Warner Bros. continue their sets of "TCM Greatest Classic Films," each of which combines four older movies on the flip sides of two DVDs. With "TCM Greatest Classic Films: Westerns," WB roll out their sixth wave of such collections, with three or four sets in each wave, making a total of twenty-one two-disc collections so far. Of course, you may say it's easy for Warners to produce these sets since they already released all of the movies in single-disc editions and what we get here are the same masterings. True, but that doesn't make the sets any less a bargain for people who enjoy the genres each set represents.
With this latest edition, WB provide two Westerns that are OK and two that are excellent, which doesn't seem like a bad deal to me. The films that are merely OK are "The Stalking Moon" (1968), with Gregory Peck, Eva Marie Saint, and Robert Forster, directed by Robert Mulligan; and "Chisum" (1970), with John Wayne, Forrest Tucker, and Ben Johnson, directed by Andrew McLaglen. These are not bad movies, by any means, although "The Stalking Moon" can get mighty tedious at times. They simply make good fill-ups to the set's better Westerns, "Ride the High Country" (1962) and "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973), both, not coincidentally, directed by Sam Peckinpah.
"Ride the High Country" and "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" have the distinction of being the first and last great Westerns Peckinpah directed. Not that "Ride the High Country" was the first Western Peckinpah had ever directed; he had worked on television Westerns and done at least one other big-screen Western before it, but "Ride the High Country" is the movie that put him on the map, so to speak. Nor was "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" the last film Peckenpah ever did. He continued making films for another decade. But it is ironic that one of the directors we so often associate with the Western genre actually produced a mere handful of Western films during a short period from 1962 to 1973.
Since I haven't the time to go into detail on all four movies, let me say a few words about "Ride the High Country," one of my favorite Westerns and a prototype for the Westerns Peckinpah would later make, like "Major Dundee," "The Ballad of Cable Hogue," "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," and, of course, the Western most people know him for, "The Wild Bunch."
It's perhaps ironic that Peckinpah would make "Ride the High Country," his first important Western, at a time when the Western genre was just beginning to fade. John Wayne would still be making a few more Westerns after 1962 and Clint Eastwood would be picking up the mantle of great Western hero from him shortly, but the Western had really seen its glory in the Fifties, and give or take a good Western film here and there, it's been downhill ever since.
So, maybe it's appropriate that "Ride the High Country" should star two actors well associated with the Western genre, actors who pretty much ended their careers with the movie: Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. Scott called it quits and retired right after making the film, saying the movie was so good he wanted to go out on a high note. McCrea continued to make a few films thereafter, but this is the one most folks remember as his last notable effort.
Interestingly, the movie itself is about two old-time gunslingers on their last adventure together. So "Ride the High Country" is a kind of farewell to old-fashioned Westerns and a farewell to two old-fashioned Western stars, while at the same time the beginning of an all-too-brief but illustrious career for director Sam Peckinpah (who, dying in 1984, made his last movie, "The Osterman Weekend," just twenty-one years later).
"Ride the High Country" also explores one of Peckinpah's favorite themes: The passing of the old West and all that it stood for. We see this in the opening sequence as Steve Judd (McCrea) rides into a small town with not only horses and carriages around him but early automobiles as well. The modern era is moving in, and old-timers like Judd are on their way out.
Here's the thing: Judd has not seen his old friend and partner Gil Westrum (Scott) in many years, not since they rode together as lawmen in the old days. Now, they're both well past their prime and getting along as best they can, Judd as a bouncer and bartender, Westrum as a carnival sharpshooter.
But Judd has a proposition for his old friend: Help him transport gold bullion from the little mining camp of Coarse Gold in the Sierra-Nevadas back to the bank in town. There's $250,000 worth of gold involved, or $20,000, or $11,000; they're not completely sure. But it's enough to make the head spin.
Judd is a straight arrow, determined to get the gold to town in good condition. Westrum, however, believes the world owes him something for a lifetime defending law and order; he's out to steal the gold. Thus, we find the film's primary conflict.
Among the supporting cast are Ron Starr as Heck Longtree, Westrum's young partner and a rather reckless fellow, and Mariette Hartley (in her screen debut) as Elsa Knudsen, a rancher's daughter who takes a fancy to Heck when he and his friends pass through. In addition, we have R.G. Armstrong as Elsa's overprotective, Bible-thumping father; Edgar Buchanan as a drunken judge; and James Drury and Warren Oates as two of the five no-good Hammond brothers.
I could have done without some of George Bassman's often bombastic musical score, but otherwise "Ride the High Country" is great entertainment: humorous, adventurous, inventive, and enthralling. The two old-time lawmen wind up with both the girl and the gold to protect, along with the conflict between themselves. Meantime, Peckinpah gets to play around with the ideas of loyalty, respect, codes of honor, and shades of gray between good and evil. Great film.
MGM shot "Ride the High Country" in CinemaScope and Metrocolor, with director of photography Lucien Ballard producing some great-looking pictures and California's Inyo National Forest providing the backdrops. The print, obviously cleaned up by the Warner video engineers but not fully restored, is free of egregious defects but does reveal a little noise and grain than one would like in vast expanses of outdoor sky. Colors are natural enough, never excessively bright or glaring but never terribly vivid, either, and object delineation is above average for a standard-definition product.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural audio is the weakest part of the equation. It sounds quite limited in its frequency extremes and dynamic response. It's also sometimes a bit nasal in an otherwise decent midrange, with quiet backgrounds helping one to follow the dialogue easily.
The bonus items that accompany the four movies vary from almost nothing ("The Stalking Moon") to moderate ("Chism," "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid") to quite good ("Ride the High Country"). Let me tell you about "Ride the High Country." First up, there's an excellent audio commentary hosted by documentarian Nick Redman, with Peckinpah experts Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle. Their comments are informative, insightful, thoughtful, and entertaining. Next up is the featurette "A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the High Country," twenty-three minutes, subtitled "A Family Remembrance with Fern Lea Peter, Sam Peckinpah's Sister." And after that are a Sam Peckinpah trailer gallery with trailers for five of the director's pictures and a James Dean trailer for his several films.
The extras on "Ride the High Country" conclude with twenty-three scene selections; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The other collection in WB's sixth wave of "TCM Greatest Classic Films" is "War," and it includes "The Dawn Patrol," "Gunga Din," "Operation Pacific," and "Battle of the Bulge."
The ratings listed below for "TCM Greatest Classic Films: Westerns" are for "Ride the High Country" only, but rest assured that the other films in the set look and sound about the same, all in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratios.