Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Diamonds and Gold blogathon: Ride the High Country (1962)

It is my pleasure to be co-hosting Rich Watson's (Wide Screen World) brainchild, The Diamonds and Gold Blogathon, highlighting some of the great film performances from actors past the age of 50 (which we all know is the new 30!). Tomorrow this site will be devoted to ladies of a certain age. Today, my contribution looks at three popular actors together in one of the best westerns from any era.

Ride the High Country was a 1962 release based on a script by N.B. Stone, Jr. (TVs Zorro, Cheyenne, Bonanza, etc.) that writer/director Sam Peckinpah reworked to create a personal vision in the story of two aging lawmen at the dawn of the 20th century. Peckinpah's film serves as a forward-looking farewell to an era of filmmaking and a tribute to a vanished breed of men. 

Joel McCrea (1905-1990) was born in California and followed through on an interest in the motion picture industry by appearing as an extra in films in the 1920s and studying acting to prepare for the hoped-for big break. Blessed with good looks and an athletic build, McCrea was a perfect match for films. Signed by RKO he appeared in increasingly larger roles in interesting films such as The Lost Squadron, Bird of Paradise and The Most Dangerous Game. He proved a fine match opposite popular leading ladies such as Miriam Hopkins (The Richest Girl in the World, Barbary Coast, These Three), Ginger Rogers (Primrose Path, Chance at Heaven) and  Irene Dunne (The Silver Cord).

McCrea was an understated actor whose work smoothly speaks for itself in bona fide classics such as Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels and The Palm Beach Story, William Wyler's Dead End and George Stevens' The More the Merrier. By the mid-1940s McCrea, also a rancher by trade found himself comfortably in the position of a screen cowboy in such well-remembered titles as Ramrod, The Virginian, Colorado Territory and Stars in My Crown.  

"I liked doing comedies, but as I got older I was better suited to do Westerns. Because I think it becomes unattractive for an older fellow trying to look young, falling in love with attractive girls in those kinds of situations ... Anyway, I always felt so much more comfortable in the Western."
- Joel McCrea

Joel McCrea as Steve Judd

In Ride the High Country 57-year-old McCrea plays Steve Judd, a former renowned marshal fallen on hard times. He has taken a job of transporting gold from an isolated mining camp to a bank. The trail is dangerous as miners have been murdered in recent attempts to get to town, and the take is expected to be in the tens of thousands. Judd is an honourable man who is loyal to his personal code of right and wrong, and to his employers. Successfully completing this assignment is a matter of pride and one which Judd hopes will encourage others to see him as a worthy of hire. Joel McCrea as Steve Judd gives us a character who is down, but not out; a philosophical man who has retained his values and his good humour. The stakes involved in his trek to the mining camp of Coarse Gold are large and Steve thinks he has found someone to help him in the task.

Someone with the same sense of pride, Gil Westrum is also a former lawman now running a sideshow carnival booth going by the name of the Oregon Kid with a list of imaginary villains run to ground. Westrum earns his living soaking the rubes with the help of a younger partner Heck Longtree played by Ron Starr. Westrum agrees to go along on the job for old time's sake, and for the money.

Randolph Scott as Gil Westrum

In what would be his final film role in a 34-year film career, 63-year-old Randolph Scott (1898-1987) plays Gil Westrum. He commented to McCrea at the end of filming that it was time to hang them up as they'd never find another script as good. It was mainly in B westerns such as To the Last Man, Wagon Wheels and The Thundering Herd, which kept the young actor from North Carolina gainfully employed in his early Hollywood career. However, he became a popular and well-rounded lead and second lead in many familiar titles including A Successful Calamity with George Arliss, Murders in the Zoo starring Lionel Atwill, the adventure-fantasy She, The Last of the Mohicans as Hawkeye, two Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, Roberta and Follow the Fleet, and two Shirley Temple movies Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Susannah of the Mounties.

It was westerns where Randolph Scott excelled and seemed most at home in such top-flight titles such as Frontier Marshal, Jesse James, Western Union, and Belle Starr. By the late 1940s Scott, forming his own production company with Harry Joe Brown (Ranown) would focus exclusively on westerns. The mid-budget westerns proved extremely popular and profitable, featuring an interesting array of age-appropriate leading ladies including Donna Reed, Angela Lansbury, and Ann Dvorak.

