Monday, December 28, 2009
An Elegy for the Western
The fifth American masterpiece of 1962 is another Western, Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country. Like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (which I wrote about in Part 3 of this series), this is a movie that emphasizes theme more strongly than the traditional Western, and that theme is strikingly revealed in its very first scenes. The movie opens with Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) ambling down what seems to be the typical street of a town in a typical Western movie. But Judd, gazing intently all around him, is clearly puzzled, for something is wrong here. The street is deserted; there is no traffic on it, no horses, wagons, or people. The sidewalks, though, are crowded with people expectantly watching the street, and the buildings are festooned with flags and bunting. It almost looks as though the whole town has turned out to welcome Judd.
Suddenly a uniformed policeman hurries up to Judd, shouting, "Get out of the way, old man. Can't you see you're in the way?" And a few moments later a camel bearing a cowboy comes thundering down the street, followed by several more cowboys on horses. The circus—or in this case, the Wild West show—is in town and Judd has just witnessed the end of a race between a camel rider from the show and a group of local cowboys. When Judd is then nearly run down by a primitive automobile, the point of the movie becomes clear: This is not a movie glorifying the Old West, but a lament for its passing; what for Judd is a way of life has become for everyone else a sideshow. Ride the High Country is not just another Western, but an elegy for a movie genre that has lost its relevance.
Judd, a retired U. S. Marshall, has come to town to do a job. He has been hired by the local bank to travel to Coarsegold, a mining camp in the Sierras and bring back $250,000 worth of gold bullion from the miners there. But he needs help to do that, and he finds it in an unexpected place. While visiting the Wild West show, he encounters an old friend, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), who is performing as a sort of imitation-Buffalo Bill Cody sharpshooter called the Oregon Kid. Westrum volunteers himself and his young friend and fellow performer (he was the camel rider) Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) to accompany Judd on his mission to the Gold Country.
When we next see Westrum, he looks completely different. Gone are the long hair and beard he wore in the show. Has he gotten a haircut and shaved? Or, which seems more likely, has he simply shed a long-haired wig and false beard along with the elaborate buckskin costume and stage make-up he was obviously wearing when we first saw him? Either way Westrum's whole Wild West persona was plainly just a disguise used while performing as part of a nostalgic Wild West fantasy. This pretense seems an appropriate touch, for it is quickly revealed that Westrum and Longtree plan to rob Judd on the way back and take the gold for themselves.
Within fifteen minutes of the first scene, the men are on their way. From that point on, the movie follows a classic structure dating back to Greek mythology: the two-part, mirror-image division into a journey in and a journey back, like Orpheus descending to hell and returning. When the men spend their first night in the barn of a ranch, they unexpectedly pick up a traveling companion, Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley), the ranch owner's young daughter, who wants to escape her puritanical and overly protective father to join her fiancé, who lives near Coarsegold.
Arrival in Coarsegold reveals that nothing is what the travelers anticipated. It is clear that Elsa's fiancé and his brothers are a family of lascivious degenerates who plan to share Elsa and use her essentially as a sex slave. Coarsegold itself is a hellish place, a tent city run by the owner/madam of the local saloon/brothel, Kate, and her crony, the alcoholic Judge Tolliver (Edgar Buchanan, who is terrific). And the expected $250,000 in gold turns out to be only $11,000 worth.
The "marriage" ceremony the drunken judge performs for Elsa is a surreal farce, taking place in the scarlet-walled saloon/brothel with Kate as Elsa's "bridesmaid" and the prostitutes as her "flower girls." Judd, Westrum, and young Longtree (who has developed a crush on Elsa) cannot allow the sham marriage to be consummated. Judd coerces the judge into invalidating the marriage, and the three men and Elsa leave Coarsegold, pursued by the angry bridegroom and his brothers, and begin their return journey, passing the same landmarks they had encountered previously.
When Westrum and Longtree make their move to seize the gold, Judd overpowers them and now has to contend not only with the vengeful pursuers but with two prisoners as well. After one shootout with the pursuers, they manage to make it back to Elsa's ranch, only to find that the surviving pursuers have reached it first, killed Elsa's father, and are waiting to ambush them. Westrum uses his sharpshooting skills to help Judd overcome the remaining pursuers and redeems himself by promising the dying Judd, who has been wounded in the shootout, to complete their mission and deliver the gold to the bank.
Ride the High Country was hardly the first anti-romantic Western. The demythologizing of the Old West in movies began at least as early as 1948 with John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (although admittedly that film is set in Mexico). This reappraisal of the genre continued with the Anthony Mann-James Stewart Westerns and the Budd Boeticcher-Randolph Scott Westerns of the 1950s. These were tough, cynical movies whose main characters were no longer unambiguously heroic, but had paradoxical and sometimes outright undesirable qualities and motivations. Happy endings in which unequivocally good people defeated unequivocally evil people were no longer a given of the genre. Desirable outcomes, if they occurred at all, came at a high price and were balanced by sacrifice and loss. And sometimes, even when bad people were overcome, the victory was a hollow one that left an unpleasant aftertaste.
In John Ford's Westerns most people are decent and peaceful. Ford doesn't deny the existence of villains like Liberty Valance who seek to victimize these decent people, but the villains are the exception and are subject to control by the collective resistance of ordinary people and the heroic actions of extraordinary people like Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The Mann and Boetticher Westerns begin to blur the distinction between hero and villain, with each of these opposing forces sharing some traits of the other. The villains have their own warped code of honor while the heroes are ruthlessly dedicated to achieving their aims at any cost, and ordinary people are often unfortunately caught in the middle of this conflict.
In Ride the High Country Peckinpah takes the concept of the Old West as idealized myth and gives it his own slant. He darkens the Western genre even further than Mann and Boetticher by superimposing on the traditional formulas of the John Ford-style Western his own unrelentingly bleak view of humanity, in which people are almost without exception driven by their most ignoble qualities. His characters are motivated by greed, revenge, the desire to exploit others, or just plain self-interest rather than conscience, a sense of right and wrong, or a belief in justice, as Ford's characters are. He doesn't seem to be denying altogether that idealistic people and selfless actions existed in the Old West, but rather that they were the rare exception. In Ride the High Country there are precious few morally neutral people. Judd and the innocent Elsa are the only unalloyed forces of honor and truth in the entire movie. Everyone else is, if not openly corrupt, then false and covertly corrupt. And Peckinpah seems to be saying that the force of their corruption makes them juggernauts able to smash nearly everything in their path.
Peckinpah also seems to be suggesting that in addition to the baser human motivations, time and change are destructive forces as well, a theme he further explored in 1969's The Wild Bunch. Judd is a man out of time, a noble but quixotic figure whose adherence to a code of honor makes him an anachronism. In his Westerns Peckinpah's brand of cynicism is expressed in the belief that any potential for good in the Old West was swept aside by the passage of time before it was able to be fulfilled. This strikes me as the cynicism not of the born nihilist, but of the disillusioned idealist. Perhaps that explains the one bit of hope he allows in this dismal view of humanity: the rare instance when someone like Westrum is inspired by the example and self-sacrifice of someone like Judd to undergo a transformation for the better and, at least temporarily, master his most unethical instincts and impulses.
Next week I'll be concluding my series on the year 1962 in American movies.