When one thinks of Sam Peckinpah’s films, there are two themes that generally stand out - men past their prime and gloriously bloody violence.
Ride the High Country (generally regarded as Peckinpah’s first major work) has none of the ferocious blood-letting of his more famous films (The Wild Bunch, The Getaway, Cross of Iron) but still retains that most elegiac of stories - once-feared and important men watching time passing them by and desperately trying to prevent themselves from being swallowed by the past.
A tired old retired sheriff rides into a town looking for work. With no pension or family he literally has to keep working until he dies, finding whatever jobs he can; in this case, to transport some company gold from a distant mining camp.
By chance he meets up with a former deputy of his who now earns a living as a fairground sharpshooter, who agrees to come along. However, he plans to steal the gold from his old friend, and along with a young carnival hothead, they make their way towards the gold and their destinies.
When it was handed to them, MGM didn’t know what to do with this strange film: there was little or no action, it starred two ageing actors, had a bizarre sort of love story (that didn’t really involve the two leads) and didn’t seem much concerned with its main plot point - the delivery of the gold. Therefore, it was promoted it as if it were a screen-filler and put at the bottom of double-bills.
Soon, however, it started to gain some small acclaim (someone once told me it won an award at the Cannes Film Festival although I can find no evidence for this) due in part to its mournful air, intelligent script and stunning cinematography by Lucien Ballard.
But it also had a sucker punch in its casting. The two leads, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, had made their careers in Westerns in the 1940s, but were now generally considered too old for leading roles. Aptly, this was to be their swansong.
Their defiance in the face of their own ageing is as sad as it is painful at one point McCrea takes a contract to the bathroom to read because he doesn’t want anybody to know that he needs to wear glasses, and the sepia-toned memories of a “better” time are slowly revealed as they struggle with their horses (and arthritis) over the striking but harsh terrain.
And even though one is thinking of betraying his friend for an easy final payoff, the old ways of loyalty and honour die hard, even if they are hard-to-find and risky commodities in the “modern” world.
With as beautiful and poignant an ending as you will see in any Western, this is a true unsung masterpiece of the genre, as two old-timers, both looking in different directions for a way to survive in a place that they no longer understand, find their souls in the values that made them great in the past.