Produced by John Wayne's Batjac in 1956, Scott starred in 7 Men from Now written by Burt Kennedy and directed by Budd Boetticher. Scott and Boetticher would collaborate on seven highly regarded westerns solidifying Scott's screen character as a man who might do the right thing for the wrong reason or vice versa. His characters were often edgy loners, suspicious and secretive in nature. Gil Westrum plays off that Scott persona and gives us an interesting and layered character.

Ride the High Country features some lovely exchanges between Steve and Gil which recounts their history and their present situation. Particularly telling is their reminiscing about a girl and what might have been. Steve is looking for a sort of redemption for his life and a chance to "enter his Father's House justified". Gil feels the world owes them both more than they received out of the dangers they have faced and the chances they have taken. Gil is determined to steal the gold with which they are entrusted and feels he is just. Steve will only do the right thing, no matter the cost or who must pay.

Mariette Hartley, Ron Starr, Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott

The journey to Coarse Gold brings a young woman into the entourage. Elsa Knudsen played by Mariette Hartley is running from her dictatorial father, played by R.G. Armstrong, to marry one of the mining Hammond brothers, Billy played by James Drury. Elsa's presence leads to conflict when an attraction arises between her and Heck, and the Hammonds (John Anderson, Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones, and John Davis Chandler) turn out to be less than forthright citizens. Marrying Billy is a mistake for Elsa and a wonderfully disturbing scene in the movie. The wedding takes place in a whorehouse with its garish inhabitants and customers. The ceremony being unceremoniously performed by a drunken judge, Tolliver by name, played by Edgar Buchanan.

Edgar Buchanan (1903-1979), beloved as Uncle Joe on TVs Petticoat Junction, was a dentist who turned his practice over to his wife and began a career as a movie extra at the age of 35 in 1939. The extra career didn't last long because by 1940s The Sea Hawk, Edgar Buchanan's ability as a scene-stealer of the highest order was recognized. The adventure epic was quickly followed with prime roles such as Applejack in Penny Serenade, "Doc" Thorpe in Texas and Sam Yates in The Talk of the Town.  

Edgar Buchanan as Judge Tolliver

Previous to Ride the High Country, Buchanan had appeared in six movies opposite Randolph Scott including The Desperadoes, The Walking Hills, and Abilene Town, and twice with Joel McCrea in Buffalo Bill and Wichita. In Ride the High Country the 60-year-old Buchanan excels as Judge Tolliver in the horrific wedding scene, marshaling his lost dignity to proclaim:

"I am not a man of the Cloth, and this is not a religious ceremony.  It is a Civil marriage, but nonetheless, it should not be entered into unadvisedly, but reverently and soberly.  You know, a good marriage has a kind of simple glory about it.  A good marriage is a rare animal, hard to find - almost impossible to keep.  I don't know - you see - well, people change.  It's important for you to know at the beginning that people change.  You see, the real glory of marriage don't come at the beginning.  It comes later and it's hard work."

The wedding night turns to a nightmarish shambles when the Hammond brothers attack Elsa, and Steve and Heck agree to take her back to her home. The Hammonds object, but agree to leave the matter in the hands of the miners' court. Gil Westrum fixes the proceedings with a visit to Judge Tolliver. It is a pleasure to watch Randolph Scott and Edgar Buchanan in the scene where Westrum bullies the judge into relinquishing his license to void the wedding. Nothing they had appeared in together before was ever quite as chilling as that scene. You can tell that they knew this was the goods! 

Westrum finds the hungover Judge Tolliver in a back bedroom at Kate's and offers him some liquor.

Tolliver:  Thank you, sir.  What can I do for you?
Gil:  Clear up a little technicality, if you will.  They're holding a Miners' Court.  About that marriage last night, they'll want to know if it was legal.
Tolliver:  Of course it was legal!
Gil:  Well, I believe that. But the Court may want proof. In the form of a license. To perform marriages. You got one?
Tolliver:  See for yourself.
Gil (reading):  Signed by the Governor of California. Yes sir, there's no question at all about the legality of this document. Now Judge, when you testify at that Miners' Court I'm going to ask you one question: 'Do you possess a license to marry people in California?' And you're going to answer, 'No'. Am I clear?
Tolliver:  But that's a lie.
Gil:  No, it isn't. You don't possess it. I do (pocketing the license).
Tolliver:  Now, hold on, Mister...
Gil:  Listen to me, you fat-gutted soak, you're going to do as you're told.  Understand?
Tolliver nods.
Gil:  Do you recall the question I'm going to ask you?
Tolliver nods.
Gil:  And what do you answer?
Tolliver:  No.
Gil:  Very good. Let's go.

