In the summer of 1962, a low-budget western was given a general release as the lower half of a double-bill that featured the turgid Italian-made costume drama The Tartars.
To the average moviegoer, the western appeared to be just another standard cowboy movie that at the time were still regularly rolled out by most of the Hollywood studios in support of their A-feature films. Indeed close examination of the cast, which included old-time cowboy actors, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, would appear to confirm its B-movie status.
However, word quickly spread through critical reviews and amongst cinemagoers that rather than being just another “oater”, this movie was more a minor classic western. The film’s popularity grew to such an extent that many US theatre managers took it upon themselves to reverse the billing on their marquees to advertise Ride the High Country as the main feature of the double-bill.
The story centred on two former lawmen, marginalised by old age and circumstance, who undertake one last ride as hired guns. Their contract is to bring in a shipment of gold from a mining camp in the High Sierras – described to them as “a sinkhole of depravity”– and deliver it to a small town bank.
On the journey they meet various characters including a young runaway girl, who is intent on marrying one of the notorious Hammond clan who are pan-handling in the gold fields. The two main protagonists, Gil Westrum and Steve Judd (played by Scott and McCrea) reminisce about the old days back when the frontier was untamed and they believed in justice, loyalty and honour. But the West they shared has practically vanished and they now have very different ideas on how to deal with the change and their own obsolescence.
Although both arthritic, saddle-sore and bullet-scarred, Judd still remains loyal to his code of honour. Westrum on the other hand has become more cynical, and unbeknownst to his partner, plans to steal the gold as payback for the long years of dutifully putting his life on the line for ungrateful people who now care nothing for past service. Westrum’s view on his lot is reflected early on in the film when he says to his partner, “Steve, do you know what’s on the back of a poor man when he dies? The clothes of pride. And they’re not one bit warmer to him than when he was alive”.
The story continues with complex twists and turns until a redeemed Westrum returns to join his old friend, and together they face the murdering Hammond brothers in a final showdown – face to face – just like the old days. As the gunsmoke clears, the Hammonds are all dead and Judd has been fatally gut shot.
There follows a memorable scene of Westrum gently saying to his dying partner, “Don’t worry about anything Steve, I’ll deliver the gold, just like you would have”. Judd’s reply perfectly epitomises the strength of his belief in his friend: “Hell, I know that. I always did. You just forgot it for a while, that’s all”. Friendship and trust remain the highest values of these two men, and whatever their circumstances, those values must never be betrayed. This lies at the very core of this splendid, elegiac western.
Ride the High Country was one of the best films released by any of the Hollywood studios during 1962, albeit MGM failed to see that at the time. It was written and directed by 36-year-old Sam Peckinpah, who had cut his cinematic teeth writing dialogue for movie scripts and directing numerous episodes of TV westerns.
When 64-year-old Randolph Scott viewed the final cut of RtHC, he decided that this would be the perfect swan song for him, stating: “I want to retire from the screen on a high and I’ll never better my performance as Gil Westrum.”
Peckinpah sensed he had delivered an exceptionally good movie and waited in eager anticipation for the response from MGM executives. But when it was shown to MGM president Joseph Vogel, he fell asleep within the first ten minutes, his snoring practically drowning out the soundtrack. He snorted himself awake half way through, decided then and there that the film wouldn’t make a single buck, and promptly exited the screening room. Peckinpah was furious, spitting out “It would have helped if the fat son of a bitch had stayed awake!”
Subsequently, MGM spent very little on advertising, virtually throwing away Sam’s picture by attaching it to the bottom half of a summer double feature aimed primarily at the drive-in market.
This particular incident was the root cause of Peckinpah’s escalating antagonism toward the money men associated with the motion picture industry – a hatred he would carry throughout his entire movie career.
The following year, film producer Jerry Bresler had managed to interest his old friend and actor, Charlton Heston, in a major project he had arranged with Columbia Pictures. Chuck Heston was then the top leading man in Hollywood after starring in a plethora of money-making epic films.
Bresler had a 40-page treatment of a story about a Union cavalry officer, Major Amos Dundee, who, at the closing stages of the Civil War, is posted to a remote outpost in New Mexico to guard a prison full of Confederate soldiers.
When the Apache slaughter a company of Dundee’s men and farm settlers, he puts together a makeshift army of regulars and Confederate prisoners and leads a punitive expedition into Mexico to destroy the renegade Apache band.
Heston was keen to take the starring role of Amos Dundee and asked the producer who he had in mind to direct this “Dundee” project. Instead of directly answering Heston’s question, Bresler ran Peckinpah’s film, Ride the High Country, for him. When the film ended, Heston turned to Bresler and said, “Whoever directed that movie, you damn well hire him for Dundee”.
Their decision that night would result in a classic movie being completely ruined by the Columbia studio executive, and its director blacklisted for three years.