Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s: Ride the High Country

Randolph Scott amdJoel McCrea as aging cowboys in Ride the High Country, '62.

Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea as aging cowboys in Ride the High Country, ’62.

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.

Mariette Hartley gives a wonderful performance as a maiden-in-distress in Ride the High Country.

Mariette Hartley gives a wonderful performance as a maiden-in-distress in Ride the High Country.

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.

1962 Ride the high country - Duelo en la alta sierra (ing) 01

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32 Comments

  1. Earl
    Posted November 26, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    This is one movie that has completely slipped under my radar, Robert, I’ll add it to the ‘must catch’ list.
    The final shot in ‘The Searchers’ is one of my alltime favourites.  People bustle back and forth in the dimness of polite life, Ethan Edwards takes a step toward it then remembers that it is a life that was never meant to be his.  So he returns to the stark beauty and the unflinching glare of the wide open spaces.
    Beautiful.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  2. Bill Brandt
    Posted November 24, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I have been thinking about the reasons for this films obscurity and have come to the conclusion that the main reason is that it was eclipsed by MGM’s How The West Was Won.
     
    I remember the advertising effort MGM made for HTWWW, filling the airwaves – and remembering Goldman’s maxim that a successful movie will have had an equal amount spent in advertising to production costs, there was simply not enough money to adequately promote Ride The High Country.
     
    At least that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • Barry
      Posted November 24, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      Ride The High Country is most certainly not obscure because some people reading this blog are unfamiliar with it. Classic cinema matches nicely with classic music and literature. Has nothing to do with How The West Was Won — a sort of stunt picture. The fact that MGM essentially no longer exists should tell you all  that is required. Furthermore in all studies, and I do mean without exception, Ride The High Country finishes in top critical lists of greatest films and/or westerns of all time. Not least, in Europe, where it was a smash hit.

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      • Bill Brandt
        Posted November 24, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        It is obscure to the general public. Advertising – getting the word out – in most cases means the difference between a commercial success and failure.

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        • Barry
          Posted November 24, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

          There are always people who don’t know stuff. More now than at any other time in my life — but throughout history not knowing matches up with what we have now, a kind of happy cell driven servitude.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  3. Bob
    Posted November 23, 2013 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    I was ten when this film came out.  It has always been one of my favorite westerns.  I remember watching Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in our local movie house when I was a boy.  McCrea has always been one of my favorites.  One film in which he starred that I really loved was “Stars in My Crown.”  The scene where he read the old man’s will to the Klan was especially moving.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. Bill Brandt
    Posted November 22, 2013 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Thinking about this today I was reminded that 1962 was the same year How The West Was Won made its debut – very lavishly promoted, all star extravaganza. Even to this layman’s eyes it is a largely forgettable movie today – but perhaps that was in MGM’s thinking – not wanting to throw money at that monster (in ad revenue) movie.
     
    But I remember seeing it – in Cinerama (!) (Robert do you remember how that was promoted in the early 60s?)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  5. jimmo
    Posted November 21, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Robert —
    Thanks for this post.  I saw this a few months ago and was quite struck by the “house justified” line.  I found it not only religious but quite deeply theological.  It seemed out of place as I noticed no other such dialogue in the film.  Do you know anything about how/why Stone wrote it?
    (And thanks for this site.  I really appreciate it.)
     

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • Barry
      Posted November 21, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

      I believe the line was written by Peckinpah and alludes to his father’s beliefs and thought process. In any case, the film should be seen for what it is, a religious experience from start to finish.

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      • jimmo
        Posted January 5, 2014 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

        I did not make a connection until just recently:  The “house justifed” line surely is drawn from one of Jesus’ parables – the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14.

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  6. Larry
    Posted November 21, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I’ve maintained that the Western is America’s Mythology. Sam Peckinpah had a continuing vision of the reality behind the myths. “Ride the High Country” is one of the great Westerns. Peckinpah came from TV Westerns. Especially after his disappointment with the way “The Rifleman” was handled — his own script introduced Paul Fix’s sheriff character as the town drunk — he always focused on gritty reality. It had to be there. This has always been a must-watch movie for me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted November 21, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      Larry:

      It’s a great film that I watch at least once a year. When Peckinpah was in control of his material, he was a fine director. When he became unhinged, he was truly awful.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

      • sennacherib
        Posted November 21, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

        I didn’t know about Peckinpah going off the deep end. What happened?

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

      • sennacherib
        Posted November 22, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

        Did some reading on Peckinpah, too bad. I really liked a lot of his films, some I really did not.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  7. Johnny
    Posted November 21, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    I was in college when I saw this and was not expecting anything great. Boy was I in for a surprise.  I knew Hartley only from the Garner commercials and McCrea from Foreign Correspondent and the Palm Beach Story.  And I don’t remember seeing any movie featuring Scott (not counting Blazing Saddles). When it was over I couldn’t understand why it was not honored as much as Red River or any Ford/Wayne western.
     
