The Western genre has plenty of subgenres. There’s deconstructionist Westerns, post apocalyptic Westerns, spaghetti Westerns, classic Westerns, and so on. I’ve found you can also split the entire genres into two character categories — the young gunfighter, or the aging lawman / gunfighter. It seems to me that you don’t see a lot of the latter in the heydays of the classic Western — the 1940s and ’50s — but as the stalwarts of the era aged, we started seeing more elegiac tales come into vogue.
While John Wayne and Gary Cooper still maintained their crackling or saintly demeanor in movies like The Train Robbers or Vera Cruz, the stories still reflected that they were a little older, a little slower, and much grayer. Movies such The Professionals and Lonesome Dove or even the recent Appaloosa spend a fair amount of plot wistfully thinking about the good old days.
Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country falls in the same vein. Aging lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) is hired to escort a shipment of gold from a mining camp. The film gently pokes fun at his age (he’s utterly bewildered by the modernizing town) and the townsfolk are pretty blunt about it. He has a great reputation, but is he too old for the job?
By chance, Judd meets up with his pal Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) who works for dimes as a gunfighter in a circus sideshow. Westrum agrees to lend his gun to the mission, and brings in a young partner named Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) to assist. What Judd doesn’t know, however, is that old age and circus living have changed Westrum for the worse.
He and Heck plan to overpower Judd, and steal the gold. Matters are complicated further when Heck becomes entangled with a runaway girl, Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley) who is determined to marry a former admirer at the mining camp.
The plot is really incidental, though. The movie is really about the relationship between Westrum and Judd, and their constant reminiscing about adventures and gunfights past. Their banter is at turns humorous, melancholy, and regretful. They spent their whole lives in the saddle, never marrying, never having children, and what was it all for? The hazy autumnal setting just frames the mood perfectly, and in Peckinpah’s hands, it’s not as obvious as it might have been.
The twists and turns (particularly those with Elsa) are broadcast a mile away, but it doesn’t matter. This film is all about mood, and the stories hinted at by these two characters. It’s my favorite kind of storytelling — the kind where you get a sentence or two of past glories, and it’s just enough to feed the viewer’s imagination.
With actors like McCrea and Scott, it’s more about the look in their eye than the dastardly bandit they were hunting. These days, we have it all spelled out for us in prequels and origin stories, but real men wore their life story on their sleeve.
Incidentally, Charlton Heston revealed in his autobiography that he once wanted to remake this film with in the 1980s with none other than Clint Eastwood. It never happened, but the similarities between Ride the High Country and Unforgiven are unmistakable, suggesting the somber concept was something that resonated with Eastwood.
Considering he was in possession of the Unforgiven script in the 1980s, it’s surprising he didn’t make it then, and offer a part to Heston as a consolation. Maybe he was still feeling too young and spry (he was still churning out action movies) to contemplate even feeling that old, sad, and lonely.
Life certainly goes on in Ride the High Country, but even the youngest of punks will feel wistful in the course of this movie. Every man or woman ends up facing that horizon, and you don’t have to be dodging bullets to know that it comes far sooner than you plan on.