December 24, 2017


"Ride the High Country": An Elegy on Leadership (David Hein, 12/22/17, Imaginative Conservative)

Excellent films can be prolegomena or adjuncts to nonfiction studies of character. They can function as trailers to incite interest, provoke questions, and create memories, which viewers might then employ as touchstones for future cognition. For students of leadership for a just society, Ride the High Country crystallizes beliefs and codes of behavior worth studying, affirming, and claiming today. And this film does so, not at all as a didactic and hence desiccated artifact, but as a still-absorbing story that reaches out to mind, heart, and will in a manner that is irreplaceable.

Among this movie's widely appreciated episodes, the ending is the most famous: one of the most powerfully evocative death scenes in all of cinema history. It's a scene that--rather troublingly--marks not only the death of the film's good guy, a former United States Marshal named Steve Judd (played by Joel McCrea), but also, potentially, the death of all he has stood for through many years of dedicated service to law and order in the West.

That somber assessment is made possible by this film's opening scenes, in which Steve rides into town and mistakenly supposes that the cheering throngs are saluting his past glory as a highly regarded peace officer. Instead, they're whooping it up for a (dishonest) race between a camel and a horse. Sitting tall in the saddle, the bemused Steve Judd is merely in the way. It's the early twentieth century, a horseless carriage chugs slowly through the center of town, and a uniformed constable (not a sheriff with a six-gun) yells at Steve, who, after some years of barely scraping by, looks a little the worse for wear in his shabby apparel: "Get out of the way, old man; can't you hear? Can't you see you're in the way?"

In real life, Ride the High Country marked all kinds of disappointing closures. But in the film, when Steve dies, the viewer is deeply satisfied that this lawman's principal concern is realized. Earlier in this movie, riding a trail in the mountains with Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), his partner from years before, Steve speaks lines that are unabashedly moral; in fact, un-self-consciously religious. To today's audiences, familiar with either overly sentimental or casually dismissive renderings of Christian themes in films (and, interestingly, Ride the High Country includes a violent, misshapen Christian, Elsa's father, Joshua Knudsen), the straightforward treatment in this Western might well prove a relief.

Gil, who had served as Steve's deputy in the cause of frontier justice, has decided that society owes him some recompense. Reduced to performing in a carnival as a cheap counterfeit of a western hero (playing a sharpshooter called the Oregon Kid), Gil is unwilling to die a poor man; he plans to steal the gold shipment that he, Steve, and a young man named Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) have been hired to protect on its journey from the Coarse Gold mining camp in the high Sierras to the town bank in Hornitos, California.

Gil wants to entice Steve to join him in this theft--it's only stealing from a bank, after all, and they're entitled to the gold after all those years of loyal service, taking bullets for next to nothing. Approaching his theme indirectly, Gil asks Steve: "You know what's on the back of a poor man when he dies? The clothes of pride. And they are not a bit warmer to him dead than they were when he was alive. Is that all you want, Steve?"

But Gil cannot convince his old partner to break his code of honor. Indeed, Steve's ethics appear to have a transcendent status, a metaphysical heft that more than compensates for the outward shame of his frayed cuffs and threadbare coat. A tough sheriff who'd set him straight years before when Steve was just starting out had an advantage over the younger man which went beyond physical strength: "See, he was right, and I was wrong," Steve informs Gil, and "that makes the difference." "Who says so?" Gil asks. Steve replies: "Nobody. That's something you just know." Morality has an objective grounding apart from individual preferences.

On the trail through the mountains, Steve makes it clear that he's still dedicated to living by this sense of right and wrong, come what may. His reply to Gil's "Is that all you want, Steve?" is "All I want is to enter my house justified." It's a line that Sam Peckinpah--who rewrote much of the original film script--borrowed directly from his father and, in all likelihood, indirectly from Luke 18:14, in which the humble tax collector (who confesses himself "a sinner"), rather than the Pharisee, went down to his house justified before God.

Posted by at December 24, 2017 6:55 AM