Ride the High Country

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Ride the High Country
Ride the High Country Poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed bySam Peckinpah
Written byN. B. Stone Jr.
Sam Peckinpah
William Roberts
Produced byRichard E. Lyons
CinematographyLucien Ballard
Edited byFrank Santillo
Music byGeorge Bassman
Color processMetrocolor
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • June 20, 1962 (1962-06-20) (USA)
Running time
94 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$2 million[2]

Ride the High Country (released internationally as Guns in the Afternoon) is a 1962 American CinemaScope Western film directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, and Mariette Hartley. The supporting cast includes Edgar Buchanan, James Drury, Warren Oates, and Ron Starr. The film's script, though credited solely to veteran TV screenwriter N. B. Stone Jr.,[3] was – according to producer Richard E. Lyons – almost entirely the work of Stone's friend and colleague, William S. Roberts, and Peckinpah himself.[4] [a]

In 1992, Ride the High Country was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant[8][9]

The film featured Scott's final screen performance.[10]


In the early years of the 20th century, an aging ex-lawman, Steve Judd, is hired by a bank to transport gold from a high country mining camp to the town of Hornitos, California. Six miners were recently murdered trying to transport their gold on the one trail leading down from the crest of the Sierra Nevada. In his prime, Judd was a tough and respected lawman, but now his threadbare clothes and spectacles serve as reminders that he is long past his prime. Judd enlists the help of his old friend and partner Gil Westrum to guard the gold transfer. Gil, who had been making his living passing himself off as a legendary sharpshooter named The Oregon Kid, enlists the help of his young sidekick, Heck Longtree.

Judd, Gil and Heck hit the trail on horseback toward Coarsegold, a mining camp located in the Sierra foothills, north of the town of Fresno. Judd doesn't realize that Gil and Heck are planning to steal the gold for themselves — preferably with Judd's help, but without it if necessary. Along the way they stop for the night at the farm of Joshua Knudsen and his daughter Elsa. Knudsen is a domineering religious man who warns against those who "traffic in gold" and trades Bible verses with Judd at the dinner table. That night, Elsa and Heck secretly meet in the moonlight for conversation, but the elder Knudsen catches them and pulls her away. Back at the house, he admonishes and slaps her; even though her father had only met Heck that evening, "I can see that the boy is no good"- just as all her other boyfriends were no good. Elsa replies "I promised the next time you hit me you'd be sorry for it!"

The next morning, after the three men had left on the trail to the mining camp, she catches up to them and asks whether she can keep them company on the way. She announces that she is also going to Coarsegold, to marry a miner named Billy Hammond. He had previously proposed to her when he was in town, although she had not accepted his proposal back then. Along the way, Elsa and Heck flirt, and at one time he tries to force himself on her. Heck is stopped by Judd, and then punched by both Judd and Gil. He later apologizes to Elsa.

When they reach the mining camp, the two older men set up a tent to weigh and accept gold dust in individual bags for which they give receipts of deposit, with safe transport guaranteed by the bank.

Having brought her mother's wedding dress with her, Elsa and Billy are married in the camp's brothel—the only substantial building there—by a real retired judge who happens to be at the camp. The madam and prostitutes serve as "maid of honor" and "flower girls". Then Billy forces Elsa to a room in the brothel for their wedding night even though she emphatically states "No, Billy, not here!"; he strikes her when she refuses to obey him. By now intoxicated and passed out, he fails to prevent his disreputable brothers Elder, Sylvus, Jimmy, and Henry from entering the room and attempting to rape her.

Outside, hearing her screams, Judd and Heck rescue Elsa from the brothel and the Hammonds and let her stay in their tent that night.

The next day, the miners of the camp organize a "miner's trial" (without any need for a judge) to force the outsiders to return Elsa to her "legal" husband; because they are outnumbered, former lawman Judd agrees to the miner's demands as "that's the law in places like this". However, Gill wakes up the drunken judge and demands to see his license (which in fact is duly issued in Sacramento), and then keeps it. He forces the judge at gunpoint to agree that when asked if the judge has a license to marry, he must say no (because Gill has it).

This ruse works and the three men are allowed to leave the camp with the gold and Elsa.

