A bit of background to my love of the western


My very first memory of cowboy films is Broken Lance with Spencer Tracy which my father took me to see at the Regent cinema in Brisbane some time during 1954. Tracy was then a white-haired, irascible old patriarch who virtually spat out his lines to members of  his screen family among whom were Robert Wagner , Richard Widmark and Jean Peters . I learned later that going to a movie theatre with Dad where Tracy was appearing was like treading on consecrated ground.  Since at this stage of my life I venerated my father and his opinions as much as he venerated Tracy, I sought out Tracy’s films diligently but largely to no avail: Tracy’s career was in decline by the 50s and there was no TV around to expose me to his major work from the 30s and 40s so Broken Lance remained my sole experience of Tracy until I saw The Mountain, again co-starring Robert Wagner (this time round incongruously cast as Tracy’s brother when he  looked like his grandfather) .That was in 1954. In the meantime I had discovered the flicks in earnest because the Princess theatre had opened its doors in March 1955 and by the end of 1957 I must have seen about 400 films at least 75 of them Westerns.

Randolph Scott figured centrally in quite a few of them. John Wayne, Joel McCrea and a slew of B stars like Charles Starrett (aka the Durango Kid), Gene Autry, Tim Holt and Audie Murphy made up a goodly proportion of the rest. Scott was really the first to gallop into my gallery of heroes and to my small boy’s mind he was the best. Dad always said that Gary Cooper sat a horse more authentically than any of the others but I only caught up with a large body of Cooper’s work in my teens with the advent of TV. For now Scott was the embodiment of Western integrity and stoicism. This was the 50s pre-Boetticher Scott, craggy, greying, a little saddle-sore but with instincts sharper and quicker than his adversaries who included Zachary Scott as a truly frightening psychopath in Colt 45, Raymond Massey in at least two films Carson City and Sugarfoot and a trio of murderers headed by Ernest Borgnine in The Bounty Hunter. The last-mentioned film was one of a number Scott made with the estimable Andre De Toth, a Hungarian-born director who made the most of Scott’s steely will in the face of treachery and shifting loyalties.

I especially loved Scott’s chestnut sorrel horse Stardust (with its natural platinum mane and tail) which accompanied him in most of these 50s Warner Bros programmers. Unlike the B stars Scott was very much the loner- no Smiley Burnette with battered hat and assortment of exotic whistles, no misguided amorous overtures to western gals like Tim Holt’s sidekick Richard Martin, no garrulous old-timers like Andy Clyde in the Hopalong Cassidies and mostly no serious romance. Gabby Hayes did appear in Silver City (aka Albuquerque) but that was a Paramount film and quite unlike the Warner Bros films in style, tone and atmosphere. It was clearly a younger Randy, too, although by 1957 I finally saw Scott when he was genuinely in his prime in Western Union. This was the first Scott film I saw in which he was not only second-billed under another star (Robert Young) but also played second fiddle to him throughout the film and was drawn in morally ambiguous terms to boot! I liked the film (by Fritz Lang) but felt a little unsettled by these unaccustomed shades of the Scott persona.

Mostly I loved Scott’s clearly hard-earned self-sufficiency and grit. He carried himself tall and straight and never looked less than at complete ease in the saddle. In retrospect I viewed him as the most graceful and dignified of Western heroes with his softly-spoken Southern drawl and characteristic walk. He shared with both John Wayne and Joel McCrea a distinctive way of walking. But whereas the Duke through his stride projected the mythic (at least for Ford; Hawks is another story) and McCrea the morally upright, Scott conveyed a steely sense of purpose that made you feel it would be dangerous to get in his way when he was fully aroused .

In 1963 I read a highly enthusiastic review in Time magazine of a new Western directed by a then newcomer called Sam Peckinpah. I was 18 at the time and becoming interested in “serious,” that is, art house cinema . My close friend Toivo Lember and I had joined the Brisbane Cinema Group and had started attending their monthly screenings at Manufacturer’s House in Wickham Terrace, Brisbane. We were meeting and becoming influenced by some of Brisbane’s well-known film buffs. They were all older than we were, obviously knew a lot more about films, were certainly more sophisticated and confident and were nearly all men. They included people like Brian Hannant, Alan Young and Stathe Black, then president of the cinema group. They seemed to be welcoming of the younger blood and chatted to us in an open and enthusiastic way about their views of cinema. They generally preferred foreign, art-house fare to the standard Hollywood genre films that Toivo and I had grown up with .

