I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:14)
“The Great Era of the classic Western ended with Ride the High Country,” Terry Teachout once wrote to me. “All else is commentary.”
It was a sweeping judgment, but Terry, a devotee of the genre, had the authority to make it. In the year since his death, I’ve thought of him – and the film – often. He loved classic Westerns, drawn to their strength, American spirit, and homegrown virtues. I suspect that his admiration of the stories was deeply intertwined with his own nostalgia for the modest, God-fearing Protestant patriarchs of his youth. He wrote with great admiration of the sort of unshowy heroes who take center stage in this film.
Ride the High Country is about the death of a generation and the sad inevitability of change. It’s a story about the 1960s. About the end of an era of film and a style of acting. About a director wrestling with his father’s legacy. The passing away of a generation of Christian men. Of course, it’s not really about any of those things, it’s just that they are its context, the frame that turns it into a mythological encapsulation of an era. It possesses a hope and strength of purpose, coupled with a bracingly candid social realism, that has made it a classic since it hit theaters sixty-one years ago.
The American myth of the Wild West is one shaped as much by Hollywood fantasy as it is by real-life history. On a road trip through Utah and Arizona I made last fall, I found monument after monument, not to Manifest Destiny, but to John Wayne and John Ford. For a key period of mid-century cinema – starting with the 1939 revival of the genre – the Western was the art form establishing the national myths, such that when the space age arrived, it had to market itself as the “final frontier” and “Wagon Train to the Stars.”
In addition to their significance as political myth, classic Westerns offered noteworthy contributions to art. The classic Western era produced many films of surpassing profundity and beauty. Who could forget John Wayne’s lonesome hesitance in the doorway in The Searchers (1956)? Or the galloping splendor of the opening strains of Jerome Moross’s score for The Big Country (1958)?
“I believe that, film by film, traditional Westerns were the finest genre movies to come out of Hollywood,” Terry wrote.
The classic Western era was a distinct period in American film, establishing a genre with singular moral and artistic rules. These were stories about honor culture in the wilderness, a limbo space where rule of law was tenuous or nonexistent. Other critics have noted the difference in ethos between the old and new eras of Westerns, but Terry’s conservatism, and the erstwhile Christian faith of his childhood, gave him unique insight. The lawless world of Westerns, he noted, seemed to dramatize Dostoyevsky’s warning in The Brothers Karamazov that “If there is no God, then anything is permitted, even cannibalism.”
By contrast, “the characters in every great Western are forced to make moral choices that are always clear but rarely easy,” he wrote. “In a world without laws or lawmen, we must all choose between the moral integrity of the old-fashioned hero and the moral cannibalism of the self-willed villain.”
The hero’s ability to choose honor over happiness seems anchored in piety, for “it is hard to fathom” such “old-fashioned integrity without supposing that [the hero] believes in something beyond his own iron will.”
Similarly, the critic Roger Ebert, a former altar boy turned lapsed Catholic, understood there was something quite Christian in the nature of the classic Western.
Modern action movies have replaced values with team loyalty; the characters do what they do because they want to win and they want the other side to lose. The underlying text of most classic Westerns is from the Bible: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?” The underlying text of most modern action movies is from Vince Lombardi: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
The public recalls the transition from the classic to the modern era as a moment when cowboys hung up their white hats for gray, when budgets increased and narratives grew sophisticated, when the country grew up and abandoned fairytales. But classic Westerns were far more varied and nuanced than popular memory would attest – they ran the gamut from rollicking road-trip adventures to dark and psychologically complex character dramas. Godfather of the classic Western, John Ford painted an acidic tableau of Manifest Destiny as early as 1948. The “postwar sea change in audience attitudes that was also responsible for the simultaneous emergence of film noir” led to the fact that “most of the best Western films were made between 1945 and 1960,” Terry wrote.
By the 1960s, the glut of mediocre TV oaters had lessened the public appetite for big screen Westerns. But more importantly, the national mood had changed. The optimism and conviction of the Greatest Generation were fading away and with them went the moral clarity which underlay the structure of the genre.
