Monday, September 14, 2009

'Ride the High Country'

My father says there's only right and wrong -- good and evil. Nothing in between. It isn't that simple, is it?

No, it isn't. It should be, but it isn't.

When I interviewed "Deadwood" Don Calhoun for an article that appears in today's (Monday, Sept. 14) Shopper-News, (read it at he reminded me of a classic western, Randolph Scott's last film, "Ride the High Country," from 1962. Rented it from Netflix and watched it again over the weekend.

Put simply: what a beautiful flick.

The film is an elegy in many ways to the end of an era, a tip of the cap to the Golden Age of American westerns. But, it is also a commentary on how a man faces mortality, how a gunfighter meets his fate. It is an unsentimental western released in a time dominated by unambiguous corn.

Scott plays Gil Westrum, partner to ex-law officer Steve Judd (Joel McCrea), who is hired to transport gold from a tough mining community through a rough patch of wild country. Westrum has become a barker in a wild west show and is glad for the work. Judd is getting old but wants to prove he's still got it.

So they join up with youngster Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) to ride the range one last time. Along the way, though, they run into Elsa (Meriette Hartley) and her fundamentalist father Joshua (R.G. Armstrong). Elsa is set to marry a man in the mining camp, played by James Drury, who brings with him an outlaw gang of a family.

Without giving away too much, the gist of this film is that Judd has no idea that Westrum, his former partner, and the youngster Longtree, are planning to double-cross him and steal the gold. He faces all this in addition to the problems that arise in the mining camp.

I won't spoil the ending other than to tell you that director Sam Peckinpah delivers an honest motion picture that doesn't shy away from the sad fact that the world isn't black-and-white, that both good and bad lie within all of us, and that human beings, even those who are basically decent, are also fairly complicated.

Scott finished a brilliant career with this film. He spent several years making average westerns, then jumped to a series of classics directed by Budd Boetticher. (The best one is "Seven Men From Now," which I will review in a day or so.) Peckinpah went on to direct several fine films, including "Straw Dogs" and "The Wild Bunch." McCrea made a few more films, but more or less said good-bye to a good career in this underrated classic. Hartley said she never topped this role, which was her first.

I guess my favorite part is the climax, in which Westrum and Judd decide to go out with guns blazing, heads held high. As Judd says, "All I want is to enter my house justified."

This is a fine western, indeed a fine film of any genre, one you have to see if you pretend to know anything about American cinema. It speaks to our fears about mortality, our thoughts about character, our motivations as the multi-faceted human beings we really are.

Peckinpah directs a western that deals with all of this and gives Randolph Scott a fitting epitaph. See this film, if you haven't. Oh, it's good. Mighty good.

Check back for more this week on Don Calhoun, A- and B-Westerns, TV cowboy favorites and other info on classic oaters. Don't forget that Marshal Andy Smalls will host a special live taping of "Riders of the Silver Screen" at 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 19, at the Knoxville PBS station on E. Magnolia Ave. Show up, have breakfast and enjoy the show. It will air on Channels 2 and 15 at the same time.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

See "Man of the West", "Winchester 73" and even "Cherokee Strip". The latter stars Richard Dix, a little known early star

2:51 PM  

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