I felt the need to become more educated about and familiar with this largely unfamiliar territory. The Cinema Group initiated us into an acquaintanceship with legendary figures like Eisenstein, Jean Renoir and Luis Bunuel. The French New Wave was fast coming into currency among this niche film circle, but certain American directors were excepted from the disdainful comments reserved for the majority of mainstream commercial film makers. Among these were John Ford (especially his more arty and socially-conscious works like The Informer and The Grapes of Wrath); Alfred Hitchcock (grudgingly; they loved his diabolical manipulation of audiences and his black humour while denigrating the lowly suspense thriller genre formats he preferred to work in); and Orson Welles who was seen as the resident genius and enfant terrible of the American film establishment (Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons-even in its generally butchered version with its compromised ending-were revered as film milestones). But when I tried to discuss Westerns generally or George Stevens’ Shane particularly-let alone Delmer Daves or Gary Cooper- I was met with polite but emphatic rebuffs.

I started to visit the places where art-house films were exhibited in Brisbane-the new Lido theatrette up near the Post Office and the old Carlton near the Record Market which had seen a number of changes of screening policy over the years. It had once been the outlet for sessions of short subjects, selected featurettes and cartoon festivals but was increasingly the main competition for the Lido. They were both mini-cinemas with limited seating, small screens and very intimate atmospheres-places you would happily take your girl friend to if you had one. I was 18 and unworldly. All that was to change when Diane Elmer re-entered my life but that was still a year away. The Carlton was a bit old and grotty; the Lido posher and loftier. Both were now specialising in Ingmar Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Japanese cinema, French New Wave directors (the Carlton had Chabrol’s Leda and Tati’s Mon Oncle  while the Lido screened Through a Glass Darkly, Last Year at Marienbad-with its quaint disclaimer apologizing to audiences that it might not make much sense if viewed in traditional narrative terms-and The Leopard in its butchered 161 minute English language form). They both also pursued a policy of re-releasing selected vintage fare; I had caught up with Rear Window and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty at the Carlton in the early 60s. The Lido in 1963 screened to my delight From Here to Eternity (1953) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) having already mounted a solid week of 30s and 40s MGM films among which were Goodbye Mr Chips, Gaslight, Balalaika and New Moon .

I was more than a little defensive with the cinema group crowd about my attachment to figures like Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. I would not have dared mention that having grown up under the spell of my mother who loved slushy operetta of the Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy variety I nursed a secret weakness for MacDonald-not Eddy-which was later justified by her genuinely vibrant and sexy  performances for Lubitsch and Mamoulian;  and I never  would have let slip to this crowd that I enjoyed the antic silliness of Jerry Lewis or Danny Kaye. I certainly had a lot of skeletons in my “serious” cinema closet, and although I had begun to like Ingmar Bergman’s metaphysical angst, Alain Resnais’ intellectual puzzles and Orson Welles’ obvious genius, I fiercely wanted to cling to my roots and the love of mainstream Hollywood cinema. I began to intellectualize my interests in Hitchcock whom I argued was as morally profound as Bergman and Antonioni if not more so, and I read many layers of meaning into John Ford’s lyrical hymns to the US cavalry. It was especially encouraging given my insecurities in the new and formidably august company of film buffs therefore to read such a glowing review not only of a new Western but one starring two of my most revered childhood heroes. I was completely vindicated when I found out the film had won a prestigious award at the Venice Film Festival.

Following the closure of the Metro theatre in Albert St where MGM had always exclusively exhibited its product in the city (in first runs) there were a number of MGM films left gathering dust on the shelves. One of them was now a respectable European Film Festival winner and begged a city run. Guns in the Afternoon ( Ride the High Country’s Australian release title) was belatedly given its first run at the Lido keeping company with Bergman, Visconti and Fellini. The irony was not lost on me even at an innocent 19. Sam Peckinpah’s second film (nobody I knew at this time had seen his first -The Deadly Companions) is a sublimely lyrical valedictory tribute to the passing of the West and the aging of two of its greatest and most representative stars. I had loved them both as far back as my earliest, most formative film experiences but here at last, in the autumn of their film lives they had found the final showdown for which they had been rehearsing all their lives. With biblical grandeur, they play, or more to the point are Gil Westrum and Steve Judd-two ageing gunfighters who have fallen on hard times (and into a new era which neither recognizes nor has a place for them). In accepting a menial job transporting gold from a mining camp (Coarse Gold) high in the Sierras back into the nearest township, these two old friends and comrades with a lifetime of shared histories undergo an ordeal of shifting moral allegiances which temporarily turns them into enemies before they finally join forces for one last blazing shootout (the “guns in the afternoon”of the Australian title). In the process they re-attain grace, dignity and self-respect.

