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Sam Peckinpah's RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, like its legendary western companion pieces SHANE and THE GUNFIGHTER, is a film of such overwhelmingly and all-encompassing greatness that it is, for me at least, impossible to conjure up words sufficient to convey the degree of emotional depth that this perfect film possesses. 

A deceptively simple scenario about two aging lawmen, (Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea) hired to guard a gold shipment as the open frontier gradually disappears and descends into the ugly conformity of a coldly mechanized age, is told with such stunning attention to character and detail that it instantly becomes that rarest of motion picture experiences--one that stays with you and haunts you forever. It remains simply impossible to overstate the sheer poetic perfection of Scott and McCrea as they deliver multifaceted performances of such effortless warmth and delicacy that they elevate the art of film acting to a level rarely approached before or since. Peckinpah's direction is nothing short of miraculous in its ability to imbue even the smallest bit player with idiosyncrasies which never fail to surprise or intrigue. Indeed, the fact that this goldmine of a film was made under the strict auspices of the Production Code and saddled with a non-existent budget and production schedule highlights the probability that such restrictions and liabilities were a good thing for future loose cannon Peckinpah, as there is no sign of the overindulgences which would gradually compromise his later work.

I've just proofread my paragraphs above and I fear my suspicions are confirmed. Words cannot properly convey the transcendental cinematic perfection of RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY adequately. At least not mine.

While THE WILD BUNCH (1969) elaborates on some of the themes (the encroachment of civilization on the fading West, the ultimate purity of male friendship, etc.) that distinguished RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, it is a horse of a very different and scroungier color, thanks to the death of the Production Code and the introduction of the newly-implemented rating system. The innocent and virginal farm girl of RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is now replaced by the hoary hookers and double-dealing tramps who would plague most of Peckinpah's future film world forever after, the ruminations on male bonding are now shifted from potentially God-fearing do-gooders with principles to a sordid bunch of murderous and out-of-touch losers. The violence that was so artfully and sparingly depicted in the Scott-McCrea saga is relentlessly and lovingly exploited with slow-motion closeups of gushing blood and mutilated bodies. 

This is the film that would forever banish clean-living and virtuous Western heroes from the silver screen and introduce a form of unprincipled and dirty filmmaking that far-lesser talents than Peckinpah would exploit to the extent that the purity of the movie-going experience would forever be tarnished and compromised. While I've always secretly wished that this film had never been made, it's impossible to deny its rightful place in film history (along with Hitchcock's PSYCHO) as one of the most influential films ever made. It is also one of the finest. 

Certainly no other film ever made so powerfully conveys the love affair and fascination that the human race has always had (and will continue to have until its extinction) with violence. It makes the point more trenchantly than any other film has before or since that the handiest and most convenient method to deal with opposition of any kind is to eliminate it by the use of the most murderous methods available, and while celebrating the new-found and soon-to-be-abused freedom from cinema censorship with bold and broad bush-strokes, it remains a chillingly riveting metaphor for all that ails the current human condition. 

After consecutively viewing what arguably are Peckinpah's only two fully-realized masterpieces, it becomes increasingly clear that only world-weary and aging movie stars with genuine talent and charisma could deliver the goods effectively in any Peckinpah film. RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY would simply evaporate into obscurity without the contributions of Scott and McCrea, and the same can be said for the teaming of then over-the-hill veterans William Holden and Robert Ryan, who enact their roles of two outlaw friends now on opposite sides with a bristling and bracing display of ferocity, passion and energy that has to be seen to be believed. This is gutsy and take-no-prisoners film acting at its most exhilarating. The charge that one feels upon hearing and seeing Holden's opening closeup delivery of the line "If they move, shoot 'em! " cannot be equalled by downing boatloads of vitamins or energy drinks and infuses a film that in other hands could falter under the weight of its own excesses with a gravity and power that transform this WILD BUNCH into a cinematic experience like no other. 

Just as D.W. Griffith "apologized" for the racial eccentricities of his THE BIRTH OF A NATION with his follow-up film INTOLERANCE, so did Peckinpah, stung by the criticism of the violence inherent in THE WILD BUNCH, deliver his (very temporary) shift to a more lyrical and far less bombastic view of the last days of the West's pioneering spirit with the comparatively feeble fable THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE (1970), which is a pleasant enough diversion that never really took hold of this finicky viewer's attention in the manner that both RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY and THE WILD BUNCH so assertively had. There is nothing drastically wrong with this gentle film except that the fine character actor who essays the leading role of Cable Hogue (Jason Robards Jr.) simply never possessed the faded movie star grandeur of Peckinpah's previous leading actors. One can only surmise what the contributions of a Lancaster, Douglas, Heston, Mitchum, Holden or Widmark would have done to put this film on the map. Also by this point Peckinpah ladles on the symbolism attached to the evils of the encroachingly mechanized age with a somewhat heavy hand. While automobiles were a mere futuristic distraction in both RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY and THE WILD BUNCH, here they are the cause of the death of a central character. Okay, okay, Sam --- we get it. Horses GOOD. Cars BAD. 

With apologies to the Peckinpah mavens who repeatedly espouse the view that mega-villain studio boss James Aubrey singlehandedly destroyed a potential Peckinpah masterpiece by cutting PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID to ribbons I have but one response ---- HUH? After viewing both the 2005 Special Edition and the 1988 Turner Preview Version which have been invaluably delivered by the Warner folk, I can only arrive at one very regretful conclusion: PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID contains all of the ominous faults that would propel Sam into the failures that would plague the balance of his career. All the film really offers is a series of muddled, meandering and meaninglessly disconnected scenes that have no rhyme, reason or purpose. Virtually every scene seems like an outtake from a film conjured up in the fevered mind of someone who has lost touch with reality but is desperately clinging to a series of mannerisms which once worked but are now --- mannerisms. Not helping matters one iota is James Coburn's arrogantly boring Garrett which is less a performance than a corny cornucopia of poses and attitudes that shift between the self-perceived cool and semi-cool modes with monotonous regularity. Kris Kristofferson's Billy is merely an oversized bad boy with a perpetual smirk that signifies nothing and Bob Dylan lurks around the edges of this preposterous prank with the veneer of a somewhat stunned stoner who has wandered onto the wrong set and hasn't a clue what to do or where to go. 

All my griping about the faults of the above film might lead our readers to the conclusion that I regret its inclusion in this collection. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is essential viewing for anyone interested in experiencing the whys-and-wherefores of the shocking downward spiral of one of the most boldly creative directors in film history. Not since Preston Sturges has a great director allowed outside influences and temptations to so totally sabotage his career at such an early stage. PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, like Sturges' BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND, represents a brilliant mind whose manic energy has been insidiously sapped by forces beyond his control. In that light it must be experienced. 

The anamorphic matted widescreen color transfer of CABLE HOGUE is an accurate representation of the original, as are the anamorphic
widescreen (2.35:1) color incarnations of HIGH COUNTRY and PAT GARRETT. All three deliver solid monaural soundtracks but pardon us as we recover from the THE WILD BUNCH's absolutely stupendous color anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) image that puts the original flat dvd release to shame. We might add that even though there's no mention on the package of any kind of an upgrade of the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound tracks, it would appear to these delighted ears that Jerry Fielding's brilliant score has never sounded so spaciously sublime and the vigorous thump and power of the numerous killing machines in this colossal film made me glad that I had soundproofed my screening room. I experienced the 1994 restoration of this film on three separate occasions when it premiered at Hollywood's Cinerama Dome, but this latest home video presentation is by leaps and bounds the most ragingly mindbending version that I have ever witnessed.

--Dick Dinman

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