Of course, the Hammonds aren't going to make this simple and the violent force they comprise, combined with the Westrum's treachery from within the group creates the tension and action of the final act of Ride the High Country.

Good acting is a combination of work, inspiration, material, and talent. When you can add experience into that mix you can create truly memorable movie moments. Ride the High Country has an interesting ensemble of younger performers about to make their mark in the industry, but it is the work of the old pros, Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott and Edgar Buchanan that make the film a classic which was placed on the National Film Registry in 1992.


  1. I'm not much of a western gal, but this is one I really like - and it's because of the old pros. Scott and McCrea fit this film like a glove (a well worn, comfortable classic glove). I can tell you really love this film - great post. I look forward to getting up close and personal with all the other cinematic seniors!

    1. Watching people who really know what they are doing is such a pleasure. I had the opportunity to catch "Ride the High Country" in a theatre a couple of years ago and it was very impressive.

      You may be more of a western gal than you think!

  2. Ah, the old pros. What would they think, especially somebody with the delicacy of Joel McCrea over such matters--to hear that 50 is the new 30? For my sake, I suppose I'm glad, but for them and their ilk--viva age and experience.

    1. I'm looking forward to all the seniors discounts I have coming my way, but 50 sure seemed a lot older when I was a lot younger!

  3. I've never seen this, but would really like to, and will definitely return to reread your review when I get to do so! I did recently see another Western with two great stars of the genre in their latter days, 'Firecreek' from 1968 with James Stewart and Henry Fonda - I enjoyed that one a lot.

    1. Judy, "Firecreek" is a bit of downer story-wise, but I admit to being drawn to it as well. The behind the scenes talent was involved in the TV series "Gunsmoke" which I count as a favourite.

      I hope you get a chance to see "Ride the High Country" soon.

  4. I used to not think much of McCrea, but the more I've seen him in the more I've begun to appreciate him. Don't think I've seen him in any Westerns, though. This sounds like a pretty good one.

    I've a question for you: the other day I saw someone make a comment on a movie site that the current surge of superhero movies is comparable to the popularity of Westerns in their heyday. Do you agree? I know Westerns had a longer shelf life, but superheroes are showing absolutely no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

    1. I can definitely see that correlation between the cowboy lead and the superhero. The thing about westerns and their longevity is that the basic premise could be played with to suit the time period in which they were made, to reflect those values and sensibilities in the western setting. That is what I see happening with the superhero movies of today.

  5. There are simply not enough words to express my love for Ride the High Country. To my mind, Peckinpah never made a finer film. (Okay, I do like The Ballad of Cable Hogue, too.)

    1. That's my one-two punch from Peckinpah as well. "Ride the High Country" has an intensely personal feel to it. I recall reading in an interview with L.Q. Jones that it was the best behaved he ever saw Sam on a set. He treated Scott and McCrea with the utmost respect, which they surely deserved.

  6. The final film role of Randolph Scott---an absolute perfect choice for this blogathon!

    As you probably already know, I haven't been much of an appreciator of Westerns until very recently. As a result of avoiding the genre for so long, there are dozens of great ones I have yet to see---including this one. I DVR'd it a few months ago, though, so I know I'll be getting to it in the somewhat-near future.

    That is a great Joel McCrea quote you included. He knew how to age gracefully.

    By the way, thank you for co-hosting this great blogathon.

    1. Patti, it's fun watching you catching up on all the great, and even just plain fun, westerns.

      Truly, "Ride the High Country" is one of the best screen swan songs for an actor like Scott, so revered in the genre.

      Thanks for your participation in this blogathon.

  7. Randolph Scott was one of my great-grandfather's favorite. Unfortunately, his films aren't widely available, and I have yet to watch Hide the High Country. But I can feel this will be good, especially beacuse McCrea is also there. Oh, and your post convinced me to watch Mustang Country, McCrea's last work, tomorrow on TV.
    Amazing blogathon so far!

    1. Your great-grandfather and I would have gotten along famously.

      "Mustang Country" is an easy-going sort of movie. McCrea is always worth watching.

  8. Generally I avoid Westerns, but I think you've convinced me to give this one a go!
    I have enjoyed reading all the entries to this blogathon so much - aging in Hollywood is one of my favourite topics, it's been great to see so many Oldies Do Film ;)

    1. I really hope that one of these days you give it a chance. I once saw "Ride the High Country" at a Cinematheque Ontario screening. The audience was packed and the response was entirely positive. There was much discussion of alternate casting afterward, but all agreed that the cumulative careers of Scott and McCrea added to their mystique in the roles.



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