Ride the High Country (1962), the second feature by Sam Peckinpah—and his first unqualified masterpiece—is a laconic tale about the end of the frontier that both celebrates and deconstructs the romantic view of old west nobility and heroism.
He casts two old hands at the genre—Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea—as old friends and veteran lawmen in their sunset years at the turn of the century. McCrea is the former marshal and straight shooter who just wants to complete one last job—transporting and guarding a shipment of gold from a mountain mine to the company office—and Scott, now reduced to playing a sharpshooter in a sideshow, signs on as his back-up and schemes to steal the gold for himself. Mariette Hartley co-stars and Peckinpah fills the supporting cast with actors who will become his familiar stock company, including R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, and Warren Oates.
This sunset western has a hard edge but only suggests of the savage violence that would define later films, and the finale anticipates The Wild Bunch in a more old-school vein, with the tired old veterans standing up to a scruffy gang one last time to give the next generation a chance and themselves a shot at redemption.
It’s also a fitting farewell for the two stars. It was the end of the trail for Scott, who retired after this film, and the final leading role for McCrea. Between their modesty and Peckinpah’s respect for these icons, they went out with honor and dignity. Peckinpah was always more of a romantic than most people realized and with Ride the High Country he delivered a lovely western and an American classic.
It was added to the National Film Registry in 1992.
On Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Ride the High Country [Blu-ray]
TCM Greatest Classic Film Collection: Westerns (The Stalking Moon / Ride the High Country / Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid / Chisum) [DVD]
The Blu-ray from Warner Archive and DVD from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment feature commentary by Peckinpah biographers/documentarians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle and the featurette “A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the Hogue Country.”