Ride the High Country came out in 1962, a watershed year. There would be more Westerns after that, but they were revisionist fare, parodies or arthouse or style-heavy Spaghetti Westerns, so self-referential that they stepped outside the genre to become, as Teachout said, “Westerns about Westerns.” (The rarity of the exceptions proves the rule.) Some of these were fine films, like The Wild Bunch (1969) or Unforgiven (1992). But they were in style and ethos dramatically distinct from the classic era.
Shooting straight, the film implies, isn’t the reason we admire a hero. A hero’s aim is true because his heart is.
Ride the High Country is stylistically and ideologically a bridge between eras. Its action is placed in the waning years of the Wild West, and Lucien Ballard’s gorgeous cinematography is full of golden autumn leaves and snow on the mountains. Aging gunfighters embody the old ways, while nihilistic youthful villains embody the new. Within the film, honor culture values struggle to survive in the cruel materialist future of civilization. On a metatextual level, leading men Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott are clear products of the star system, dropped into a modern world where the Hays Code no longer applies. Thus, the film poses its central question in both its content and its form: Will the virtues and talents of these “old lions” win out, or be exposed as mere gimmickry?
If you know the director, you’ll probably think you know the answer. Sam Peckinpah’s revolutionary use of hyperviolent imagery meant he was later dubbed “Bloody Sam.” Seven years afterwards, his film The Wild Bunch would set a new precedent for onscreen violence with the intensity and brutality of its orgiastic final massacre. (Pauline Kael wrote, “Pouring new wine into the bottle of the Western, Peckinpah explodes the bottle.”) Ride the High Country shows hints of this sensibility in its surreal and painfully subjective portrayal of abuse against a woman from her perspective.
Peckinpah, whose personal life would eventually devolve into alcoholism and womanizing, seems at first glance a revisionist filmmaker, quite at odds with the masters of the classic era. But while his films were dark, his intentions were obviously moralistic. Rather desperately so. Peckinpah’s yearning for an earlier, more innocent time is palpable. While The Wild Bunch is affectionate for its band of jovial anti-heroes, it is also disturbed by their outlawry and seared consciences. Their final blaze of glory is a scene as sickening as it is empowering. There is no Butch-and-Sundance freeze-frame conclusion as these anti-heroes face a hail of bullets. It’s all blood and agony. Peckinpah’s view of them is mournful. “We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us,” says one character, as he observes the two shallowest outlaws larking around with young women. “Perhaps the worst most of all.”
Ride the High Country is even more earnest in its elegy for innocence. It is also the story of gunfighters mourning the riches of the past in the ruin of an impoverished present, and hits the usual beats of a “death of the West” tale. In the opening scene, former gunfighter Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) rides into town, his shirt threadbare and his eyesight failing. At first, he thinks the cheering crowd is hailing him, but in truth they’re waving him out of the way for an incoming horse-and-camel race. He has taken a job to pick up and transport gold from the mining camp of Coarse Gold, which he sees as a chance to regain his dignity after years languishing in odd jobs.
Optimistically but unwisely, Steve recruits his old partner, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), as backup. Steve finds Gil working in a Wild West roadshow, made up as a flamboyant Buffalo Bill type, scamming carnival-goers. The old heroes, it seems, have been reduced to costumed vehicles for crass commercialism. While Gil accepts his old friend’s invitation to act as a second guard, he secretly plans to rob Steve on the return journey, enlisting the aid of his hotheaded young companion, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr), the third member of their quest.
We know from the beginning that the two old friends are on a collision course. Their choices illustrate their respective characters: Steve responds to society’s ingratitude by seeking to regain his honor. An embittered Gil looks to take his reward by force. But Gil isn’t without his scruples. He doesn’t want to betray his old partner if he can help it. Rather, he spends much of the ride up into the Sierra Nevada tempting Steve with dreams of a world where they finally got what they were owed.
