Top Ten: Western Treasures Part 3
Drama is conflict.
Nowhere is that better exemplified than in a less technologically advanced, austere western setting. Practically since the dawn of cinema itself, westerns appeared on the scene with their early simple narratives, befitting both the west's preceding closure and this awesome, new storytelling discovery.
Since then, the best film makers working in this genre have offset their characters' immediate and barer motives with a mature and sophisticated overview. They've allowed the setting's simplicity to heighten the dramatic impact while making sure the events described don't become too unrealistic. In less capable hands, an accurate description of frontier living could be pretty dull without some artificially created heroics inserted to liven the proceedings.
The talented storytellers represented here applied their visionary approach allowing the characters and plot to appear naturally developed. They passionately conveyed the western's period influences while looking beyond the setting's obvious traits to explore its inhabitants' deep thought processes, maintaining the authenticity of both.
In this third and final part of the series, I will complete this list with the most enlightening and meaningful westerns ever made, those timeless motion pictures that for all the right reasons, resonate long after the lights go up.
#4. Ride the High Country (1962, U.S.A.)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Aging ex-lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) accidentally runs into an old friend Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) who together with Westrum's much younger partner Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) agree to transport a shipment of gold from a mining community in the High Sierras to a local town's bank. During their journey, Gil will try to chip away at Steve's decision to complete the mission honestly and instead persuade him to keep the gold for themselves. Heck goes his buddy Gil one better saying: "Gold splits better two ways than three." The dialog between these three along their journey will allow numerous fascinating personality traits to naturally develop and heighten the upcoming discord between them.
Things get more complicated after the three stay the night at a ranch occupied by a strict, bible quoting widower, Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong, See: End Credits) and his daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley) who Heck takes a strong liking to. She decides to tag along with the others to get away from her overbearing father and travel to the mining town so she can wed Billy Hammond (James Drury). Although the ceremony's celebrant is the crusty and frequently soused Judge Tolliver (a perfectly cast Edgar Buchanan), his wise words on marriage are profound and insightful. They transcend the wedding at hand and provide us with an aspirational lesson on the true nature of a committed relationship. The judge's speech will also reflect on themes of trust and loyalty prevalent throughout the story and dear to the director's heart. Unfortunately, for the groom, they fall on deaf ears and the marriage goes horribly wrong. Billy, not to mention his seedy sex-starved brothers, basically sees Elsa as property to be ravaged, and so she's cleverly rescued from the Hammond clan by our trio of gold transporters to be returned to her father's home.
It is at this point where events start to intensify and take on another meaningful subtext. On the way back, Gil lets Heck know privately that he was right about Steve not loosening his resolve to do the job right, meaning they'll have to double cross him. Heck's attitude has changed, however, since developing a new found respect for the old man and deeper feelings for Elsa. Gil reminds his younger buddy that they made a deal. Heck responds with a resigned "Yes sir."
Heck being the far younger of the three is just starting to develop his values while the others are fairly set in theirs. He'll have to choose and that choice will forever be part of who he becomes as well as how he's seen by others like Elsa and Gil. We've heard Steve describe to Gil his own early law-breaking days and how this assignment, once it's fulfilled honestly with the others' help, will enable him to "enter my house justified" (a personally significant line written by the director specifically for McCrea's Steve Judd). Will Heck reform and become honorable like Steve, betraying Gil's trust, or will he keep his agreement with his miscreant friend and be known as a common outlaw? What of the risks involved in either decision?
That night when Gil tries to quietly make off with the gold, he and Heck get caught by Steve and there's one explosive showdown. Nothing in this scene is embellished in the slightest: It's tense and economically delivered increasing its forcefulness and foreshadows the even greater conflicts to come.
The next day a couple of the Hammond boys catch up with the group to claim Elsa but Steve rebuffs them as well. The Hammonds swear they'll get Elsa back, making Steve's situation extremely difficult: He has to decide which, if either of his two prisoners to untie to gain valuable assistance in fighting off the Hammonds.
Pressure mounts as threats come to all four before and during this story's suspenseful and sensational climax. The heroic poignancy of its final moments cannot be overstated. Like the following films on this list, the conclusion will "cash in" on all of the deeply personal character attributes the storytellers have subtly planted and nurtured throughout, delivering a devastating dramatic catharsis.
The filmmakers made an audacious choice of western hero Randolph Scott (his last performance) for the role of Gil Westrum, the morally compromised opportunist of the two aged friends. Both his and frequent western star Joel McCrea's casting are truly inspired. That's the word as well for their performances and George Bassman's hauntingly beautiful music that highlights the underlying bond between Steve and Gil and the grandeur of their surrounds. The majestic widescreen color photography by Lucien Ballard is still another asset in providing an emotionally fulfilling viewing experience.
These conflicting fidelities and their effect on character would represent subject matter explored in many of Sam Peckinpah's works, such as the following Major Dundee. Then in 1969, Sam would explode some of those same western genre conventions he admired, confronting audiences with The Wild Bunch, his crowning artistic achievement. It's only because he took such extreme risks in daring to say so much and succeeded that his 1969 film rates higher on this list than his elegiac Ride the High Country... not because it's more intelligent or passionate.
#3. Devil's Doorway (1950, U.S.A.)
Director: Anthony Mann
#2. The Searchers (1956, U.S.A.)
Director: John Ford
#1. The Wild Bunch (1969, U.S.A.)
Director: Sam Peckinpah