Ride the High Country
, 31 May 2012
Its 1961. Two weather-beaten but still handsome men in their late 50s are starting work on their latest film. They have probably both lost count of all those they have made since they arrived in Hollywood in the 1920s. For many years now each has been comfortable churning out westerns, although one of them once had a hot period when he starred in a string of classics. The other has taken to producing his own films and has just completed a sequence of seven westerns with the writer Budd Boetticher which, though he may not know it or is too self-effacing to believe it, will later be viewed as among the best of all time.
But things are changing in Hollywood: westerns are no longer making money at the box-office and people are tired of the old certainties of the goodie in white and the baddie in black. Do they know now that this new film will, for both of them, be their last? Have they talked about it and said enoughs enough, lets go out together?
The men are Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott. The film they are about to make is Ride the High Country (released in GB as Guns in the Afternoon) and, although it will be released as the second half of a double feature, its reputation will grow and it provide a fitting finale to their careers.
They will be directed by a hard-nosed and quarrelsome ex-rancher, ex-Marine with a Paiute Indian grandmother, a father and brothers who are Supreme Court judges and who has worked his way through TV writing and directing, mainly in westerns. His name is Sam Peckinpah and this will be his second feature film. His first has not been a happy experience.
In Ride the High Country we are in territory that will become familiar in Peckinpah films, the end of the west, the difficulties of transition and the arrival of new and less certain values. Steve Judd (McCrea) meets up with his old friend Gil Westrum (Scott). Times have changed since their heyday as US Marshals. Judd is still plying his trade as a lawman but Westrum is earning a meagre living in a wild west show. When Judd takes a job as a gold courier for the bank he enlists Westrum and his young side-kick to help him. Both have their values tested before the final shoot-out.
Rarely have film actors seemed more comfortable in their skins than McCrea and Scott, out in the stunningly beautiful autumnal high sierra, and rarely can there have been greater synergy between actors and roles. Famously, Judd expounds his philosophy for life: All I want is to enter my house justified. Surely McCrea and Scott, with this film, achieved just that before quitting for almost thirty years of retirement*.
For Peckinpah, as addictions fuelled his ever more unpredictable behaviour and misogyny, work would never come easy. Even the best of it would never recapture the beauty and still perfection of Ride The High Country.
*McCrea did make one further childrens adventure film in the mid-1970s
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