In one of the best of these exchanges, Gil seems to have Steve on the ropes. The latter has just blithely praised the value of their poorly compensated work. Gil says, “You know what’s on the back of a poor man when he dies? The clothes of pride. And they’re not a bit warmer to him dead than they were when he was alive. Is that all you want, Steve?”
Responding with the most famous line in the film, Steve avers, “All I want is to enter my house justified.”
Peckinpah based Steve Judd on his father, David, from whom he took that aphorism, a biblical paraphrase. Beneath Peckinpah’s rough exterior was a son of the Old West. In fact, he was born and raised on his family’s ranch on Peckinpah Mountain in the Sierra Nevada. “That world is gone,” he later lamented. “I feel rootless, completely. It’s disturbing, very much so. But there’s nothing you can do about it, nothing.” His father had a job “driving the stagecoach running between the Madera County hamlets of North Fork and South Fork, near Shuteye Peak” in California and later became a judge.
Both Peckinpah’s grandfathers sound like the stuff of legends. Charles Peckinpah ran a sawmill in the mountains, a three-thousand-foot ascent that took a whole day to make by wagon. A neighbor wrote that he “has taken care of every forlorn and incompetent relative, in direct defiance of his own interests and those of his boys. In repose, his face has a Lincolnian sadness, but when he smiles it twinkles all over like sun on broken water.” The filmmaker’s other grandfather, Denver Church, was a cattle rancher, lawyer, and eventual congressman.
The casting of the two leads also represented a dovetailing of real life and fiction. “Both Randy and I were washed-up actors playing washed-up lawmen,” McCrea recalled in a 1982 interview. McCrea and Scott were both long-time leading men whose stars had faded in the glow of their A-list peers. (Scott’s cultural footprint, for everyone but cinephiles, consists of a joke in 1974’s Blazing Saddles and a song asking whatever happened to him. McCrea doesn’t even have that.) Their career trajectories represent one reason they were perfect choices to play underappreciated gunslingers.
The other is that they had the dignity of star system vets who – in Peckinpah’s words – had “been building one character and one cinematic walk for twenty years.” Their personas were more naturalistic and easygoing than a Cary Grant or a Kirk Douglas, so they fit smoothly into Peckinpah’s harsh-edged world, while carrying themselves with a pre-modern dignity. Peckinpah complimented the hard working actors of the new “method” style, but pointed out that only stars could walk like that.
McCrea slipped easily into the role of a strong-jawed hero. Katharine Hepburn considered him “the most underrated actor of his day.” A self-effacing man who claimed he went into acting to fund his true passion – ranching – McCrea used to joke that every script he received was one Gary Cooper turned down first. (The modesty of the remark may have been genuine but he wasn’t blind to its effect, pointing out that “that phrase spread around like wildfire because they all loved the humility of it.”) He remembered tripping down the stairs on the set of the Alfred Hitchcock film Foreign Correspondent (1940). The great director commented, “Joel comes down the stairs like an elongated bag.” McCrea sheepishly responded, “I do miss my horse.”
By contrast, Randolph Scott was playing against type in Ride the High Country. Lanky and aristocratic, the North Carolinian Scott was born in 1898 and served in World War I. Like McCrea, he eventually moved exclusively to Westerns, but it was only very late in his career that he made a string of truly great films with director Budd Boetticher and screenwriter Burt Kennedy.
This is a story with a revisionist sensibility that believes the virtues of a noble past are real – and inheritable.
In those, the “Ranown Cycle,” he played a proto-Eastwoodian loner, haunted, angsty, and yet noble. By this time, Scott’s bland golden looks had toughened into an aspect as weather-beaten and grave as a Mt. Rushmore head, lending his steely-eyed heroes an unshowy verisimilitude. “Nobody in Hollywood, not even John Wayne, looked more believable in a Stetson,” Terry wrote in 2002.
