This is a film commentary (two films, in fact). What follows might be perceived as a distraction, but I don’t think so. I have been watching the now considered old Sam Peckinpah westerns in between copious news viewing and reading about the protests. I fortunately have a box set of them, a condition set by living on my own for most of the latter part of my life and having enough dough now and then to occasionally squander it on such luxuries. I don’t believe that this is wasted money.
As much as I admire The Wild Bunch (1969), my favorite is Ride the High Country (1962), Peckinpah’s first big budget film. There is something extremely noble about both of these movies, but the Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) characters’ back and forth in Ride the High Country is very special and not without high humor. They are grizzled ex-lawmen compadres on a final whirl to transport gold from a tough mining outpost up in the mountains to a bank back in civilization (town). They have to get there and then they have to return again, hauling the loot back on the way down (all for $20 a day). It’s a rough and dangerous trek to a mean place over hard country. This has shades of Paul Newman and Robert Redford doing the same thing for a coppermine in Bolivia. There is temptation here, especially for Gil Westrum, who sees the whole exercise as a get rich quick scheme, planning on ripping off his old pal Steve Judd on the return journey.
Both of the protagonists in Ride the High Country are in the twilight of their years, and they have nothing physically pertinent to show for it, like any semblance of accumulated wealth, except their own sense of self worth and a life spent trying to do what they believe was the right thing. They have recently hooked up again in the town by coincidence, after a long separation. Steve Judd has been finding bit work, as a bar bouncer and those kind of gigs. He has applied for the job as the Brinks rider for the bank. After much scrutiny from the bank managers, who hem and haw about how they expected a younger man, he is eventually hired. Gil Westrum runs a rigged sharpshooter booth as a carney at the visiting travelling town fair and circus. He goes by the pseudonym of “The Omaha Kid.” He wears a Buffalo Bill wig and a buckskin jacket. He is a complete phony and that’s how he makes ends meet. Gil sees dollar signs with the Steve gig up and down the mountain, and signs on as his main man, along with Heck, his young sidekick and a wannabe hustler.
Steve and Gil have holes in their boots, and frayed collars and cuffs. They are left with just a load of memories, aching backs, sore feet, and only war stories to share and sometimes laugh about of their joint sheriff days in Dodge, Deadwood and Hondo. They play these characters perfectly. These are masterful performances by two veterans of the western genre.
A compelling moment is when Gil turns temporarily bad and tries unsuccessfully to steal the gold. Steve catches him and Heck in the act. Steve is talking to the girl character Elsa Knudson (Mariette Hartley) about the situation. He says that he will speak up on behalf of the kid, under the influence of Gil and who is falling for the young woman Elsa while regretting his decision to partake in the bungled heist. She asks Steve if he will ever forgive Gil. “No.” he replies firmly, “he was my friend.”
There is a documentary that comes as an extra with the film, and it is an interview with Sam Peckinpah’s sister, Fern Lea. Ride the High Country was filmed in the Inyo Forest National State Park, which is close to where the Peckinpah children grew up on a ranch. That’s Out of the Past territory (the black and white film noir tour de force with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas). It is a stunningly beautiful part of America, right near the eastern Sierra Nevadas and the White Mountains of California and Nevada. Eastwood filmed High Plains Drifter and Joe Kidd there (although that was a John Sturges movie). True Grit, the film version of the Charles Portis penned novel with John Wayne and the singer Glenn Campbell (hear the song Wichita Lineman), was also made there.
The soundtrack music of Ride the High Country is haunting and sweeping. It fits the scenery and the plot immaculately. And there is so much crammed in there for a ninety minute film: the “Beat the Beast of the Desert” camel versus mustangs race through the town streets during the carnival at the beginning; the whiskey-soaked Judge Tolliver (Edgar Buchanan) in the mining compound named Coarse Gold (which still exists as an actual town today); the redneck brother villains who include old Peckinpah real life drinking buddies Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones; the bible belter Joshua Knudson (Elsa’s father) played by R.G. Armstrong, another Sam Peckinpah regular and fellow lush, who believes that everyone else is a corrupt sinner and prays ferociously for righteous punishment and eventual redemption for the wicked. This is all classic material. Any writer worth his or her salt would die for this set-up. Ride the High Country is in my top ten list of all time, not just westerns. I watch it as much as I watch The Wild Bunch, which is pretty often.
