Monday, December 03, 2012
Movie Monday: The "Ride the High Country" Edition
I'm not really a huge fan of western films. But if you never see another western, ever, you really should see Ride the High Country (MGM, 1962). I had the opportunity to watch it again last night, and it remains a fine film fifty years after it was made. It stars Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott (in his final film role), and Mariette Hartley (in her first film role). It was directed by Sam Peckinpah, in only his second turn as a film director after years of directing (mostly westerns) for television.
I don't want to tell you too much about the plot of the film, because I really want you to see it when you have the opportunity. It isn't just your run-of-the-mill western, or run-of-the-mill film, full-stop, for that matter. When it first came out, it beat out Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 for first prize at the Belgian Film Festival. It was named Newsweek magazine's best film of the year and made Time magazine's list of the ten best films of the year it was released. In 1992, it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
What Ride the High Country is, is an ode to the end of the Old West, symbolized by the characters played by McCrea and Scott. Based on a screenplay, "Guns in the Afternoon", by N. B. Stone, Jr., Peckinpah rewrote the existing screenplay extensively, including references to Coarsegold and Madera County, places the Fresno, California-born Peckinpah knew well from his childhood. Peckinpah went on to direct high-profile westerns such as The Wild Bunch (1969) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), as well as Junior Bonner (1972), a western that takes place in modern times starring Steve McQueen (a favorite film of mine), Straw Dogs(1971) and a number of other films. But, with all these notable films to his credit, Ride the High Country is considered by many to be one of Peckinpah's finest films. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that the film was shot in 26 days on a budget of $813,000.
The first time I saw Ride the High Country, I was in 11th grade. Joel McCrea was a local resident of the area where I grew up, and one day he brought a copy of the film to show to my American Literature class and another class at my school. He showed the film (and that was back when films were on actual film, on reels), told us stories about the making of the film, and answered our questions. Among other things, he told us about how he and Scott had been originally assigned to the parts opposite the ones they ended up playing. But neither one of them were happy with their role, and each had gone separately to talk to Peckinpah about the issue, so that he ended up reversing their roles.
It was an interesting way to first see a film, in a classroom with maybe forty other students and an opportunity to talk to one of the stars about it afterward.
I also think it is interesting that, from the trailer of the film shown in theaters when it came out, it really isn't clear what a good film it is:
All of the stereotypical traits of the early-sixties film trailers are there, showing all the things one would expect in a western. I suppose it is an example of how one should not trust a trailer when deciding whether or not to see a film.
Which might be a subject for another Movie Monday.