Great Scott, Joel McCrea has a Heck of a lot of trouble
There has been plenty written about "Ride the High Country" or "Guns in the Afternoon" as it is also known. It's a Sam Peckinpah movie, his homage to westerns and the passing of the old west into a new are just some of the elements that have been written about in great length by various critics. But let's be honest does the average movie watcher care, I don't think so they want to know if "Ride the High Country" is any good and to be honest it is. It's by no means the greatest western, in fact the first 30 minutes whilst detailed with subtle elements, is in fact rather boring. But get past the build up and "Ride the High Country" becomes a good movie which combines depth with action and poignancy.
Aging ex-marshal Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) finds himself back on trail when he is hired by a bank to transport their gold down from the mines across treacherous country. With the aid of his old friend Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott - Comanche Station) and Westrum's young protege Heck (Ron Starr) they start to make their way to the mine. But Steve is unaware that Gil and Heck have other plans which involve robbing him of the gold they collect. Along the way they find themselves accompanied by the beautiful Elsa (Mariette Hartley - California Man) leading to trouble for the four of them as her fiancee and his psychotic brothers don't take kindly to Steve, Gil and Heck's interference in their lives.
I'm not going to lie because the storyline to "Ride the High Country" is nothing new as we basically watch 3 guys on the trail ending up picking up a fourth person and then finding themselves in various moments of danger. As such you could say that "Ride the High Country" works through a formula of scenes, troubles and characters as we watch Gil, Steve and Heck in the company of Elsa and then later on coming up against a family of miners in a gunfight. Even before that it all feels familiar as Steve asks Gil to help with him transport Gold and as such bringing Heck along as his young helper. And as such the first 30 minutes of "Ride the High Country" is a little tedious.
But to give director Sam Peckinpah credit he makes such a familiar storyline more interesting by building themes into it. With the casting of two old acting legends playing two old western characters in a new world Peckinpah spends plenty of time delivering an almost homage to the passing of the old wild west. It's nicely done as when we meet Gil he is dressed up pretending to be someone younger, whilst we watch Steve not only struggling with his eyesight but also questioned over his age by his employers. These are just some of the several moments throughout "Ride the High Country" where Peckinpah delivers scenes which often subtly make a statement about how the west was changing and sometimes the scenes are less than subtle especially the almost comical opening with Steve riding into town in the midst of a travelling wild west show.
As well as covering the theme of the passing of the old wild west Peckinpah also builds "Ride the High Country" around the elements of friendship, loyalty and betrayal as we are made aware early on that whilst Steve and Gil have been friends for many years Gil is willing to basically do the dirty on him as he resents not having the wealth he feels he deserves. It's a theme which works well as it adds poignancy to scenes later on in the movie, which to divulge would spoil for those who have never watched "Ride the High Country".
Away from Peckinpah's love of exploring themes, "Ride the High Country" is one of those movies where you need to get past the build up work to get to the point where it gets good and that for me is 30 minutes in where all the pieces are in place. What we get after those 30 minutes is a change in pace and action as we get betrayal and trouble both in the mining town and on the trail back which culminates with not the most brutal but a beautifully crafted shoot out. What makes this second half so good is that after an almost dull start you get plenty going on and all working in tandem so trouble on the trail leads to moments of loyalty and so on.
What also has to be mentioned is the wonderful cinematography and the eye for subtle detail. Yes there are those beautiful scenic shots which combined with action scenes look absolutely stunning but it is the smaller shots, those which can be missed which make "Ride the High Country" more than just a no brainer western. When Steve is shaking hands with his employers the close up of his frayed shirt sleeve tells you plenty about his character. And there are more of these almost insignificant moments which can be easily missed but deliver depth to the characters.
Talking of characters it has to be said that the casting of Randolph Scott as Gil and Joel McCrea as Steve was perfect. Both were edging ever closer to the end of their careers and as such were ideal as two western old timers who not only had old style ethics but were trying to keep pace in a changing world. Neither performance is technically brilliant but they work and make a good pair, believable as two cowboys who have ridden the trail together over the years yet still with a slight mistrust between them.
Aside from Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, Ron Starr does quite a decent job of playing the slightly fiery Heck and although she seems subdued Mariette Hartley plays the fragile character of Elsa beautifully. But "Ride the High Country" is very much a movie about Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea.
What this all boils down to is that yes "Ride the High Country" does have a lot of depth and for those who like to study themes and ideology in movies will find plenty on show. But from a pure entertainment point of view it works, well it works when you get past the first 30 minutes worth of establishing scenes which are a little dull. It's worth sitting through these scenes as the action and drama which follows is what makes it such an entertaining movie.