With Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Mariette Hartley, Ron Starr, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones and Warren Oates.
“I don’t want them to see this. I’ll go it alone.” – Steve Judd (Joel McCrea)
“Ride the High Country” is Peckinpah’s second film and his first great film. It stars Golden Hollywood era icons Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea as two aging cowboys giving it their last run. Scott portrays Gil Westrum a “retired” gunslinger turned highwayman. He has a protégé by the name of Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) and they go from town to town running small con games. While in a town Steve Judd spots Gil – the two used to run together but that was many, many years ago.
Judd is a former gunslinger turned down-and-out lawman that was hired by a bank to deliver gold/money to the bank from a goldmine some miles away. Westrum learns about Judd’s new job and thinks this is his big score. He talks Judd into letting him tag along just so he can get close to the money and steal it.
Judd is a smart man, he knows his old partner is after the loot, but he needs as many guns as he can while trekking the High Sierra. While on route to the mine they come across a farm. They asked the land owner if they can rest for the night. The owner Joshua (Armstrong) a preacher allows the men to sleep in the barn. His daughter Elsa (Hartley) takes a liking to Longtree and tries to spend time with him – against her father’s wishes.
There is a chilling scene between Joshua and his daughter – he begins to tell her that all men are inherently evil and she belongs only to him (alluding to incest). As the men awake early the next morning to the mine Elsa follows closely behind until the men spot her and reluctantly allow her to join their party (what they don’t know is her “fiancé” is a mine worker).
Once the men reach this mine it shatters the Hollywood esq. It has a slick polish, it feels like a vintage John Ford film, it stars two classic western icons – McCrea and Scott – but the film also introduces us to some of Peckinpah’s new breed for western players – Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones who play a part of a pack of miner siblings. This mining camp is filled with every vice known to man, there are nasty bloated hookers, and moonshine is plentiful.
On Elsa’s wedding night, she’s brought back to the miner’s tent and is essentially offered up for a gangbang by her new husband and his brothers – it’s pretty trashy stuff. Judd and Westrum have no part of it and take the gold they were sent to get and high tail it out of the camp, stealing Elsa away from her new husband. They trek carefully back into town, being very cautious, knowing the mining pack is after them. Westrum makes a move for the gold, things get ugly.
Once the men reach Elsa’s homestead all hell breaks loose because the mining boys have staked out the farm which forces Judd and Westrum to work together – one last time. This is film is Peckinpah’s tamest film, but he edginess and realism that he’s known for was conceived in with this film. The framework and the template of the American Western was forever changed by this film.