WEBCommentary Contributor

Author: Nicholas Stix
Date:  August 1, 2014

Topic category:  Other/General

A Christian Western from… Sam Peckinpah?!: Ride the High Country

Four pilgrims undertake a journey of the soul that will determine their fates in this life, and the next.

(Spoiler Alert!)

Four pilgrims undertake a journey of the soul that will determine their fates in this life, and the next.

Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) is an aging lawman who has fallen upon hard times. Since retiring as a U.S. Marshal, he has had to scrape by, working as a bartender and a bouncer. A bank sends him a job offer to be courier for a $250,000 payload of gold dust from a mining town, and he jumps at it. It’s a chance to get back some of the self-respect he’d lost. Time is running out on Judd, but this Christian aims “to enter my house [die] justified.”

But the job is not what the bank promised. When he shows up to sign the contract, the ancient banker and his aging son tell him that the payload is all of $20,000. If that isn’t bad enough, later, when Judd actually measures out the gold, it comes to barely over $11,000!

Before Judd finds out he’s been double-crossed by the bank, he runs into an old lawman-partner, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), and hires him and his young protégé, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) on, but they too are not what they promise.

Westrum and Longtree have been making money off small-time hustles—cheating customers at marksmanship games, and racing a camel against horsemen in a short stretch, on which the horses don’t stand a chance, with Heck sometimes having to knock out his marks to collect, and them sometimes knocking him out. But when Westrum hears Judd talk about the $250,000 job, he immediately hatches a plan to work on his old lawman partner along the way, and either convince him to steal the gold with him and split the proceeds three ways, or take it from him, whatever it takes. (That would be worth over $6 million today.)

Along the way, they run into Bible-spouting, widowed farmer, Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong), and the latter’s pretty, grown daughter, Elsa (Mariette Hartley). The farmer is a wicked hypocrite whose sanctimonious words mean nothing. He has either violated Elsa already, or desires to.

In a splendid dinner scene, the sanctimonious father spouts Bible passages; Judd counters with other passages. The farmer thinks he is a righteous Christian who has won the debate, when Judd lets him get the last word in, but Judd is just being a humble Christian, and showing good manners towards his self-righteous host.

When they leave, Elsa runs off to join them, so she can go to the mining town and marry the young man there, Billy Hammond (James Drury), who has proposed to her.

There are four moral poles in the story: Steve Judd is righteous, but not self-righteous; his soul was saved long ago. Gil Westrum, always a profane man, has grown cynical, completely lost his self-respect, and slowly slid into the moral abyss. His protégé, Heck Longtree, has some very good and some not-so-good traits, and could go either way—Westrum, the man who should be teaching him the right way, is tempting him to go the way of the Devil. Elsa is on the same pole as Heck, a callowly good girl, but in danger of becoming a fallen woman in short order. Finally, her fiancé, Billy Hammond and his four brothers, are evil incarnate, and will take Elsa to Hell with them, if someone doesn’t put a stop to them.

The Hammond brothers all intend on being Elsa’s “husbands.”

(Back when Steve Judd was a mean-spirited young drunk, the sheriff dried him out in jail, and then did him the favor of giving him the beating of his life, thereby saving his soul.)

Elsa: Good and evil aren’t black and white, are they?

Steve Judd: No. They should be, but they aren’t.

There are a couple of excellent fight scenes, some smaller but dramatically pregnant punch-outs, one good shootout, and an epic shootout which is the picture’s climax.

The opening scene shows that Steve Judd’s time has past. California towns now—it’s somewhere between 1903 and 1910—have bossy policemen in silly uniforms and the first tin lizzies. Steve was a pioneer, born circa 1848/55, who settled the wilderness with Bible, fist, and gun, but now it’s … settled, sort of, except for those who still suffer from gold fever.

The “death of the West” may be clichéd now, but that’s only because men like Sam Peckinpah pioneered the genre, which has been done to death since.

When Steve Judd dies, the West dies with him. And yet, it’s not as simple as that: Judd’s death has a dual meaning. For his is the death of a Christian martyr, whose Christ-like end redeems the three surviving Christian souls.

Angel and the Badman is the only previous Christian Western I’ve ever seen, unless you want to count Friendly Persuasion. Many a reader will no doubt look askance at my claim that that most profane of men, Sam Peckinpah, would make a Christian Western. Well, it wasn’t Peckinpah’s script,* though he re-worked the dialogue. And according to his sister, Fern Lea, their father, a Christian prosecutor and son of California pioneers—was the inspiration for the final shape of the Steve Judd character. The elder Peckinpah had often said, “All I want to do is enter my house justified,” and he had died the year before the picture was shot. Ride the High Country was a tribute to David Edward Peckinpah (1895-1960).

*Officially, the script was written by N.B. Stone Jr., but according to Garner Simmons’ Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage, Stone’s script was awful, and was completely re-written by Stone and Peckinpah’s mutual friend, William S. Roberts, who refused to take credit for it, as he was trying to help Stone.

Nicholas Stix
Nicholas Stix, Uncensored

Biography - Nicholas Stix

Award-winning, New York-based freelancer Nicholas Stix founded A Different Drummer magazine (1989-93). Stix has written for Die Suedwest Presse, New York Daily News, New York Post, Newsday, Middle American News, Toogood Reports, Insight, Chronicles, the American Enterprise, Campus Reports, VDARE, the Weekly Standard, Front Page Magazine, Ideas on Liberty, National Review Online and the Illinois Leader. His column also appears at Men's News Daily, MichNews, Intellectual Conservative, Enter Stage Right and OpinioNet. Stix has studied at colleges and universities on two continents, and earned a couple of sheepskins, but he asks that the reader not hold that against him. His day jobs have included washing pots, building Daimler-Benzes on the assembly-line, tackling shoplifters and teaching college, but his favorite job was changing his son's diapers.

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