But “Bloody Sam,” as he came to be known, wasn’t all macho swagger and bursting blood bags.
In 1962, with only his second movie (after a decade in TV), Peckinpah proved himself a master of the lyrical oater with Ride the High Country, a Western that tapped two of the screen’s venerable cowboy stars and showed him to be a director of tremendous insight and sensitivity.
With a screenplay credited to N.B. Stone Jr. (though several others, including Peckinpah, had a go at it), High Country established themes that would follow Peckinpah throughout his career.
First, it’s about the death of the frontier and what happens to a certain breed of man when the world he has known and flourished in no longer exists.
Secondly, it’s about honor, about remaining true to a code even if (as in The Wild Bunch) it’s the code of the outlaw.
In Ride the High Country that code is embodied in Steve Judd (Joel McCrea), a graying former lawman now fallen on hard times. The film is set in the early years of the 20th century when the Wild West already has become a myth.
Judd suggests they team up to guard a shipment of gold from a distant mining camp. Several times in recent months the gold shipments have been robbed, and this will be a chance for Judd and Westrum to relive a bit of their old glory.
Judd is unaware that Westrum and his young protégé (Ron Starr) have other ideas. They’re going to steal the gold for themselves.
Hoping to get Judd on board with his plan, Westrum spends much of the ride up the mountain carping about how the people who actually tamed this country have been discarded and ignored. Judd answers that he was never in it for the money.
“Partner,” Westrum tells Judd, “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?”
At this point Judd halts his horse, considers Westrum’s comments, and answers: “All I want is to enter my house justified.”
In other words, all he cares is about is dying with dignity and a clear conscience. Peckinpah wrote that line for McCrea, explaining that it paraphrased a Bible verse his father used to quote him.
On their journey the two old lawmen pick up a girl, Elsa (Mariette Hartley), who is fleeing her religiously obsessed father (R.G. Armstrong). She hopes to elope with Billy Hammond (James Drury), a resident of the mining camp along with his skuzzy brothers.
The feral Hammonds become the film’s comic heavies. They follow Judd, Westrum, and company down the mountain, intent on both grabbing the gold for themselves and retrieving Elsa, who is now running away from her disastrous marriage to Billy.
As with many a Peckinpah film, a climactic gunfight ensues. In its use of rapid editing and quick cuts, this sequence introduces cinematic ideas that would come to fruition in The Wild Bunch.
Budgeted at only $800,000, High Country was considered small potatoes by the studio (MGM), freeing Peckinpah to assemble his own dream cast and crew.
The movie got one public preview screening. Of the 255 persons who attended, 201 rated Ride the High Country as very good or outstanding.
Yet the MGM brass didn’t like the picture. They wanted more gunplay and less character development.
High Country was dumped in theaters in May 1962 at the bottom of a double feature with The Tartars, a stillborn period epic shot in Europe with Orson Welles and Victor Mature. And that should have been the end of it.
Except that the New York critics saw the picture and started writing rave reviews in which they upbraided MGM for not recognizing what a gem it had on its hands. The day after opening theater owners redid their marquees so that Peckinpah’s film got top billing.
Newsweek called High Country the best film of the year. It was on Time’s Top Ten list. It won the Paris critics award, Sweden’s Silver Leaf, the Grand Prix at the Belgium International Film Festival (beating Fellini’s 8 1/2). It won Mexico’s Diosa de Plata award for best foreign film.
And Sam Peckinpah’s movie career was off and running. Of course it was a checkered career marked by furious feuds with the suits in the studios’ front offices.
But it produced films like The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Straw Dogs, Junior Bonner, The Getaway, and the wonderfully titled Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
Other films in the series “Hollywood Homers”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- July 7: The Music Man (1962) Not Rated
- July 14: That Touch of Mink (1962) Not Rated
- July 21: Ride the High Country (1962) Not Rated
- July 28: Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.