Joel McCrea’s interview with Patrick McGilligan (Films in Focus) sheds fascinating light on how the roles of Steven Judd and Gil Westrum germinated. Apparently Burt Kennedy had given Scott, then 62, N B Stone Jr’s script to read. An impressed Scott originally envisaged himself as Judd but was only prepared to share star billing with Joel McCrea whom he tried to persuade over lunch to play Westrum arguing that the role was more subtly shaded than the Judd character. McCrea, then 57 and officially retired, baulked at the idea of playing a role that overturned his screen image of honesty and integrity. A deal was finally struck in which McCrea played Judd and Scott Westrum.

I believe McCrea’s instincts were absolutely correct; the identification of a star with specific realms and genres is an important one in compounding and enriching each succeeding performance by that star. Superficially, McCrea and Scott may be interchangeable icons of the terrain of late 40s and 50s western landscapes. They certainly shared similar backgrounds in their lengthy film apprenticeships, both beginning as extras around 1929. Scott’s involvement with the western began with a series of Paramount Bs in the early 30s based on Zane Grey stories and directed by a young Henry Hathaway. He then drifted into roles in other genres including some Astaire/Rogers musicals and even one notable foray into screwball comedy with his good friend Cary Grant (My Favourite Wife); but although he also played Wyatt Earp (Frontier Marshal, director Allan Dwan ) in 1940 as did McCrea (Wichita, Jacques Tourneur, 1955 ) he never quite rose to the achievements of the latter in this period of his career. McCrea as a young man appeared in one of Hitchcock’s most important 40s films (Foreign Correspondent ), an excellent La Cava comedy/drama (Primrose Path), Wyler’s These Three, King Vidor’s Bird of Paradise, George Stevens’s The More the Merrier and several unsurpassed romantic/satirical comedies for Preston Sturges . By 1946, McCrea had a most impressive CV and there was more to come in the late 40s (Ramrod, Colorado Territory, Four Faces West) as he, like Scott, began to focus exclusively on westerns.

Scott, meanwhile, came into his own in this genre, beginning with his association with producer Harry Joe Brown (Coroner Creek, 1948); and continuing into interesting cycles of westerns at Columbia, Fox and Warners that began with an Edwin L Marin directed group, progressed to the Andre De Toths and culminated in the seven films mostly written by Burt Kennedy and directed by Budd Boetticher. These films are now held up as paradigms of B-film making in the genre and deservedly so. They also greatly extended and made more complex the image of Scott himself. His laconic, stoical loners now often internalized darker secrets that could only be exorcized by showdowns of considerable violence.  Increasingly with age, Scott took on a moral ambiguity that was only occasionally hinted at in previous incarnations (under Lang, for example, in Western Union or as the avenging angel figure in Coroner Creek).

McCrea on the other hand made a lot of western programmers throughout the 50s but there were three films in this period that set in concrete his abiding screen image of moral rectitude and resolve (Stars in my Crown , Wichita and Stranger on Horseback).

All were directed by the elegant, low-key director of minor genre masterpieces Jacques Tourneur; the first of them, where he plays a frontier parson with a gun, is his personal favourite of all of his films. This probably provides an interesting clue as to why he insisted on playing Steve Judd rather than Gil Westrum. Ride the High Country has one of the densest and most carefully wrought scripts in the genre’s screen history and one where every gesture, every line and every action is pregnant with thematic relevance. On one level, it is a profoundly metaphysical parable about living by moral codes, as Judd attempts, and the consequences of “forgetting (them) for a while” as Westrum discovers to his literal physical discomfort  before he returns to the fold in the film’s magnificent coda. I love the Jacobean biblical flavour of Stone’s entire screenplay but its moral righteousness is beautifully tempered by a shrewd humanity and some caustic wit.. Randolph Scott in the Boettichers was laconic to the point of long stretches of silence; here he gets many of the best lines and is very funny in a barbed and ironic sense which serves as a brilliant foil to McCrea’s near-loquacious philosophising.

In their parallel careers, Scott and McCrea cleaned up half the frontier: Albuquerque, Carson City, Abilene, Dodge City, Tombstone, Wichita, Fort Worth, Santa Fe, Kansas City and other legendary locations. Scott oversaw the development of Western Union; McCrea was Buffalo Bill. In an interesting switch, Scott’s Westrum is dressed up as a Buffalo Bill lookalike in a sideshow when McCrea  spots him in the film’s opening sequence  and chastises him for his bogus stories about cleaning up some of the west’s most notorious outlaws.