Along the way, Judd talks to Gil about right and wrong and how that's "something you just know". After all the lost years working in disreputable places, he tells Gil that he's now grateful to have gained back some of his self-respect and intends on keeping it "with the help of you and that boy back there". When Gil asks if that's all he wants, Judd replies, "All I want is to enter my House justified."

Realizing Judd will never go along with his plan to steal the gold, Gil plans to take the gold without his help. During the night as Gil and Heck prepare to leave with the gold, Judd confronts them at gunpoint. Heck, after previously expressing a change of mind to Gil, gives up his gun immediately. Angered by his old friend's Gil's betrayal, Judd puts his gun away, then slaps Gil and challenges him to draw. Instead, Gil throws down his guns and accepts that Judd will turn him in when they return to town.

Judd is forced to change his plans when the Hammond brothers appear in hot pursuit of Elsa. They found out about the ruse and learned that the judge's license could be verified in Sacramento, proving the marriage legal.

In the ensuing gunfight, two of the brothers, Jimmy and Sylvus, are killed, and Billy, Elder and Henry give up and escape.

During the night, Gil leaves camp and heads back to the site of the gunfight, where he takes a horse and gun from one of the dead brothers. Then he follows Judd, Heck, and Elsa down the only trail. Meanwhile, Heck has shown himself to be trustworthy, and even though he will most likely go to prison, Elsa tells him she'll be there when he gets out. When they reach Elsa's farm, the Hammond brothers are waiting, having already killed her father. A gunfight breaks out and soon both Judd and Heck are wounded. Gil comes riding in to help his old friend, and together the pair insult and challenge the brothers to a face-to-face shootout in the open. When the dust settles, the three brothers are dead, but Judd is mortally wounded. He tells his old friend, "I don't want them to see this. I'll go it alone." When Gil pledges to take care of everything just like he would have, Judd says, "Hell, I know that. I always did. You just forgot it for a while, that's all." Judd casts a look back towards the high country and then dies.



Peckinpah flipped a coin in the presence of a producer to see which leading man got top billing, Scott or McCrea.[citation needed] Scott won the toss. However, in the opening credits, both stars' names are shown in the same shot, so both Scott and McCrea received equal top billing.

Filming locations[edit]


The film was released on the bottom half of a double bill. William Goldman says he spoke to an MGM executive at the time who says the film had tested strongly but they felt the film "didn't cost enough to be that good".[13]

According to MGM records, the film lost $160,000.[14]

Seen in a double bill with The Tartars, Bosley Crowther greatly preferred Ride the High Country, calling it a "perfectly dandy little Western" and "the most disarming little horse opera in months." According to Crowther:[15]

The two young people are quite good, especially Miss Hartley, a newcomer with real promise. R. G. Armstrong and Edgar Buchanan also contribute telling bits. We know little about the director and scenarist, but Mr. Peckinpah and Mr. Stone certainly have what it takes. And so, if anybody ever doubted it, do a couple of leathery, graying hombres named McCrea and Scott.

Ride the High Country was hailed as a success upon its release in Europe, winning first prize at the Cannes Film Festival.[11] The film's reputation has only grown in following years, with Peckinpah's admirers citing it as his first great film.[16] 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.[11] In 1964 the film won the prestigious Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association.[17]

In his autobiography In the Arena (1995), Charlton Heston wrote that he was considering remaking the film in the late 1980s, presumably with Clint Eastwood as a co-star, but after viewing Ride the High Country Heston proposed Harry Julian Fink's script of Major Dundee (1965) to Peckinpah.[1]

The original casting was for McCrea to play the Gil Westrum part and Randolph Scott to play Steve Judd. After reading the script the two men agreed that a switch of roles was in order.[11]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:


  1. ^ As Lyons explained to Peckinpah biographer Garner Simmons:

    The way it came about was one day I happened to mention my need for a good property to Roberts, who told me about this good friend of his, N. B. Stone Jr., who had this screenplay he'd written years before about two old guys who were through but got one more chance in life. Well, it sounded like a pretty good idea, and Roberts put me in touch with Stone.[5]

    What Roberts had neglected to mention was that his friend's chronic alcoholism had brought his career to a standstill. The 145-page draft eventually obtained from Stone was, in Lyon's word, "awful." Apprised of the situation, Roberts offered to do a full rewrite, though he insisted on remaining uncredited, still hoping to give his friend's career a boost. The rewrite was completed, and though deemed an enormous improvement, it remained, in Lyon's words, "a diamond in the rough." Thankfully, Peckinpah "knew how to cut it to really bring out its brilliance":

