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Ride the High Country is a noted 1962 western film. It stars Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Mariette Hartley, Ron Starr and Edgar Buchanan. It was written by N.B. Stone Jr., Robert Creighton Williams (uncredited) and Sam Peckinpah (uncredited) and directed by Peckinpah, with a score written by George Bassman. In 1992, this film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United Statesmarker Library of Congressmarker as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". A Region 1 DVD edition was released on January 10, 2006.

Peckinpah flipped a coin to decide whether Randolph Scott or Joel McCrea would receive top billing. McCrea's role is actually slightly larger than Scott's, but Scott was billed over McCrea. Critics occasionally point out that McCrea's role seems to have been written for Gary Cooper and that John Wayne would have been perfect for Scott's part, but Cooper and Wayne never worked together. In his autobiography In the Arena (1995), Charlton Heston wrote that he was considering remaking the film in the late '80s, presumably with Clint Eastwood as a co-star. Heston was convinced to take the part on Peckinpah's next film, Major Dundee (1965), after viewing Ride the High Country.

Plot

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The film reunites old friends and aging ex-lawmen Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) and Steve Judd (Joel McCrea). The two men, mainly because of their age, have been reduced by circumstance to guarding a shipment of gold from a high country mining camp. However, Westrum and his young sidekick Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) are, in fact, planning to steal the gold for themselves. Westrum attempts to subtly recruit Judd to their plan over the course of the ride.

Acquiring a young girl (Mariette Hartley) escaping from her domineering father as a traveling companion, the three men reach the mining camp only to discover that the girl's fiancé (James Drury) is a drunken lout who intends to prostitute her to his brothers (played by, among others, Peckinpah regulars Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones). They rescue the girl from the marriage and start off towards town with the girl and the gold. At this point, Judd realizes Westrum's plan and confronts him. Planning to put him on trial when he returns to town, Judd is forced to relent when the jilted groom and his brothers appear in hot pursuit.

The aging men shoot it out with the brothers, killing them all in a heroic, face-to-face confrontation. Judd, mortally wounded, asks to die alone. Westrum promises him that he will get the gold back to town as Judd would have wanted. The celebrated final image of the film is of the dying Judd looking off towards the high country as he falls slowly out of frame.

Reception

Ride the High Country was not an immediate success in the United States, but it was hailed as an instant classic upon its release in Europe, beating Fellini's classic for first prize at the Belgium Film Festival and winning the Paris film critics award for best film. Critics were particularly enthusiastic about the film's mix of the conventional and the revisionist in its treatment of the Western. They hailed Peckinpah as a worthy successor to classic Western directors such as John Ford.

The film's reputation has only grown in following years, with Peckinpah's admirers citing it as his first great film. They also note that all of the themes of Peckinpah's later films, such as honor and ideals compromised by circumstance, the difficulty of doing right in an unjust world, the destruction of the West and its heroes by industrial modernity, and the importance of loyalty between men are all present in Ride the High Country for the first time.

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