Judd’s adherence to his moral code is inflexible and unswerving and ultimately costs him his life; but in the process he not only “enters his house justified” but also ensures that Westrum and the wild young man (Heck Longtree, played by Ron Starr), who follows Westrum are redeemed as well. It is especially important that Westrum be redeemed because he has once lived by the same code as Judd and fought by his side as his friend against the common enemy “in the old days”. Now, like his friend Judd, he has outlived his era, is old and tired (he emphasises his aching bones and asks McCrea to untie his wrists because he doesn’t “sleep so good anymore”). Like Buffalo Bill before him, he is at the beginning of the film involved in questionable showmanship which exaggerates his past glories so that he can capitalize on them to a gullible public. He is setting up easy targets like any seedy carnival barker (“Shooting against you, mister, is like taking candy from a baby”). He has fallen from grace, no longer believes in the values both he and Judd once stood for. His aside to Heck Longtree that “the Lord’s bounty may not be for sale but the Devil’s is!” indicates just how far he has fallen. Scott is perfectly cast as Westrum. The steel in his soul can just as easily be put to darker purposes as to morally righteous ones-we already had a glimpse of it in some of the hell-bent revenge figures he played for Boetticher and other directors. He may have just as readily played Judd, but then McCrea could not have convincingly played Westrum because, for all his underratedness as a performer, he never had that darker edge. Scott’s casual cynicism rings very true here.

The film concerns itself at all levels with the codes people live and die by and for.  Mariette Hartley, the heroine in distress whose youthful bloom Peckinpah’s film so wondrously captures, provides Judd with the greatest challenge to his view of how the world ought to operate when she says: “My father says there’s only right and wrong, good and evil, nothing in between. It isn’t that simple, is it?” Judd’s reflection is revealing: “No, it isn’t. It should be but it isn’t.” Westrum has learned to live with those contradictions, but Judd the idealist cannot accept them comfortably.

Judd’s code is found to be ineffectual in a number of worldly circumstances: this is especially evident when Judd is pitted against the miner’s court in Coarse Gold with the Court ruling in favour of Billy Hammond against Elsa after their marriage and its terrifying aftermath. It is Westrum not Judd who saves the day by force and chicanery when he steals the judge’s licence and has him lie to the court. Judd is very uncomfortable in dealing with the moral complexities surrounding Elsa throughout the film and initially wants to leave her to the mercy of the Hammonds as he had wanted to send her back to her father when she first ran away. Ironically, it is Heck Longtree’s intervention in both cases that ensures the commitment of Judd and Westrum to her safety.

But the codes of the world are seen to be no more effective in defining a satisfactory value system for people to live by. Judd scrupulously signs and attempts to fulfil the letter of his contract with the bank to transport their gold (“the only gratitude I expect is my paycheck-$20 worth”). Living by the letter of the law has, however, cost him dearly in the world’s terms; Judd and Westrum joke uneasily about how rich they would be if they were paid adequately, that is, $1000 for every bullet hole they received in the line of duty. Poignantly and with deep irony, Judd indeed dies a very rich man (“they put them all in one place”).

The Hammond brothers’ code of “family honour” doesn’t bring them any joy at the end of the day, either. Sylvus (L Q Jones) dies an ignominious death in a rocky, barren outcrop; later even his gun and gunbelt are stripped from him by a desperate Westrum and his carcass is left to rot in the windswept elements. The three remaining brothers bite the dust being goaded into defending their “family honour”.

Joshua Knudsen’s fundamentalist code is the most contradictory and hypocritical of all of the moral codes put to the test in this film: it has him interpreting biblical passages literally in order to control his daughter Elsa: in warning her off all men as indecent and depraved and only after one thing, he tries to conceal his own incestuous desires. The authority of the “good book” is Knudsen’s sole reference point in dealing with questions of moral complexity and it has not equipped him to deal with his own desires and contradictions, let alone those of an adolescent daughter trying to deal with sexual yearnings.

Ride the High Country’s mise-en-scene fully complements the eloquence of the screenplay. Sam Peckinpah was fortunate in having Lucien Ballard capture the autumnal hues of the breathtakingly beautiful Inyo National Forest. The journey in and out of Coarse Gold by the ageing protagonists and their fellow travellers contains a visual symmetry perfectly in keeping with the classical quest structure underpinning the film. It is a journey into and out of the dark night of the soul for its participants. Its clear-cut imagery and narrative simplicity allow Peckinpah to develop his moral parable with great directness and a kind of austere purity. In some ways it resembles a medieval morality tale like Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale which also deals with the consequences of greed and straying from the true path. It is also a distant relative of John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre although Huston’s concerns were humanist (not at all concerned with redemption) and his view of the human condition cynical.

