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Warner Home Video presents
"All I want is to enter my house justified."
DVD ReviewRide the High Country is a smashingly good movie. In his sophomore effort as a feature-film director, Sam Peckinpah tells a striking story about honor and redemption. This is a grand western in every sense, playing with the genre's conventions while simultaneously honoring them. The film is sort of a last hoorah for the traditional western film, made right before the spaghetti westerns; Peckinpah drives the genre in another direction and makes for a helluva ride.
Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) rides into town where everybody is out in force, eagerly anticipating someone's arrival. Once a famous lawman, Steve assumes the townsfolk are paying him tribute, but the script by N.B. Stone, Jr. quickly turns the tables as the assembly instead yell at this old man who is interrupting a horse race. It's a lovely scene to start the film, quietly introducing our hero as a man long forgotten by the very people he once protected.
Joining forces with his old partner, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), Steve agrees to transport gold for the local bank. Gil is Steve's polar opposite, selling his honor to the masses as a lowly carnival shooting attraction. Riding together, the grizzled men are accompanied by Gil's pupil, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr), on a journey through rugged terrain to secure the bank's gold from a mine. The rather mundane task is complicated, however, when the three men happen upon the Knudsen's isolated residence. The radiant Elsa (Mariette Hartley) suffers under her domineering father (R.G. Armstrong), who refuses to let her marry one of the miners. After catching Elsa and Heck in an intimate conversation, Papa Knudsen strikes her and the green Elsa joins Steve's caravan.
The script is largely a character piece, not so much interested in plot as in the quiet exchanges between Gil and Steve. This job represents a return to manhood for Steve, but Gil is bitter over being unappreciated for his work and hopes to convince Steve to steal the money with him. As their intentions come to a head, Elsa foolishly marries the detestable Billy Hammond (James Drury) and finds herself victimized by his brother's attempts at rape. What plays out from this point on is true to the genre, but Peckinpah's direction is somewhat subversive. I don't want to spoil the film's concluding act, but the characters don't behave like a John Wayne hero. Steve is a passive figure, but his nobility effects all those around him. Gil's intentions may be understandable, but his actions vary between commendable and criminal.
Ride the High Country is a visceral experience, featuring gorgeous cinematography by Lucien Ballard. His CinemaScope visuals strike all the familiar notes of the western, with great vistas of America's national forests and stunning compositions of the actors. There's a gritty quality to the film's look, especially evident in the mining town. It's tough to imagine Howard Hawks making a film like this. Where most directors would treat the script with restraint, Peckinpah pushes the boundaries. Tracking shots of the actors place the audience right into the heart of the gunfights and the editing emphasizes certain actions to make the various confrontations more powerful than they would be in a master shot. Apart from being over-scored—a fault that can be attributed to the studio monkeying around in post-production—the filmmaking is incredibly fresh even today.
To be honest, the movie has no right to be as good as it is. On paper the story is unexceptional, but Peckinpah's direction breathes tremendous life into it. The inspired casting of McCrea and Scott makes these characters truly complex. Both actors were largely underappreciated western stars when the film debuted in 1962, largely forgotten much like their characters, and they bring a humility to their roles that more popular western icons could not have. While Ron Starr doesn't make much of an impression, the rest of the cast is excellent. Mariette Hartley is believably innocent and sells Elsa's predicament quite well, and the various actors playing the Hammond boys are deliciously bad. This is a rousing, cultured western thanks to Peckinpah's direction.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is a beautiful picture to look at. Detail is strong and there's a great sense of depth. Blacks are a little less textured than I would like, but otherwise everything looks great.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: The original mono mix is preserved here, creating an authentic listening experience. Dialogue is crisp and always audible, with no noticeable hiss or other defects on the track. The musical score comes across quite well, as do the gunshots. A French mono mix is also available.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Getaway, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The James Dean Collection
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle
Layers Switch: 01h:20m:49s
Extras Review: The extras are led by another commentary by Peckinpah documentarians/biographers Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle. As in the other tracks they have recorded for Warner's Sam Peckinpah collection, all four have a lively, informative conversation with one another. Mixing critical analysis with related trivia, they provide astute insights into the film's aesthetics and offer some rather philosophical ponderings of the material. Each man brings his own sensibilities to the track and the result is a highly entertaining, knowledgeable track.
Following that is A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the High Country (22m:55s). This documentary centers around the recollections of of Peckinpah's sister, Fern Lea Peter, about their family and Sam's early years. She paints a vivid portrait of the family's history, though there seems to be a tremendous bias at work that prevents the feature from delving into Peckinpah's dark side. Otherwise, this is a great look at his early career and relationship with his sister. Rounding out the special features are trailers for the film, as well as The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Getaway, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and The James Dean Collection.
While there aren't many features on this disc, the documentary and commentary are well worth the time.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsOne of the most entertaining and poetic westerns in Sam Peckinpah's canon, Ride the High Country is still stirring nearly 45 years after its initial release. The image and sound transfers respectfully present the film and the special features are a welcomed bonus.
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