Monday, August 19, 2013

Summer Under the Stars Blogathon: Randolph Scott and Ride the High Country (1962)


This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the 2013 Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, currently underway this month and sponsored by Jill at Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and Michael at ScribeHard on Film.  For a day-to-day rundown on the celebrities featured on TCM all this August and a list of participating blogs, click here for a starting point.  (This piece also gives away the ending of the film—there’s your spoiler, cartooners—so if you’ve not seen the movie come back when you have.)



During his thirty-plus year career as a motion picture actor, George Randolph Scott became chiefly associated with westerns—even though he displayed enough versatility to appear in comedies, crime dramas, war movies, sci-fi/fantasy films and musicals (admittedly, he was usually assigned the non-singing parts in those).  Out of nearly 100 Scott films, 60 of them were oaters—his status as a Western icon was played for laughs in Blazing Saddles (1974—“You’d do it for Randolph Scott…”) and paid tribute in a Statler Brothers tune that lamented the demise of the B-western, Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?

It was only fitting, then, that Randolph Scott’s cinematic swan song would be an exemplary model of the movie genre with which he was most identified.  Randy hadn’t really gone into the project believing it would be his last film, but after seeing the final result onscreen he knew he had done outstanding work and he felt it would be an ideal time to retire while still on top.  It was an example of art imitating life; a theme of that last Western centers on how great men often step aside to make room for encroaching civilization.  It’s considered by numerous Western fans to be one of the finest ever made: the 1962 classic Ride the High Country.

At the turn of the century, ex-lawman Steven Judd (Joel McCrea) rides into the town of Hornitos for a job interview—the town’s bank is seeking a man who’ll guard a gold shipment needing to be transported through dangerous territory from a mining town known as Coarse Gold.  Upon his arrival, Judd fortuitously runs into an old friend in Gil Westrum (Scott); both men were once peacekeepers and worked side-by-side as partners.  Westrum now shills for a sideshow, masquerading as a sharpshooter known as “The Oregon Kid.”

Maybe it's because I've watched too many movies...but if I entered a bank and found these two guys in charge, I'd be thinking "credit union."

Judd tells Westrum that the letter he’s answering states he’ll be in charge of a shipment running close to $250,000.  A meeting with the father (Percy Helton) and son (Byron Foulger) who run the bank reveals that it’s a little closer to $20,000 (not quite a mother lode—more like a sister lode).  But Steve is hired for the job, and he’s been permitted to employ a couple of men to help him with the transport; Gil expresses an interest in the position, and suggests that Judd also take on Gil’s current partner, a young sidekick named Heck Longtree (Ron Starr).

Gil’s motivation for saddling up with his old compadre is made clear from the get-go: he hopes to convince Steve to run off with the gold in a three-way split fashion, and during their trip to Coarse Gold he regales with him tales of their many years devoted to defending the law without suitable recompense and of old acquaintances now forgotten.  The three men have need to stop along the way and they spend the night at a farm run by Joshua Knudson (R.G. Armstrong), a self-righteous widower who works his land with his young daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley).  Elsa is of marrying age, but Joshua is convinced that there’s not a man alive worthy of his daughter’s hand; he even becomes outraged when he finds Elsa and Heck (who’s taken a shine to her) innocently talking outside the barn after nightfall.

James Drury was a few months away from major stardom when The Virginian premiered on NBC-TV in the fall of 1962.  Robert Culp had originally been approached by Sam Peckinpah to play the part of Billy Hammond, but the actor turned him down because he was looking for leading man roles.  Culp later admitted: "I've made a huge mistake."

Elsa soon joins Gil, Steve and Heck on the trail—she’s left her father because he physically abuses her.  She’s not interested in Heck, however—she’s promised to marry young Billy Hammond (James Drury), a loutish miner working a claim in Coarse Gold.  Arriving at their destination, Heck escorts Elsa to the Hammond camp…where he not only becomes acquainted with Billy but his “peckerwood” brothers: Elder (John Anderson), Henry (Warren Oates), Sylvus (L.Q. Jones) and Jimmy (John Davis Chandler).