The film’s deceptively loose structure allows Peckinpah to develop a strong sense of camaraderie on the trail where the moral dilemmas are thrashed out in great detail. It also provides the two old men ample opportunity for grandstanding which they each take up with relish. Punctuating the film’s deceptively relaxed pace and tone are a wonderful string of taut set-pieces that occur  at the Knudsen farm initially, in Coarse Gold itself and later back at the farm (the final gunfight). Here the complex moral issues boil up, reach a deadlock and are finally (nobly, but for Judd tragically) resolved .

Besides the central performances, the film is enriched by the two younger leads and a whole clutch of memorable character vignettes.  Ron Starr is reasonably effective as Heck, who switches mentors and moral positions from Westrum to Judd after the enthralling early showdown between them. Peckinpah draws some discomforting parallels between Heck and Billy Hammond-both are greedy and exhibit depraved behaviour; both grope and claw at “loose” women; both come on too strongly to Elsa whose repressive  background  has made her very vulnerable and in need of a  gentle man. Mariette Hartley is particularly appealing, playing with an appropriate lack of guile and affectation. The victim of her vicious fundamentalist zealot father, she escapes into the arms of an even nastier fate at the hands of Billy Hammond and his family of memorable  lowlifes before she regains her perspective- and a possible future with Ron Starr-at the end of the film.  R G Armstrong brings her father fiercely and frighteningly to life-the scene where he physically abuses her is extraordinary in its warped, incestuous intensity.  He is equally effective in the tense dinner table scene where he and Judd play a game of one-upmanship by countering one biblical quotation against another with Westrum chiming in with the amusing punch line “Appetite, Chapter One” as a response to Elsa’s home cooking.

Some of Ride the High Country’s considerable pleasures revolve around the appearances of familiar faces like those of Percy Helton (he of the staccato squeak and beached fish face) and the ubiquitous, terminally suspicious Byron Foulger who appear and disappear quite early in the film as the bankers who hire Judd, “expecting a younger man”. Judd’s reply: “Well I used to be. We all used to be” is typical of the script’s trenchant economy in delineating the film’s relentless thematic concerns and mood.

When the film moves into Coarse Gold, described by Joshua Knudsen (accurately as it turns out) as “a sinkhole of depravity , a place of shame and sin”, Peckinpah’s mise-en-scene really comes into its own. The Hammond brothers are played by several of the members of what was to become a kind of Peckinpah stock company-L Q Jones, Warren Oates, John Davis Chandler. The clan with its parody of family honour evokes other depraved families like the Clantons or the Cleggses in John Ford’s Wagonmaster. They paw at the saloon girls in Kate’s hotel/brothel like wild animals and their expectation after the wedding between Billy and Elsa is that they will all share the bride in a nightmarish drunken orgy. The wedding itself is treated with a baroque garishness (at odds with the spareness and classical austerity of the rest of the film) that even for me suggests the influence of Fellini of all people: the grotesquely proportioned and dressed Jenie Jackson as Kate reinforces these echoes as events heat up and it literally becomes a wedding from hell. Edgar Buchanan, a great character actor capable of switching from affable to shifty hardly changing gear gives the sleaziest performance of his career as the fat soak of a judge.

McCrea and Scott are magnificent throughout the film-there are many behavioural vignettes that ensure the audience never take their eyes off these old troupers: Scott constantly fumbling and doing moral back flips; both of them standing stiffly in their long johns reminiscing about battles long gone and McCrea’s long-lost love Sarah Truesdale; the footsteps in the camp followed by the sudden  reveal on McCrea’s grimly determined face as he provokes Scott to “Draw, you damned tinhorn! You always figured you were faster than me.”

The final shootout is enthrallingly staged in simple, classic terms perfectly timed, framed and cut. It feels like the OK corral with two Wyatt Earps and three Clantons. Heck and Elsa fittingly remain on the sidelines for this final ritual. McCrea’s death scene with Scott (“I want to go it alone…See you later”) is genuinely poignant. The camera is positioned behind Judd who is looking away towards the mountains. He falls gently to the earth and fills the entire bottom of the Scope frame, his face serene as he enters his final resting place “justified”.

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