    What Sam did was a tremendous three-to-four-week dialogue rewrite. And he made possibly the single most important structural change. In the original Stone-Roberts script, Randy, the 'black hat' character, dies at the end. Sam switched it so the good guy died. And that, I think, really gave the film its tremendous impact, because it went against the tradition of the bad guy paying his debt.[6]

    The film's title itself – as opposed to the original Guns in the Afternoon – was also Peckinpah's handiwork.[7] The significance of Peckinpah's contribution was not lost on the film's star. "Sam was such a good writer," recalled McCrea. "He improved the script immeasurably."[6]



  1. ^ a b Bliss, Michael (1994), Doing it Right: The Best Criticism on Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, SIU Press, p. 20, ISBN 978-0-8093-1863-6
  2. ^ American Film Institute
  3. ^ Box Office Mojo
  4. ^ Compo, Susan (2009). "Meanwhile, Back at the Raincheck". Warren Oates: A Wild Life. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press. ISBN 9780813173320. Retrieved 2015-06-15.
  5. ^ Simmons, Garner (1982). "Ride the High Country". Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. p. 42. ISBN 0-87910-273-X. Retrieved 2015-06-12.
  6. ^ a b Simmons, Garner (1982). "Ride the High Country". Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. p. 44. ISBN 0-87910-273-X. Retrieved 2015-06-11.
  7. ^ Hughes, Howard. "'All I Want Is to Enter My House Justified'". Stagecoach to Tombstone: The Filmgoers' Guide to the Great Westerns. London: I.B. Tauris. pp. 139-140. ISBN 978-1-84511-498-5. Retrieved 2015-06-12.
  8. ^ "Ride The High Country" Is Released|World History Project
  9. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing". Library of Congress. Retrieved May 8, 2020.
  10. ^ "Ride the High Country". TCM. Retrieved April 9, 2012.
  11. ^ a b c d Articles - TCM.com
  12. ^ Meyer, William R. (1979), The Making of the Great Westerns, Arlington House, p. 321, ISBN 978-0-87000-431-5
  13. ^ William Goldman, The Big Picture?: Who Killed Hollywood and Other Essays, Applause, 2000 p 29
  14. ^ The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  15. ^ Crowther, Bosley (June 21, 1962). "Ride the High Country". The New York Times. Retrieved May 31, 2012.
  16. ^ McKinney, Devin (1999). "Innovation and Retreat". In Stephen Prince (ed.). Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 195. ISBN 0521584337.
  17. ^ Grand Prix de l'UCC (1964)-IMDb
  18. ^ "AFI's 10 Top 10 Nominees" (PDF). Archived from the original on July 16, 2011. Retrieved August 19, 2016.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)

Further reading[edit]

  • Bliss, Michael (1993). Justified Lives: Morality and Narrative in the Films of Sam Peckinpah. Southern Illinois University Press. ISBN 978-0-8093-1823-0.
  • Dukore, Bernard F. (1999). Sam Peckinpah's Feature Films. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-02486-3.
  • Engel, Leonard, ed. (2003). Sam Peckinpah's West: New Perspectives. University of Utah Press. ISBN 978-0-87480-772-1.
  • Evans, Max (1972). Sam Peckinpah: Master of Violence. Dakota Press. ISBN 978-0-88249-011-3.
  • Fine, Marshall (1991). Bloody Sam: The Life and Films of Sam Peckinpah. Donald I. Fine. ISBN 978-1-55611-236-2.
  • Hayes, Kevin J. (2008). Sam Peckinpah: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-934110-63-8.
  • Hein, David. "Going Home Justified." The Living Church, July 27, 2014, pp. 16–17.
  • Hein, David. "Ride the High Country: An Elegy on Leadership." The Statesman, March 24, 2014. [1] Republished in The Imaginative Conservative: [2]
  • Seydor, Paul (1996). Peckinpah: The Western Films, A Reconsideration. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-02268-5.
  • Simons, John L. (2011). Peckinpah's Tragic Westerns: A Critical Study. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-6133-2.
  • Weddle, David (1994). If They Move ... Kill 'Em! The Life and Times of Sam Peckipah. Grove Press. ISBN 978-0-8021-1546-1.

External links[edit]