The supposed immortality of movie stardom is a funny thing. Some stars only grow in stature as the years go by, but others shrink. They’re “immortal” in the sense that their films still exist, but that’s not the same thing as saying that they endure as icons in the larger culture. Joel McCrae and Randolph Scott were huge stars in their day, but they belong in a particular subset of movie stardom that never quite translated them into legendary status. Please understand, I don’t mean this as any kind of criticism. I’ve always liked both actors. Both actors starred in important films. Both are still, I think, well regarded by critics and historians. But there was a time when Joel McCrae and Randolph Scott were household names. Time, however, has worn away their place in the culture’s memory. Today, most people under a certain age have probably never heard of either man.
This isn't a “what's wrong with these kids these days” lament. Movie stardom is, relatively speaking, still a new phenomenon. Maybe this is just what happens to movie stars. Nobody really gets to live forever.
Yet McCrae and Scott are important. McCrae made comedies for Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story), Foreign Correspondent for Hitchcock, and several good Westerns (my favorite is Raoul Walsh’s Colorado Territory). He was an easy, likable screen presence. If he wasn't as distinctive a presence as someone like John Wayne, he was in many ways a more natural actor. Even among fabled Everymen like Cooper and Stewart and Fonda, McCrea was a laidback performer. Watching him today, it's almost a wonder that he was a star in the forties. That era was full of people who filled the screen. McCrea always seems life-sized, bland, a regular guy. My theory is that audiences liked him because he seemed so much like them. He was the Harry Truman of movie stars.
Randolph Scott is a different story. Hawk-faced and stoic in many of his roles, with a gravelly voice and a weathered air, he was a more mannered actor than McCrae. Unlike McCrae, he never made much of an impression outside of oaters. His legacy today rests pretty squarely on the impressive series of seven films he made with director Budd Boetticher between 1956 and 1960, including Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, and Decision at Sundown. It would be too much to say that these were art films, but in their visual sparseness and focus on psychological conflict, the Scott/Boetticher Westerns are closer in sprit to something like Monty Hellman’s arty 1966 The Shooting than to many of the big and flashy outdoor epics of the fifties.
By the time McCrae and Scott teamed up for Ride the High Country, they were coming to the end of their careers. Their director, Sam Peckinpah, however, was just getting started. He’d come up through television Westerns like Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, and The Westerner, and he already showed a distinctively unsentimental attitude toward the old west. He rewrote the script about a penniless, once-famous lawman named Steve Judd (McCrae), who teams up with an old partner named Gil Westrum (Scott) to transport a gold shipment through dangerous territory. Along the way, they pick up Gil’s sidekick, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr), and a young woman named Elsa (Mariette Hartley), who has run away from home.
Ride the High Country is about the old west passing away, but it would be incorrect to call it a lament for the old west. It isn’t so much about how great the old days were as much as it’s about how human beings scrape for honor in a world where honor is barely possible. Judd and Westrum have a fundamental disagreement about the lessons to be learned from their gradual loss of societal standing over the years. Judd wants to hold on to his dignity. Westrum is more than happy to swap his dignity for the gold. The actors are perfectly suited to their roles here. McCrae, a man who fairly exuded a certain warmth and humanity, makes Judd stubborn but decent. Scott was always a cooler, more laconic presence, and he makes Westrum a man with a heart hidden away underneath a lot of rawhide.
In terms of symbols, too, the filmmakers could not have found two better actors for these roles because McCrae and Scott, big stars though they were in their day, never achieved iconic status outside of Westerns. That means that their cinematic legacies rest pretty squarely on the horse opera, and as the Western has faded in cultural standing, so have McCrae and Scott. Curiously, this only adds to the power of Ride the High Country. When they made the film, the actors were still well known and successful (both were savvy businessmen offscreen and were among the wealthiest stars in Hollywood), but as the years pass, their memories become more and more confined to the genre they both loved so much. This movie was always about two old cowboys on their last ride, but the meaning of that last ride only continues to deepen.
Jake Hinkson is the author of several novels, including the newly-released The Big Ugly.
Read all of Jake Hinkson's posts for Criminal Element.