As Gil, Steve and Heck collect the gold that will be transported back to Hornitos, Elsa and Billy are married in a Fellini-esque ceremony against the backdrop of Coarse Gold’s resident whorehouse.  There, a dazed Elsa learns that Billy intends to share her with the other members of the Hammond clan.  Steve and Heck come to her rescue and protect her for the night…but in the morning, the other miners form a “miners’ court” to decide whether she will be allowed to leave with them or stay with the Hammonds.  Gil is able to get to the drunken magistrate (Edgar Buchanan) and convince him to tell all those assembled the marriage wasn’t legitimate.

On the return trip home, Gil is still trying to convince Steve to steal the gold—he finally discerns that he’s not able to pierce Judd’s integrity and sense of duty, so that night he starts to make off with the shipment…but is stopped by Steve, who informs his friend that he’s taking both him and Heck back to answer to the sheriff.  The next day, as they continue their journey, the four of them encounter the Hammond clan—who have learned of Gil’s encounter with the judge.  Extracting a promise from Heck that he’ll surrender his gun once they’ve dealt with the brothers, Steve throws him a weapon before a shoot-out results, with young Jimmy killed and Sylvus mortally wounded.

That night on the trail, Steve agrees to cut Gil’s bonds but the next morning discovers that Gil has run off.  In truth, Westrum doubles back to collect the now-dead Sylvus’ gun and horse, as Steve, Heck and Elsa continue on to the Knudson’s farm.  Upon their arrival, they learn too late that Elsa’s father has been murdered by the remaining Hammonds (who are now lying in wait) but manage to find cover despite both Heck and Steve being shot and wounded.  Gil arrives, and the two men decide to go out and face the brothers in the open—“halfway, just like always.”  The ensuing gunfight eliminates the Hammond menace but leaves Steve mortally wounded.  Gil promises him he’ll make certain the gold gets to Hornitos, and Steve expires soon after.

The story of how Ride the High Country came to be starts with producer Richard Lyons, who had been hired away from 20th Century-Fox (where he worked in the studio’s B-picture unit) by producer Sol Siegel on the strength of a picture entitled The Sad Horse (1959).  Siegel brought Lyons with him to MGM for the purposes of producing a small-scale Western that would hopefully recoup the soaking the studio had taken from the financial losses of big-budget extravaganzas as Mutiny on the Bounty (1962).

Lyons asked his friend William S. Roberts (who wrote The Magnificent Seven) if he could suggest a good script for this assignment.  Roberts suggested that Guns in the Afternoon, written by his friend N.B. Stone, Jr., might make a good prospect; though the name of the film would be changed to the now-familiar Ride the High Country, Guns in the Afternoon would be the movie’s title when it was released in Europe.  Stone, an eccentric who was both alcoholic and agoraphobic, turned in a 145-page script that Lyons later described as “just awful.”  Roberts agreed to help Lyons out by re-writing most of Country without credit; changes to the final product were also instituted (and uncredited) by the film’s eventual director, Sam Peckinpah.

Filmmaker Peckinpah started out in the business as a stagehand and moved up through the ranks as a dialogue director for Don Siegel (he even had a small role as a meter reader in Invasion of the Body Snatchers) before finding his niche as a television writer-director.  Sam’s lasting contribution to TV was the part he played in putting The Rifleman in motion; he penned the pilot, “The Sharpshooter,” for Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater.  In addition to directorial assignments on series like Broken Arrow and Klondike, Peckinpah created a short-lived series in 1960 entitled The Westerner that attracted much critical praise and attention.  Despite apocryphal stories that Country had originally been slated for filmmakers like Budd Boetticher, John Ford and screenwriter-turned-helmer Burt Kennedy to tackle, producer Lyons has always maintained that Peckinpah was his only choice; both he and Sam had the same agent at William Morris, and after watching several episodes of The Westerner Lyons definitely wanted Sam to direct.  (One of the conditions in Sam’s acceptance of the assignment was that he be allowed to make revisions in Stone’s script; he retooled the Judd character to make him more like his father, David Peckinpah, and changed the ending of the film—in the original script, it’s Gil that dies in the climactic gunfight, not Steve.)

