Monday, August 11, 2014
A tepid showdown in the high sierras
This was American action director Sam Peckinpah's second film and it bears only a few traces of his 1969 masterpiece, The Wild Bunch. Even though Newsweek called it the Film of the year, you'll most likely yawn, roll your eyes, and fidget uncontrollably until the closing scenes. The film lacks the raw violence and debauchery that cements each scene of the later film.
Ride the High Country (released in the UK as Guns in the Afternoon) is set in California's High Sierras, which is a welcome contrast to the Monument Valley backdrop that typifies the 1950s westerns directed by the likes of Hawks and Ford. The scenes in the high country are awash with warm yellows and russet tones evinced in the aspens, sorrels, and tarnished leather vests. The film's conceit and for that matter the conceit of most of Peckinpah's westerns is that times are a changin' and leaving behind old men, who adhere to a shared code of honor.
Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) and Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) team up to bring gold back to the town of Hornitos from a distant mining camp. They take a young upstart named Heck Longtree (Ronald Starr) with them and wind up with an unexpected burden en route when they stop for the night at a remote farm. This burden is a young woman, Elsa Knudson (Mariette Hartley), who is running away from her father and who wants to marry a former suitor in the mining camp.
The script hints at an incestuous relationship when Elsa tells her father, "It seems every kind of man is the wrong man except you." Some of the stereotypes are particularly annoying. For example, although the sniveling, quivering bank clerks, who enter into a contract with Westrum, are supposed to make the hero look even more heroic, actor Scott simply isn't all that convincing. What's more, the two old men reminisce at length about the good old days when they were partners, but the stories they share about their feats make them seem more like tin men than iron men.
What works in the film is when the old timers shut up about their past and start talking about their predicament. It's then that their past deeds become easier to swallow. After Elsa gets roughed up (read almost raped) at the camp by her fiance, Billy Hammond, and his three brothers, the couriers not only must return her safely to her father but also get the gold back to the town.
What then unfolds is a shootout at close quarters reminiscent of the gunfight at the OK Corral. At one point, having already taken one round in the gut, Westrum tells his partner, "Let's take 'em head on, halfway like always." Then, as the two climb out of the ditch where they were hiding and face off with the three remaining Hammond brothers, one of brothers shouts, "Start the ball, old man!" Despite the movie's tiresome build, it's worth watching to see who buys it in the end and who doesn't. Besides, its considered by many critics as one of his finest!