    I was also impressed by the George Bassman’s score. Like most great scores you don’t notice it until the movie is over and the theme stays with you and you realize how important it was.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted November 21, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      Johnny:
      Hartley should have had a brilliant career after her wonderful performance in Ride, but the film just died and she was never able to build any momentum for a feature career. Too bad. She had a certain quality that is quite rare.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

      • Larry
        Posted November 21, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

        I met Mariette back around 1969-70. Very pleasant lady. She did mostly TV appearances and a few forgettable movies. I agree with “Too bad.”

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

      • kgbudge
        Posted November 22, 2013 at 10:32 am | Permalink

        My introduction to Mariette Hartley was as a teenager watching Star Trek. A beautiful redhead dressed in bits of skins; woof.
         
        Gonna have to see the film.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

        • Larry
          Posted November 22, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

          I think Roddenberry must have liked her. She was cast in his later show, “Genesis II” I think it was called. I don’t think it did very well though.

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          • kgbudge
            Posted November 26, 2013 at 7:51 am | Permalink

            Judging from the biographies I’ve read, Roddenberry was famously good at hacking people off. [i]Star Trek[/i] succeeded, initially, because Rodenberry had some really good science fiction writers writing scripts for the show. Which Rodenberry, at least in some cases, rewrote (badly) and then claimed partial royalties for.
             
            As a result, after a couple of seasons, all the good writers had dropped out, and [i]Star Trek[/i] had its famously awful third season. (Can you say “Spock’s Brain”? I [i]knew[/i] you could.)
             
            Given that history, [i]Genesis II[/i] was probably doomed to a rapid Exodus from the very start.

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

          • kgbudge
            Posted November 26, 2013 at 7:56 am | Permalink

            Judging from the biographies I’ve read, Roddenberry was famously good at hacking people off. Star Trek succeeded, initially, because Roddenberry had some really good science fiction writers writing scripts for the show. Which Roddenberry, at least in some cases, rewrote (badly) and then claimed partial royalties for.
             
            As a result, after a couple of seasons, all the good writers had dropped out, and Star Trek had its famously awful third season. (Can you say “Spock’s Brain”? I knew you could.)
             
            Given that history, Genesis II was probably doomed to a rapid Exodus from the very start.

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

        • kgbudge
          Posted November 28, 2013 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

          Thought I’d killed that misformatted comment …
           
          Finished watching it last night. Great stuff. Why won’t Hollywood make films like that any more?

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    • Barry
      Posted November 21, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      Johnny,
       
      Check out,  in addition to his Boetticher titles, and especially The Tall T, Western Union, Virginia City, The Spoilers, Fighting Man of The Plains, Hangman’s Knot, Man In The Saddle, and The Walking Hills. All of these are not equally great, but he is. By the way, for three consecutive years in the early fifties Scott was top ten box office according to the Motion Picture Exhibitor’s Poll.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

      • Michael Kennedy
        Posted November 21, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        Scott, to my knowledge, is the only actor or even movie industry person, to be accepted to LA Country Club. He had a 2 handicap and lived on one of the fairways but it was still thought impossible to be accepted. To the admissions committee, he is reported to have offered ten friends to write notarized letters attesting that he was not an actor. He was accepted and was a member ’til he died.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  8. Barry
    Posted November 21, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Among all his fine moments in this film, and many others, Randolph Scott’s final words on screen. “I’ll see you later, partner.” I feel the same as you do Robert. Just great, and in my opinion, Peckinpah’s best, possibly because Scott and McCrea were on the shoot, in what had originally been intended for Budd Boetticher.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted November 21, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      Barry: Yes, well, that last line caused me to weep as the camera panned up to the high country. Devastatingly great moment.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

      • Barry
        Posted November 21, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        That moment: Past, Present and Future.

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  9. Bill Brandt
    Posted November 21, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Robert – what I have enjoyed about these lists you have done – is that usually for me – the cinema layman – your favorites come completely unexpected. What were commercial successes and what you consider the best of the decade aren’t always the same.

    I had never heard of this movie and will now have to find it.
     
    On MGMs wisdom at burying it – goes back to Wm Goldman’s observation of Hollywood and the business: “Nobody knows nuthin
     
    Oh – I have to smile every time I see the name Randolph Scott now – Mel Brooks forever changed that perception in Blazing Saddles

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted November 21, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      Bill:
      Thanks so much for the kind words. Goldman’s maxim about nobody knowing anything is quite correct. I’ve seen this played out every day of my career.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • sennacherib
      Posted November 21, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      Bill:

      “Oh – I have to smile every time I see the name Randolph Scott now – Mel Brooks forever changed that perception in Blazing Saddles” I hope your hand’s over your heart when you say that name.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

      • Bill Brandt
        Posted November 23, 2013 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

        With the chorus Randolph Scott!!!!!

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

        • sennacherib
          Posted November 24, 2013 at 5:47 am | Permalink

          Heh! The Johnsons approve!

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

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