Lyons has also always insisted that the only two actors seriously considered for the roles of Steve Judd and Gil Westrum were Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott (a show business story has suggested that Gary Cooper and John Wayne had been tabbed, with Coop’s death in 1961 putting the kibosh on that).  Like Scott, McCrea was considered a Western movie icon—yet Joel displayed the same amount of onscreen versatility as his co-star, appearing in such films as Foreign Correspondent (1940) and several vehicles directed by Preston Sturges.  McCrea had originally been assigned the part of Westrum when Country began shooting, but felt the role clashed with his screen image and suggested to Randy that the two of them switch off.  Scott liked the idea of playing someone other than the “straight, honest guy” for a change and happily agreed (I guess he forgot that he played a real rotter once before, in the 1942 film The Spoilers).  Best of all, Scott got top billing in Country…as a result of a coin toss.

Looking at the film today, it’s hard to imagine that anyone else could have been considered for the roles of Judd and Westrum.  Scott was always more of a screen presence than actor, but as Gil he really gives an amazing performance.  As a man whose innate decency has been eaten away over the years with nothing material to show for it, Gil Westrum is a soul in search of redemption…and is convinced he’ll get it by obtaining riches through underhanded means.  Even though he’s planning to stab his best friend in the back the audience knows that Gil remains at his core a good man since he insists on defending Steve at every turn.  When Heck gets his first look at Judd through the window of a Chinese restaurant and remarks “He don’t look that much to me,” Gil rebukes his partner sharply: “Don’t ever play him short!”  When an altercation erupts between Heck and Steve and Judd knocks the greenhorn on his ass, Gil demonstrates clearly where his loyalties lie.  “Good fight,” he tells his friend.  “I enjoyed it.”  (Then he also sends Heck to the ground with a punch for good measure.)

Steve Judd has also devoted his life to peacekeeping with little to show for it, but he isn’t quite as cynical as his good friend Westrum.  His honor is something that cannot be bought or sold, and as Judd, Joel McCrea demonstrates why it’s a shame he never received his proper due as a movie actor—this may be his best film performance.  (Joel had originally planned for this to be his valedictory movie in the same manner as his co-star…but was later lured out of retirement to make four additional Westerns—the final one being Mustang Country in 1976.)  Some of my favorite McCrea scenes in this movie involve his negotiations with the father-and-son bankers to guard the gold; he shakes the hand of Abner Samson (Foulger) and is immediately embarrassed at his shabby, frayed cuff exposed during his handshake.  McCrea’s Judd then asks the Samsons if there’s a place where he can look over the contract in private—they allow him the use of the washroom…and the reason why he craves privacy is so he can put on his reading glasses free of embarrassment.

When Gil’s intentions to steal the gold are revealed to Steve, he has difficulty believing it even though he’s suspected all along from the anecdotes that Gil has regaled in during the trip.  “I knew in my bones what you were aiming for,” Judd says as he confronts Westrum, “but I wouldn’t believe it.  I kept telling myself that you were a good man…you were my friend.”  The themes of loyalty and friendship remain the most dominant in Country; it’s not so much the crime of stealing the gold that angers Judd—he admits to Gil in one conversation that he once had a checkered past until a sheriff obligingly “kick[ed] the bitter hell right out of me”—it’s the betrayal from a man he considered his paisan.  It’s worth noting that while Steve trusts Heck to the point where he turns the young man loose temporarily so that he can help Judd deal with the Hammonds, Gil is not afforded that courtesy.  Still later in the film, Steve reassures Elsa that he’ll testify on Heck’s behalf for his role in the Hammond affair but when Elsa asks if he’ll do the same for Gil it’s no dice.  “Because he was my friend,” Steve replies with obvious distaste.

Edgar Buchanan of Petticoat Junction fame at his scene-stealing best; he plays the closest thing to law and order in Coarse Gold, or as Abner Samson puts it: "The only law up there is too drunk to hit the ground with his hat."
Gil Westrum finally comes to a crossroads where he decides that maintaining his honor is far more important than the immediate acquisition of wealth.  The foreshadowing of the final “blaze of glory” scene occurs when he pleads with Steve to cut his bonds just before he beds down for the night.  “Why?” his partner asks him.  “Because I don’t sleep so good anymore,” is Gil’s stoic reply.  Their friendship is solidified with the outcome of their skirmish with the Hammonds, one of the finest “death scenes” in the history of the movies:


STEVE: How’d we figure…?  A thousand dollars a shot?
GIL: Yeah…
STEVE (shaking his head): Those boys sure made me a lot of money… (Gasping) They put ‘em all in one spot… (He looks over to see Heck and Elsa approaching) I don’t want them to see this…I’ll go it alone…
GIL (waving Heck and Elsa off): Don’t worry about anything…I’ll take care of it…just like you would have…
STEVE: Hell, I know that…I always did…you just forgot it for a while, that’s all…so long…partner
GIL (slowly getting to his feet): I’ll see ya later…

I’m a regular ol’ peacenik hippie.  I don’t own a gun—I’ve never owned a gun—and my own commitment to “gun control” is making sure I’m nowhere in the vicinity of where guns happen to be.  And yet, I’ve never been shy about admitting that if I had to shuffle off this mortal coil…I’d do it like McCrea’s character in Country in a heartbeat.