In Ride the High Country, his other claim to cinematic history, Scott’s stony jawline has just slightly diminished into gauntness, and he turns his understated charm in a sinister direction as a gregarious conman.
Bizarrely, the roles in this film were originally meant to be reversed. Could we imagine pastel-blue-eyed, matter-of-fact McCrea playing the cynical, compromised conman? Or the drawling, sardonic Scott as a fish-out-of-water idealist conversant in scripture? (Well, Scott more than McCrea – devout Episcopalian Scott was close friends with Billy Graham in real life.)
Notably, neither of the two icons “play young” in Ride the High Country (the same year, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart “played young” in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, at respectively two and three years younger than white-haired McCrea). McCrea and Scott also have an easy rapport. An early scene demonstrates both their age and their camaraderie – when the punches start flying in a bar fight, the two men pick up and cradle their full plates in unison – old friends united in common sense and disdain of the “young asses” of the new generation.
A word, here, in defense of young asses. Shared enthusiasm for the classic Western was one of the bases for my friendship with Terry Teachout, a seemingly unlikely one given the thirty-nine-year gap in our ages. Terry sparked this enthusiasm when, in 2021, he recommended Ride the High Country to me as a film that “would please you right down to the ground.”
He was right. I watched it four times that year. It was a gateway not just to the world of Westerns (I watched dozens more that snowbound winter) but to a different generation and time, one that Terry had seen before it passed away, but one which rang true and familiar to my ear, growing up as I did on gospel songs in mountain churches. Living in an Appalachian town is a bit like existing outside of time, and if you hop a fence and wander through forested hills, it’s easy to feel like the nineteenth century never ended. Randolph Scott’s démodé aristocratic Virginian lilt reminded me powerfully of my great-great-uncle.
When Terry died suddenly on January 13, 2022, I felt his loss deeply. I didn’t write about that. It seemed presumptuous to do so when our friendship was so relatively brief. Much of that friendship took place in Twitter conversations and direct messages, though we met in person for a few long conversations which I remember fondly. How could I hope to capture his legacy in words?
I don’t think that would have bothered Terry. His dearth of snobbery (he wrote with great enthusiasm about classical music, conservative politics, and the movie Paddington) was matched in inverse proportion by his generosity of spirit. We were both middle American expats who chased a world of letters to New York City, a similarity we noted when we first met in 2019. But I was twenty-three, all cocksure opinions and earnest, ungrammatical prattle. I guess he saw something under all that. Despite the discrepancy between our ages and levels of experience, he treated me like a peer. I told him redneck stories about my hometown. He told me about editing Whittaker Chambers and Gore Vidal. When he died, I felt powerfully the knowledge and experience that left the world with him, but in equal measure, I felt spurred – observing how he spent so much of his life lauding and promoting art – to do likewise.
Terry was always looking to praise things. His conservative sensibility didn’t cause him to slip into reactionary distrust of all things new. He would probably have noted that despite the virtues of classic Westerns, they were products of their time in negative ways as well. Empowered female characters are few and far between (paging Barbara Stanwyck), and the white perspective is very much assumed to be the default. Improvements on these fronts in the 1960s were a welcome corrective to a genre that had been nudging towards self-awareness slowly.
One shouldn’t overstate those critiques – and we should avoid the overcorrection of aesthetically equating whiteness and maleness with a world of moral codes, and all things distaff and nonwhite with the new ugly, corrupt postmodern society. It’s rather condescending to do so. (It’s a true shame that the great black leading men came along – or were only allowed to emerge – at the tail end of the Golden Age of Hollywood Westerns, for tales of great perseverance and moral courage in a lawless social environment are so key to the American black experience that there was a great myth to be made there.)
