wrote the pilot script for The Rifleman and was the creator, producer, and sometimes writer and director of the short-lived (thirteen weeks), but critically acclaimed, The Westerner, which starred Brian Keith.  In fact, it was this series that led producer Lyons to hire Peckinpah to direct RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY.

Peckinpah's first theatrical film was the interesting, but little viewed, THE DEADLY COMPANIONS (Pathe-American, 1961), with Brian Keith, Maureen O'Hara, Steve Cochran, and Chill Wills. RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY was his second.

Peckinpah, who occasionally directed a non-Western, went on to direct several Westerns of varying quality, some of which were criticized for an over reliance on graphic -- what some critics labeled gratuitous -- violence.  THE WILD BUNCH (WB, 1969), for example, is praised as a story and film, but the director is often castigated for some of the bloodiest scenes in film history.

Mariette Hartley is perfectly cast as Elsa Knudsen, the young woman who in her anxiety to escape her father makes the mistake of agreeing to marry miner Billy Hammond (Drury) and then realizes that she has made a grave mistake.

Ron Starr, as Westrum's young hotheaded partner, Heck Longtree, who falls in love with Elsa, isn't bad in the part, but he is the weakest actor in the film.

John Anderson, Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones, and John Davis Chandler as Billy's brothers are superb.  They were actors who had worked with Peckinpah in television and Oates, Jones, and Chandler, along with R.G. Armstrong, would become part of the director's stock company.

Mariette Hartley in a memorable film debut

Billy Hammond didn't turn out so bad, after all

Warren Oates became one of Peckinpah's favorite actors

James Drury, whose work prior to the film had primarily been in television, returned to that medium for the rest of his career.  Of course, when he went back it was to star as the title character in the long-runing ninety-minute Western series, The Virginian (1962-1971).

Edgar Buchanan never gave a bad performance in his life, so he is excellent as a drunken reprobate of a mining camp judge.  Two old pros, Percy Helton and Byron Foulger, aren't on the screen very long, but they are memorable as the father and son bankers who hire Steve Judd to transport the gold from the mountains to their bank.

The Hammonds have done gone and messed up now

The producer and director were fortunate to have an old pro like Lucien Ballard in charge of photography on the film.  His expertise greatly enhanced the natural beauty of the panoramic vistas provided by the Inyo National Forest and the Mammoth Lakes region.

Joel McCrea's film career did not end with RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, but maybe it should have.  He came out of retirement for a bit part in CRY BLOOD, APACHE (Bronco/Liberty, 1970), as a favor for his son Jody, who starred in the film as well as producing it.  In 1976, he retired for the last time after starring in MUSTANG COUNTRY (Universal, 1976).

RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY was the end of a long trail for Randolph Scott.  He hung up his guns after this one.  It would serve as a poignant and fitting conclusion to a career that included more starring roles in A-Westerns than any other actor in history -- including John Wayne. The role of Gil Westrum represents what most critics believe is the very best performance in a career that lasted more than three decades.      

The film ends on a poignant note made even more so by the last words spoken in the film, the last words that Scott would ever say in a movie, "I'll be seein' you."

"I'll be seein' you."


"From the opening scene, when the two stars, as a couple of prairie old-timers, start reminiscing about wilder and woollier days, the picture projects a steady, natural blend of wisdom and humor." Bosley Crowther in The New York Times

"Memorable Western....Scott and McCrea have never been better; direction, action and scenery are first-rate.  Buchanan is unforgettable as a drunken judge." -- Leonard Maltin

"An absolutely first-rate Western, which gives Scott and McCrea...the best roles of their lives, and they make the most of it....[it] is the last great old-fashioned Western...." -- Steven H. Scheuer

"RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is a perfectly dandy little Western....[It] is a pleasure to watch....The final line caps the picture like a bottle top....Mr. Peckinpah and Mr. Stone certainly have what it takes.  And so, if anybody ever doubted it, do a couple of leathery graying hombres named McCrea and Scott." -- The New York Times

"[A] sad and lonely tribute to the past....The ending is human, poignant, honest and just dandy....[It] is, I think, a masterpiece." -- Brian Garfield in Western Films: A Complete Guide

"One of the most poetic Westerns ever made..." -- Les Adams and Buck Rainey in Shoot-Em-Ups




  1. Nicely done. It really is a fabulous film, and gets better the more you watch it. I like Peckinpah a lot, and rate both The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid very highly - but this movie is right up there with them.

    I think Scott and McCrea did their best work when the budgets were limited and they had to really give it their all - that's certainly the case here.


    1. Hi Colin,

      Some films don't get better the more we watch them, do they? I'm thinking "Dances with Wolves," for example. But I like this film and the Scott/Boetticher films more every time I view them.

      I think it was too bad that McCrea was never able to connect with a Ford, Mann, or Boetticher. He was always good and was sometimes excellent, but his films had an uneven quality. In fact, much like Scott before the Boetticher films.

      Thanks for dropping by.


  2. Oh very true. A lot of stuff doesn't stand the test of time so well. I may be displaying a little of my own prejudice here, but do honestly feel that the more thematically complex works to be found in the 50, and into the early 60s too, have great staying power. Some of these movies have so much richness and nuance that they seem to continually reveal something new and interesting on subsequent viewings.


  3. Nice piece about one of my favorite westerns. Thinking of it now literally brings tears to my eyes, as happens every time I watch it. Randolph Scott was so good in so many of his roles, that I'm used to his greatness. But, I think that this is Joel McCrea's best acting in a western.

    I support your point about this being one of those movies that I appreciate more every time I watch it. Definitely has a heavier emotional impact now (I'm almost 60) then when I first saw it as a teenager.

    1. Age does have a way of changing our perspectives. I would have to agree with Muhammad Ali who once said that, "a man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life."

      If I were to re-do my list of favorite Westerns, I might rank "Riding the High Country" even higher. I certainly would not rank it lower. Westerns with an "end of the West" theme seem to resonate with me. This film and "Monte Walsh," for the same reason, are two that I never tire of watching.

      Thanks for reading and for your comments. Stop by again.