The dissipation of the Old West to make room for the New (demonstrated in how Gil and Steve make it possible for Heck and Elsa to get together and start the family neither of the two veteran lawmen ever established) is a theme consistently addressed in the films of Sam Peckinpah (not to mention movies directed by John Ford and Anthony Mann, among many others) but it’s almost as if Peckinpah tackled it more than any other director…only with a good more screen violence, as in the Peckinpah-directed The Wild Bunch (1969) will attest.  Sam’s heroes were often loners and outcasts who struggled to maintain their ideals as well as honor and loyalty in the face of dehumanizing industrialization, and Ride the High Country establishes this theme of “replacing the old with the new” from the very beginning with an interesting sequence showing Steve Judd’s arrival in Hornitos.  Townspeople are lined up on both sides of the street—they’re actually watching an exhibition of a race involving a camel (ridden by Heck) and several horses, but Judd is somehow convinced they’ve come out to see him and he gives the crowd a little awkward wave of hello as his horse moseys down the street.  Finally, a uniformed cop confronts him and yells: “Get out of the way, old man!  Can’t you hear?  Can’t you see you’re in the way?”

Ride the High Country is choc-a-bloc with memorable set pieces and quotable dialogue.  There’s the dinner scene at the Knudson Farm, where farmer Joshua lectures his guests with scripture because he considers their assignment to transport the Coarse Gold shipment sinful because the town is “a sinkhole of depravity.”  (R.G. Armstrong would become a member of Sam Peckinpah’s “stock company”—and yet, when I think of the actor’s accomplishments, this role is the first one that always comes to mind.)  Judd demonstrates that he’s got more than a passing familiarity with the Good Book by quoting right back but it’s Gil that gets the last laugh when he compliments Elsa on her cooking by wryly remarking “Appetite, Chapter 1.” 

The editorial comment on his wife's tombstone speaks volumes about the Joshua Knudson character, a man who uses religion to cover up for the fact that he is cruel, unyielding and uncompromising.  After he slaps Elsa, she says to him: "I promised you next time you hit me you'd be sorry for it," suggesting that the abuse has gone on for some time now.

Actually, Knudsen kind of nails Coarse Gold with that depravity sinkhole thing; there’s also the unforgettable Hammond-Knudsen nuptials, which brings new meaning to the term “bacchanal”—with whorehouse madam Kate (Jenie Jackson) as Elsa’s “bridesmaid” and Kate’s “employees” as her “flower girls.”  Of course, any moment with the Hammond boys remains remarkable—a too-close-for-comfort clan described by McCrea’s character towards the end as “damned dry-gulchin’ Southern trash.” Actors Jones, Chandler and Oates would later become members of Sam’s “stock company”—with Oates taking on the starring role in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).

In the movie, Heck compliments Elsa on her hair and she explains her father insisted she cut it short.  The truth was that actress Mariette Hartley's do was the result of her playing Joan of Arc in a Chicago production and though for her screen test they fitted her with a wig used by Deborah Kerr in Quo Vadis (1951) Peckinpah hated the results and went with the close-cropped look.
But my personal favorite sequence in Country remains a scene that has stayed with me since the first time I saw the film many years ago (I had previously witnessed the shootout footage in the 1976 compilation America at the Movies and knew I had to sit down with the entire picture); I’m in no way a religious individual—I’ve always been taken by the film’s message that individuals are motivated by doing what’s right as opposed to punishment from some sort of superior being.