This emerging social conscience is key to the other plot of Ride the High Country, which isn’t just about the philosophical discourse of two old cowboys. The second act features a sudden, and at first incongruous, diversion into the story of Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley, in her screen debut), and the violence and oppression she faces from men. Steve, Gil, and Heck stop at the Knudsen farm on their way into the mountains. Over dinner, the Knudsen patriarch (R. G. Armstrong) chastises the cowboys for their mission. “Gold is a stumbling block to him who sacrifices to it,” he notes, quoting Ecclesiasticus. It’s idealistic Steve, of course, who has a spiritual riposte, “A good name is to be chosen above great riches…Proverbs, chapter 22” while worldly-minded Gil tries to break the tension with a joke: “you cook a lovely ham hock, Miss Elsa. Appetite, chapter 1.”
The theme of twisted and corrupt religion counterbalances Steve’s true faith. (Peckinpah’s father, after all, was also stern and authoritarian, making a teenaged Sam “sit through the rape trial of a teen‐age boy, for moral instruction; and later [packing him] off to military school for discipline.”)
Feeling stifled by her abusive, fanatical father, Elsa flees to join the men on their journey to the mining camp, intending to marry a roughneck Southern miner, Billy Hammond (James Drury). In the meantime, she flirts with Gil’s immature sidekick, Heck. But once the small band arrives in Coarse Gold, Elsa discovers that the Hammond clan is even more controlling and violent than her father. A pre-planned gang rape on her wedding night is only thwarted when Steve Judd charges into the sordid saloon with a gun.
Throughout the film, Gil has talked up Steve’s legend as a gunslinger. But Steve is far more fallible than he appears. Star power gives him an edge as he comes charging in to stop a fight in Coarse Gold, but it’s also because he’s using a gun instead of his fists…and he’s the only sober man in the room. In a Hays Code film, there’d be no worries about whether he’d come out on top, but this is a new world. In the end, it’s Gil who gets them all out of town – because he has the intelligence to cheat the system and threaten a judge.
Does that mean that Steve Judd and Gil Westrum’s skills really are mere smoke? Westrum presents Judd as invincible at first. But Judd makes important mistakes. He’s a poor judge of character, and he’s far from being as wary as he should be. These flaws lead to catastrophic errors. But these weaknesses also humanize Judd without robbing him of his essential self-respect – which is the true key to his legend. His missteps imperil his life, but not his soul.
Shooting straight, the film implies, isn’t the reason we admire a hero. A hero’s aim is true because his heart is. Steve recounts a story of being beaten, in his youth, by an angry sheriff.
“That took some doing,” Gil chuckles.
“Not much,” Steve says. “You see, he was right, I was wrong. That makes the difference.”
For Judd, who’s not a philosopher, self-respect and being right are tied together – and success to both of them. When you’re right, when you have conviction, you can fight harder, he reasons. And yet events seem to support him in that belief. He easily punches out the impetuous Heck when the young man takes liberties with Elsa. (This, and a follow-up punch from Gil, is the entirety of the young man’s character development, an amusing little bit of cinematic cliché glue.) When the conflict between Steve and Gil finally comes to a head, Steve delivers another beating, this one verbal. It isn’t hard for him to browbeat the other man. The dominance and effectiveness of such authority, moral rather than psychological, bespeaks the nature of such stories as myth, not documentary.
Something that’s important to realize about cinematic Western mythmaking is that it quite literally overlapped with the time it mythologized. An elderly Wyatt Earp used to visit the sets of silent shoot-em-ups to act as an unofficial consultant. Western movie stars Tom Mix and William S. Hart were pallbearers at his funeral, and he met John Ford (though not John Wayne) on the set of the latter’s film Mother Machree. Ford later told Henry Fonda that he based the conclusion of their 1946 exquisite film adaptation of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral on Wyatt’s personal retelling of the famous shootout. So the actual Wild West had barely ended before Hollywood had turned it into a romance.
If the golden age of the classic Western ends in 1962, it is widely agreed to have begun in 1939, with Ford’s Stagecoach propping up two loadbearing pillars of the era, a debuting (baby-faced!) star, John Wayne, and even more astonishing, the elemental grandeur of Monument Valley, which Ford photographed like no other director. In this desert, all that is inessential is stripped away, leaving only the eternal, spiritual, ancient things, as symbolized by the massive buttes of the valley. In many films after, the high country would remain this visual shorthand for the values that lie at the heart of the Western.
