Like most Peckinpah films Ride The High Country was concerned with men of action unable to come to terms with a changing world. Much like The Wild Bunch it was set at the beginning of the 20th century when the West had been won and law and order were becoming regulated. The opening scenes neatly sum up the changes as Joel McCrea rides in to town, only to be hurried along by a uniformed policeman and nearly ran over by a 'horseless carriage'. The West is starting to mythologise itself:, demostrated by Randolph Scott, dressed up like Wild Bill Hickock and running a fixed shooting gallery. The two heroes are all but relics, trying to make a dollar any way they can.
The film was shot 7 years before The Wild Bunch. As such there is not as much glorious, vibrant violence in the film and the story is a more recognisable western - two heroic riders, one young greenhorn, riding through the high country to a dangerous big payoff. The themes and motifs that make you feel comfortable are here, but there is a definite sense of loss and unease at the way things now are. The mining town scenes are ingrained with dirt and hedonism, the treatment of women is harsh and misogynistic. Peckinpah always leaves a bitter taste after his scenes with women - was he merely showing us what it would have been like, or were his misogynistic characters a sign of a deeper contempt in the director?
Definitely one of the more thoughtful westerns with a script loaded with nostalgia and questions of morality and heroism. Scott's old timer is still drawn to money, especially after decades in the wilderness, his sentiment of 'You can't take pride with you to the grave' contrasting sharply with McCrea's statement that all he wants is to "enter my home justified". Its also a very beautiful film, shot in a big, wide, heavily wooded country and filled with memorably dramatic scenes of nature - especially the windswept, hillside shootout.
There is a lot to Peckinpah. Indeed there is a wealth of literature to read up on, most of it raising very valid points. One of the more pithy and to the point examples is Christine Gledhill's appraisal of the film in The Cinema Book (BFI, 2007):
"The question [Peckinpah] poses is, how can the traditional code of the western survive into an era when the certainties that underpin it have been eroded? Individual morality has been replaced by corporatism, greed and cynicism [...] in Peckinpah's films, the white male hero is subjected to a series of ordeals, moral and physical that test to the full his ability to retain his integrity and sense of self. Typically, Peckinpah's heroes cannot adjust to a world that has overtaken them. There is no community that they can relate to, only, if they are lucky, a few kindred souls, doomed like them to assert their defiance in acts of heroic resistance."
A nice explanation. But I was wondering what she meant by "an era when the certainties that underpin it have eroded". Does she mean the era represented in the film, or the era of the audience? This started me thinking: has our perception of the hero changed, or have the movies simply stopped showing us these modest men and women? Read my next entry....