Great Scott (and McCrea)!!!

I’ve just spent my afternoon watching Ride the High Country, Sam Peckinpah’s elegiac 1962 western starring the ageing Randolph Scott , in his last film role, Joel McCrea , who was also nearing the end of his acting career, and Ronald Starr,  on television. 

The plot has ageing ex-lawmen and friends Steve Judd (McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Scott) falling out over whether a gold shipment which they and Gil’s protégé , Heck Longtree (Starr), have been undertaken transport to town from remote mining camp should be stolen or not.  

Wetrum, feeling that he has very little to show in the way of rewards for his life’s work as a lawman, plans with Longtree’s help,  to  steal the gold, while Judd, with his strict code of honour, is determined to see it safely to its destination.  

Things are further complicated when the trio are joined on the journey to the camp by Elsa Knudson (Mariette Hartley) who, determined to escape the clutches of her God-bothering father (RG Armstrong), who tags along with the intention of marrying into what turns out to be a family of near-psychopaths, the Hammonds, played with varying degrees of gleeful malevolence by James Drury, John Anderson, LQ Jones, Warren Oates and John Davis Chandler.

This often moving requiem for the old west, which can also be viewed as a lament for the old Hollywood western, still strikes me, even when viewed on a small screen that diminishes greatly the effect that Lucien Ballard’s astonishing Cinemascope and Metrocolor photography had on the big screen, as a very fresh and impressively acted and directed piece of work, flawed only by the woefully inadequate playing Starr as Longtree.

This may not be one of the best westerns ever made, but it certainly is up there in ranks of the second best. It’s one of those westerns – another that springs to mind is Don Siegel‘s equally elegiac  The Shootist – that actually falls short of greatness by a mere whisker.  


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