With that in mind, Peckinpah gives us a surprising amount of hope in the end. There’s a way to watch the film’s conclusion and see only crushing sadness and failure – at least, if you’re Vince Lombardi. There is no Hays Code armor to ensure a happy ride into the sunset. The final score is achingly mournful – “almost a passacaglia,” Terry commented. But poverty and pain endured with righteousness, the film has told us again and again, is no tragedy. Furthermore, if salvation of the soul and not preservation of the body is the ultimate goal, Steve achieves a victory not just of defense but of conquest.
The young man, Heck, matures over the course of the film, and when push comes to shove, chooses to surrender to Judd rather than continue with Westrum’s schemes. And then, in a startling and touching reversal, Gil rides to Steve’s rescue, abandoning his mercenary designs for a chance at true redemption. Peckinpah made many improvements in his uncredited rewrite of N.B. Stone’s script, but the most important was to swap the fates of the two gunfighters. In the original script, Gil dies, while in the finished film, it is Steve who’s mortally wounded. This means that the choice to sacrifice his happiness for his honor is one Gil has to make freely.
“Don’t worry about anything,” he says. “I’ll take care of it. Just like you would have.”
McCrea looks at Scott, measuring him up. “Hell, I know that. I always did. You just forgot it for a while, that’s all.”
Scott’s face has been a study in microexpressions – steadily shedding Westrum’s irony and self-loathing for earnest joy and pride – but with Judd’s words, his reserve crumbles into a look of pure gratitude. It’s a great performance.
Sam Peckinpah would later die too young, of liver failure. It is startling to see his early dream of the Old West, where courage and experience win out over bluster and cruelty. If there’s a Christian meaning to Steve’s famous line, “All I want is to enter my house justified,” then the final line of the film, seemingly a throwaway, is one with religious implications just as deep: Gil quietly says, “I’ll see you later.”
And I think he will.
Ride the High Country is a picture at once good enough to launch a visionary career and also form a fitting conclusion to a genre in its twilight years. It’s not a postmodern film, but it gains immense gravitas from the history and biography of its primary players, as well as its own place in cinematic history. Importantly, it doesn’t substitute nostalgia for emotion. Rather, its own deep emotion is intensified by its circumstances, its mixture of styles, and the stature of its cast. This is a story with a revisionist sensibility that believes the virtues of a noble past are real – and inheritable.
By by the 1960s, that was far from a given. Even the director who created the American Western as we know it had started to wonder whether history was quite as he imagined it, all those years ago. The same year as Ride the High Country, Ford premiered a film that represented his concluding statement on the genre: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. “This is the West,” says a journalist near the film’s ending, summing up the mythic work of cinematic Westerns: “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” But of course, that’s the opposite of what Ford does in the film, leaving us on a note of regretful uncertainty – are icons like the film’s stars, Wayne and Stewart, truly what history tells us they were?
Ford’s mournful conclusion to a morally black-and-white story forms a fitting companion for Peckinpah’s hopeful debut in a violent, gray universe. The two films are each other’s artistic yin and yang, and together close the book on an entire era of movie- and myth-making.
In an interview at the Malibu Film Society in 2012, Mariette Hartley, who had admitted elsewhere that she didn’t appreciate the legacy of her costars on the set, said that the gravity of the film finally came home to her when she looked over at Scott during the filming of McCrea’s final shot. She saw the iconic stone-faced cowboy choking back tears and knew that he was watching not just the death of a character, but the death of a generation. After the film premiered, Scott retired from the movies, knowing he’d never surpass his performance here, and McCrea made only a couple more pictures.
Watching that final shot gives the giddy, uneasy feeling of a time swinging shut like a great door, never again to be opened. And yet, we are left with the high country, immovable, implacable, beautiful, and strong.