Ride the High Country (1962) – A Movie Review

“Ride the High Country” was a 1960s revisionist Western directed by Sam Peckinpah.  It stars Joel McCrea as Steve Judd an over the hill lawman who is taking on a job to guard a gold shipment from a mining town called Hornitos in the Sierra Nevada.  Judd hires his old partner Gil Westrum, played by Randolph Scott, and a young cowboy named Heck Longtree to help him guard the gold on the trip.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

Along the way to Hornitos, they stay over at a farmhouse owned by Joshua Knudsen.  And we meet his daughter Elsa, played by a very young Mariette Hartley, who wants to run away from home to marry one of the miners in Hornitos named Billy Hammond against her father’s will.  After the men head out Elsa catches up to them and Judd allows her to ride with them out of concern that she might be attacked by wild animals in the wilderness.  Along the way we see Longtree flirting with Elsa.  But we also learn that Westrum and Longtree plan to steal the gold from Judd.

When they reach Hornitos, Elsa meets up with Billy and the rest of the Hammond brothers.  To say the least they are depraved animals.  Billy marries Elsa in the town bordello with the madame and prostitutes as bridal party.  When Billy passes out before the honeymoon two of the brothers attempt to rape her in the “bridal suite.”  Judd and Longtree hear her screams and rescue her from the Hammonds.  When Billy demands his wife back Westrum threatens the judge who married them to force him to claim that the marriage was illegitimate.

They leave Hornitos with Elsa in tow to bring her back to her father.  The next night Westrum and Longtree attempt to sneak out of camp at night with the gold.  But Judd catches them and takes them prisoner.  He binds their hands and declares that he will hand them over to the law when he delivers the gold.

The next day Billy Hammond and his brothers catch up with Judd and demand to have Elsa back.  Judd agrees to allow Longtree to have a gun and between them they kill two of the Hammonds.  The other Hammonds ride off and Judd and the rest of the company stop for the night.  Westrum escapes on horseback and returns to the scene of the gun battle and retrieves a pistol from one of the dead Hammonds.  Then he begins to follow Judd’s party.

When Judd and Longtree reach Elsa’s home they find her father dead on the ground and come under fire from the Hammonds who have set up an ambush.  Longtree is shot in the leg and Judd is hit in the belly.  But before the Hammonds can finish them off Westrum rides into the scene and tells Judd that he’s returned to help his old partner face off against the Hammonds.  A classic gun duel, with both sides walking toward each ensues and the three Hammonds riddle Judd with bullets but the two old lawmen manage to kill their three enemies in the fight.

Judd tells Westrum that he’s going to die but doesn’t want Longtree and Elsa to see him expire.  He tells Westrum to finish up the gold delivery and also says that he is satisfied that Westrum has come back to his duty and will do the right thing.  Then he dies and Westrum joins Longtree and Elsa to tend to Longtree’s wounds and finish the job.

Although this is supposed to be a modern Western with a blurred boundary between the good guys and the bad, for the most part McCrea and Scott are very close to the quintessential golden age cowboys.  Scott’s turn as a bad guy is shown to be not very deep seated as he comes back at the end to risk his life for his old friend.  There is a lot more realism in the depiction of how depraved the folks in the mining camp were as compared to a classic western.  But for the most part this film still stays pretty close to a classic western.  I’ll say that I quite enjoyed the movie and I recommend it for fans of traditional westerns.  It’s about halfway between the movies made in the ‘30s and ‘40s and the stuff you might see in the spaghetti westerns that Clint Eastwood starred in.