GIL: Partner—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?
STEVE: All I want is to enter my house justified

Pure poetry.  It remains with me even today.  In a demonstration of just how moronic movie industry executives can be at times, Ride the High Country was literally thrown away in its initial release by MGM on the bottom half of double-bills featuring movies like Boys’ Night Out (1962).  (Its patron, Sol Siegel, was ousted in a studio coup by competing producer Joseph Vogel…who supposedly fell asleep during a rough cut screening of Country and later pronounced it the worst picture he’d ever seen.)  The critics came to the defense of the movie, with a particularly glowing review from Newsweek: “That Hollywood can't tell the gold from the dross has seldom been so plainly demonstrated. Ride the High Country, deemed unworthy of a first-class run, has been gradually leaked—like a secret—to various theatres around the country…Everything about this picture has the ring of truth, from the unglamorized settings to the flavorful dialogue and the natural acting. [It] is pure gold.”  It would go on to win first prize at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as the Grand Prize at the Brussels Film Festival and the Silver Goddess for Best Foreign Film at the Mexican Film Festival.  I’ve never made any bones about the fact that while I admire much of Peckinpah’s work (despite its sometimes over-the-top violence)—particularly The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)—Ride the High Country remains my all-time favorite in his oeuvre.

Though Randolph Scott called it quits as far as the movies went, he fortunately didn’t wind up having to wash car windshields with a squeegee…he had invested well during his time in Hollywood, and reportedly accumulated an estate estimated at $100 million.  His cinematic legacy is equally impressive; his final film will be shown on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ this evening at 9:30pm, and I also heartily recommend Ride Lonesome (1959; 5pm), Comanche Station (1960; 6:30pm) and The Tall T (1957; 8pm).

9 comments:

Brian Schuck said...

Until I moved out west, I had studiously avoided Westerns. When I started reading about all the Westerns that had been filmed within relatively short driving distance of my new home, places like Sedona, Monument Valley and Kanab, Utah, my interest picked up.

I started looking for them on TCM, and Ride the High Country was one of the first that I recall just bowling me over (even though it was shot entirely in California). It is indeed one of the best of the best, and gave me a much greater appreciation of the genre. Great review!

gogilesgo said...

Great piece about a fine film - always loved Ride the High Country and nice to hear the anecdotes about Mariette Hartley's hair and Robert Culp's almost role.

The Metzinger Sisters said...

Wow, this looks like a great, and very thorough, read! But I'm going to have to rewatch Ride the High Country again before I dip into this. I love the screen-captures you chose...especially that autumn one with Scott and McCrea. Makes me glad that autumn is just around the corner. :-)

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

The Sisters Metzinger remarked:

Makes me glad that autumn is just around the corner. :-)

Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. Unfortunately, I now live in Georgia, where it does not exist. :-(

James Vance said...

Ivan, I've been a huge Randolph Scott fan for years - here are a couple of posts on the subject: http://www.shadowcabaret.com/?p=877 and http://www.shadowcabaret.com/?p=1154

This, of course, is one of my very favorite Westerns, and you absolutely did it justice. Thanks for this.

lipranzer said...

This is my 3rd attempt at posting this...

This is also one of my favorite Westerns - hell, favorite movies - and I agree with everyone else you did it justice. I haven't seen McCrea in any other Western except Colorado Territory (though I have seen and enjoyed many films he did in the 30's and early 40's, particularly the ones he did with Preston Sturges), and I haven't seen many other movies with Scott, period (except for Ride Lonesome and My Favorite Wife), so I don't have the role association some people might have, but I thought they were both terrific here.

I also heard the studio basically dumped this because, in their words, it didn't cost enough to be good. Funny how little Hollywood's changed since then...

Again, great write-up!

Caftan Woman said...

When I watch that scene with Randolph Scott and Edgar Buchanan regarding the legalities of the judge's right to perform the wedding I harken back to the five other movies these actors appeared in together. Nothing before was ever quite as chilling as that scene. You can tell that they knew this was the goods!

Stacia said...

Great article as always, Ivan!

Like Brian, Ride the High Country is probably the first western I ever really connected with after years of avoiding them. I'd seen it just prior to the Boetticher films on TCM several years ago, and heard he had been originally slated to direct -- now I realize he wasn't! I also didn't know Culp was supposed to be Billy. Again, great post, babe.

Jill said...

Ivan,

Excellent essay on one of the greatest westerns ever made. I'll admit that I was always hesitant to watch the genre until I saw this film. It is pure perfection.

And you're right about Edgar Buchanan. He scene steals in this film...and every film.

Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon.