Ride the High Country

This was written in 1990 for a film series called “Myth of the West” at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. As a program note, it’s a brief introduction to Ride the High Country; its references to Peckinpah beginning to fade from film history are even keener now that it’s been over a quarter-century since his death. – Robert Horton

John Ford made something like 125 films in his fifty-year career in Hollywood, and in that time he created a cohesive, wholecloth world, especially in films of the American West. Sam Peckinpah worked in feature films from The Deadly Companions (1961) to The Osterman Weekend (1983); a dozen or so films, as well as television beginning in the late 1950s—a little over twenty years of work. Yet Peckinpah’s legacy is as rich as any modern director’s, and as unmistakable; you always know when you’re watching a Peckinpah movie. And Peckinpah did his most important work in the Western.

But it may be more appropriate to say that Peckinpah made end-of-the-Westerns. His Western films are poised at the moment of death, the passing of one life, one era, to another (maybe that’s why he used slow-motion to show his characters getting killed—he was saving, examining that final moment). The Wild Bunch (1969) is one long last gasp; the American West is disappearing, to the extent that the outlaw heroes must go to Mexico, where they find a brief glimpse of Eden. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) is explicitly constructed as an American folk ballad (Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan are among the actors), the stanzas of which describe two old friends who used to live a wild, wide-open life. Now, one of them has joined the side of the law, and has betrayed the other for the sake of employment and civilization. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), the hero, a man who has a waterhole in the middle of nowhere, is killed by… a motorcar.

Ride the High Country
Ride the High Country

Ride the High Country, Peckinpah’s second feature, taps into this feeling as much as any of Peckinpah’s films; it is autumnal in texture, and its cowboy heroes are visibly old men (the British title of the film, Guns of the Afternoon, has an evocative suggestion of twilight). At the beginning of the film, its two protagonists are sad, weary old relics. When former saddle-mates Steve Judd and Gil Westrum sign on to transport a shipment of gold, there is a strong sense that this is a final job for two men past their time. Judd has adopted a strict ethical code of existence, a moral seriousness that will someday allow him, he says, to “enter my house justified” (a beautiful line that comes from a favored phrase of Peckinpah’s father). Westrum, on the other hand, continues to follow his outlaw nature; he believes, as he says in a moment of Biblical mockery, in “Appetite, Chapter One.”

Peckinpah’s sympathies seem divided. The civilized homestead of the Knudsens is a place of heavy religious repression. But the mountain lair of the Hammond boys is no Eden, rather a place of perverse brutality. There seems to be no place left for Judd or Westrum; all that remains is an individual code, the shreds of a personal sense of integrity.

Ride the High Country is the one Peckinpah film that almost everyone agrees is a masterwork. It has little of the apocalyptic violence of his subsequent movies. Though what his critics never seemed to understand was that Peckinpah was interested in what happened before and after the violence, and the deep well of pain from which the violence emerged. (He once said, “Conflict in drama is necessary. Sometimes it’s violence, sometimes it’s in words; sometimes the worst thing in the world… is the failure of love….”). It is strange to think that Peckinpah has been dead for six years, that his films—or even the mere mention of his name—probably no longer cause controversy and bitter arguments. He surely had a few more movies in him, but his career—thanks to a mutually hostile relationship with Hollywood, and his bad health—got cut off at the pass. We are lucky he made his wise winter film, Ride the High Country, at the beginning.

© 1990 Robert Horton