I assume that most readers have some familiarity with The Wild Bunch or at least have heard of it, because it is an iconic American western film, made in Mexico. Without much fuss, it is the tale of an aging group of bandits who are also running out of options. Their last hurrah entails literally going out with bang by doing the only thing they know how to do. Their enemies are the irregular troops fighting for Huerta against Pancho Villa in the Mexican civil war.
I always catch a different line in The Wild Bunch that becomes my favorite quote of the day. This one is my current choice, right as they are about to take the railroad office at the start. The chief clerk is berating an underling before the robbers interrupt him, “It’s not what you meant to do that upsets me, it’s what you did.” Of course this is the immediate precursor to the infamous Pike Bishop (William Holden) line, “If they move, kill ’em.” And I am constantly reminded of the Reverend Wainscoat (Dub Taylor) bit when he is addressing the Temperance Union public gathering further on up the street….”But in this town, it’s five cents a glass…five cents!” That describes it all. Mayhem ensues shortly in a miserable hellhole of a place, a sweaty border town sucked dry by greed, the railroad company, mercenaries, bounty hunters, hold-up men, and Calvinistic conservatism. This movie was made at the height of the Vietnam War. It’s difficult to miss that.
Check these films out. They say a lot more than you think they might say. They evoke “the last gang in town” metaphor, the magnum opus written about the rock and roll band, The Clash. These movies are about the end of a way of life from different sides of the same coin, the aged lawmen in Ride the High Country, and the aging outlaws in The Wild Bunch.
Both films deal with the advent of modernity, the arrival of the automobile and the demise of the horse as the major mode of transportation. Henry Ford and the Detroit assembly lines came next, the birth of the 20th Century’s US industrial working class backbone, black and white. Pike Bishop sums that all up when the bunch sees a car for the first time in the Mexican General Mpacha’s stronghold. “No they don’t run on steam, they run on alcohol and gasoline. That old man’s right about the flying machines though. They say that they’re going to use them in the war.” And Steve Judd in Ride the High Country gets bustled off the streets on his horse by a uniformed cop, not a Marshall with a tin star, to avoid an oncoming honking automobile. “Watch out old man,” shouts the policeman. I am reminded of my fellow editor John Garvey and I trying to deal with social media. We do not represent the youth league of our collective.
These films are about part of the parable and mythology of the history of this country. And most of the protagonists die in the end. Viewing these movies is quite a Shakespearean experience that way. That’s what happens when the creator wants to make a statement outside of the normal expected narrative, and is trying to explain big changes that are on the horizon, and how these circumstances affect people profoundly and, in some cases, ultimately. “We’ve got to stop thinking with our guns,” Pike Bishop surmises.
The theme of loyalty is an underlying feature of both efforts. When Steve Judd and Gil Westrum make their final stand, they resolve their brief but serious misunderstanding. “I’ll take care of everything. Don’t worry.” says Gil to a shot to ribbons and dying Steve. “I always knew that” is the response. “You just managed to forget it for a short while.” And when Pike Bishop lectures his posse as the infighting becomes intolerable for him, he pronounces, “When you side with a man you stick with him, otherwise you’re nothing but an animal.” Therein lies the nobility and eventual solidarity of souls on the same mission.
This is is a powerful body of cinematic work that is as relevant today as it ever was. There is nothing retrograde here. It’s big sky Technicolor stuff that packs a wallop.
“Are you men connected with the American government?”
“No, we have very little in common with our government.”
From The Wild Bunch