The Movie (5/5)
If you’re like me, and you live for the 70s, when filmmaking broke out of the shadow of the antiquated studio system, then you probably know who Sam Peckinpah is. Director of some of the most groundbreaking, violent westerns and dramas such as The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, he demonstrated a flare for blood, large scale shoot outs with lots of cuts, and angry characters who are forced into unfortunate situations by a world that just doesn’t care. He had legendary battles with the studios during the 60s, and many of his films are seen as controversial even today. However, there was a time before Peckinpah waged war with the studios, and made films that were more approachable, less violent, and well viewed by critics, executives, and filmgoers alike; one of these films is Ride the High Country. Released to theaters by MGM in 1962, the film opened to critical acclaim and mild box office returns. It is considered by many scholars to be his first great film in a storied career built on the backs of loners making desperate decisions and plenty of violence.
Ride the High Country is the story of former lawman Steve Judd, a man who’s lived beyond his prime. Hired by a local bank to ferry gold from a mining town that’s been plagued by bandits, he enlists the help of his former partner, Gil Westrum, and his young friend, Heck Longtree, in order to safeguard the gold through the rough territory. Along the way they stop at a local farmstead, and on accident pick up Elsa, a young woman attempting to escape her oppressive father with the hopes of finding her would-be husband in town. Once there, they find that not everything is as they seem, as her husband is waiting turns violent, and plans for a betrayal are unmasked, forcing Steve to make a challenging choice; give up everything he’s worked so hard to put behind him, or embrace the joys of his old life and ride the high country once more.
Ride the High Country is a masterful examination of the mistrust and anger that flowed through the wild west, stretching even to the wildernesses of California during its famed gold rush. The characters of Judd and Westrum play perfectly into their roles as, “End of the West,” cowboys, struggling to find meaning in the days after their prime; they’re too old to go raiding or do meaningful work, too young and too poor to comfortably retire. It forces them to reexamine their lives and existences in two very ways, one searching for redemption, while the other grasps at straws in order to keep things exciting. In the middle of their dilemma is Elsa, a young woman condemned by the anger and abusiveness of her father, and Heck, who’s too naive to truly understand the consequences of his actions, getting caught up in a scheme that leads to terrible violence and destruction, as a result of the pent up frustrations of western California settlers, starved for entertainment and sex.
Led by a cast of hardened western actors, such as Randolph Scott as Gil Westrum, and Joel McCrea as Steve Judd, who approaches the role of a retired, disgraced cowboy with authenticity. He plays into the role with a sense of sadness and regret, but also with hope for the future as he pushes for his last chances at redemption with this mission. Scott shines too as Westrum, playing into the role of a scheming, hardened outlaw with a measured reserve. He never goes fully sinister or expanding beyond his means, existing comfortably in that grey area where he fosters an excellent sense of mistrust, both onscreen and with the audience. The two young bloods that join in for the ride, Mariette Hartley as Elsa and Ron Starr as Heck Longstree are excellent as well, filling their roles of the passionate young people searching for love and riches in a desolate land quite admirably. The supporting cast, which mostly consists of angry drunk minors, fill the roles of a much needed over the top villain with gusto, embracing the chaos they cause with enthusiasm and energy.
Shot by Lucien Ballard, who would go on to work on many of Peckinpah’s most important features of the next decade, the film is a love letter to the locales of the forests of California. The film constantly cuts to these beautifully framed wideshots that really allow you to breathe in the region of the world they’re traversing. The composition of shots as well as the set and prop design really gives the film’s setting a lived-in authenticity, which goes to great lengths to solidify it as a western. Edited by Frank Santilo, the film flows smoothly, with the shot pacing allowing us to take in the consequences of each gunshot during the film’s many large scale shoot outs and reflect on the violence that the plot demands.
A confident film, Ride the High Country is a great look at what was to come with Peckinpah’s career, presenting his early musings on what cowboys do when the world doesn’t really need cowboys. It hits all the marks, in both a technical and narrative sense, and carries a finale that is both action packed, but also somber and thought provoking. I for one, thoroughly enjoyed this trip back to the Wild Wild West.
The Video (4.5/5)
Shot on 4-perf 35mm film with Cinemascope anamorphic lenses, Ride the High Country was originally presented in theaters in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio on 35mm prints. Sourced from a brand new HD master prepared by Warner Archive, the film is presented in 1080p resolution, in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Stunning is the word I would be most likely to use when describing Warner’s new presentation of this early Peckinpah film. The second of many projects in which the director would collaborate with Lecien Ballard on photography, the film is imbued with soft whites, murky browns, golden yellows, and wonderfully saturated greens to embellish the natural qualities of the California wilderness. This new transfer handles all of this color information brilliantly, even when upscaled into 4K resolution. The presentation, caked in a layer of soft, natural grain, is generally sharp and detailed, especially in mid and close-up shots, revealing every bit of effort thrown into the mis en scene of the film. Occasionally, as a consequence on the lenses used by the production, the occasional shot registers softly, and optical grain and resolution reduction is present, but not troubling in any significant way. As usual, Warner Archive’s team steps up to the plate, and knocks it out of the park.
The Audio (4/5)
Ride the High Country was originally presented on film prints with a mono optical soundtrack. This new Blu-ray has recreated that track using a DTS-Master Audio 2.0 mono lossless soundtrack.
The mono soundtrack, much like many produced by Warner Archive, is adequate at meeting the demands on such a western. The track is well mixed, handling dialogue and balancing the needs of the film’s more action packed sequences with ease. George Bassman’s score carries through well, never overpowering or getting lost in the shuffle. The track is clean, and free of any pops or distracting clicks.
Special Features/Packaging (2/5)
Ride the High Country has been released to home video by Warner Archive in a standard Blu-ray keepcase. The front artwork carries forward the home video artwork that was previously used in other releases, with a shot of MrCrea and Scott positioned behind Hartley riding a horse and looking in the distance, with the title and cast above and below the imagery. The back artwork features a shot of the three main male characters riding their horses, with a cutout image from the film also featured below a few paragraphs about the film and a review quote. Below this is a list of features, credits, and technical specs for this release. A good looking package, but unmemorable compared to other Archive releases.
Onto the features:
Audio Commentary – a commentary performed by Peckinpah biographers Kick Redman, Paul Seydour, Garner Simmons and David Weddle. They discuss various aspects of the production, and its history as well as its place in Peckinpah’s filmography.
A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the High Country – a feature carried over from the 2006 DVD release of the film, the feature is a 23 minute retrospective on the history and life of Sam Peckinpah through the lens of his sister. She reflects on how their lives influenced the work of Peckinpah’s career, and other various topics.
Trailer – the film’s original trailer, as seen before it’s release in 1962. Standard stuff.
With decent package, and a few extras, this release isn’t a total bust in this section, but it comes close. I would have liked a new extra, or something else to sweeten the deal.
Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)
Region Coding: None
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
DTS-Master Audio 2.0 mono (English)
Runtime: 94 minutes
Ride the High Country is a great western, and although it is admittedly less than bombastic and bloody than his later, more significant efforts, a great piece of the Sam Peckinpah filmography. It highlights his flare for flashy shootouts, sharp dialogue, and visual style that he would later refine in making films such as The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The film has been presented in style by Warner Archive, with standard packaging and few extras, but a great 1080p video presentation and mono soundtrack presentation. Recommended.