We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s, click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1930s click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1920s click here.
5. Ride the High Country, 1962.
“All I want is to enter my house justified,” says Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) an ex-lawman, hired to transport a shipment of gold through dangerous territory.
Judd enlists Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) his old sidekick, to help move the gold. This is the central plot for an elegy to the old West, a film that might be the most profoundly touching Western ever produced. It is, most certainly, director Sam Peckinpah’s most fully realized film, a masterpiece that transcends genre.
Just as the Medieval romance was created as the fictional ideal of the Middle Ages, the Western is the proscenium for the classic American moral fable where virtue defeats evil. We root for the heroic sheriff, hiss the greedy cattle baron, adore the virtuous schoolmarm, cheer as the cavalry rides to the rescue, and experience conflicting emotions as the wild frontier gives way to civilization.
The Western was our collective dream of the past — until several revisionist Westerns came along and shattered the mold.
First came John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) an agonizing study of the search for the survivors of an Indian raid. John Wayne, playing against the type he and Ford practically invented, is no longer the tough but decent hero, but a half-mad avenger who reunites a family, only to end up alone and loveless in a desert void.
In 1958, Paul Newman starred in The Left Handed Gun, as Billy the Kid, an amoral man-child who kills with a twinkle in his empty blue eyes. In this film, violence serves no moral purpose, but is simply an end in itself. When a man gets shotgunned in the dusty street, he is, literally, blown out of his boots. The image is both shocking and comic. And that was the moment when Western violence took a new and disturbing turn.
In Ride the High Country, director Sam Peckinpah and Norris B. Stone—a screenwriter who worked with Peckinpah in series TV—introduces a new theme to the Western: exhaustion.
His two main characters are old men, at the end of their careers. Their clothes are in tatters; their boots have holes in them. They have no money, no wives, no children, no home. The world is moving on, and these two cowboys are relics of the past. These two movie characters are given deeper resonance because McCrea and Scott, who both excelled at playing stalwart Western heroes, were at the end of long, distinguished movie careers. In fact, this was Randolph Scott’s last performance.
As Judd and Westrom drag the gold down the mountain, they rescue a maiden-in-distress, played touchingly by Mariette Hartley, from her fanatic preacher father (the splendid R.G. Armstrong), only to run into a filthy, depraved clan, whose vengeful ire they arouse.
Westrom keeps hinting to his old partner that stealing the gold wouldn’t be such a bad thing. After all, he reasons, they deserve a comfortable retirement after a lifetime of bringing law to this lawless land, and getting nothing in return. Judd, the moral center of the film, disgusted with the corrupt proposition, delivers the “house justified” line that is the spine of the movie. It is a shattering scene made all the more powerful because both McCrea and Scott beautifully underplay the moment. Great actors understand that less is more.
The best scenes in the movie include a wedding in a brothel that recalls Hieronymus Bosch, and a final shootout, where the least likely character in the movie, insists on fighting to the death with honor and dignity. Even as the film reinterprets the classic Western, it still admires and insists upon the classic codes of American righteousness.
MGM felt the film was a cheap Western, and stupidly dumped it at the bottom of a double bill. The film died at the American box office, but performed fairly well in Europe where critics and audiences responded to the film’s melancholy message. Ever since, the film’s reputation has grown, and it is generally recognized as a landmark Western.
When I first screened this movie, I had tears running down my cheeks as the final line of dialogue was delivered — an ending that has all the emotional resonance of the luminous final close-up of Charlie Chaplin in City Lights.
Ride the High Country is a stunning movie that ponders loyalty, friendship, honor, old age, and the search for justice in an unjust world.