By David Hein
The late director Sam Peckinpah’s name was synonymous with the extravagant violence of The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971), but his Ride the High Country (1962) is a study in Christian character. If you want to know what made leaders such as General George C. Marshall (1880-1959) great, see this film that marked the end of the classic Western.
Because the best movies have a multisensory power to bring so much together — character development, narrative arc, sound and silence, plaintive music — they often engage our imaginations as no other medium can. And we know that truth is accessed through the imaginative — not merely the rational — faculty. As C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien demonstrated, we appropriate truth through concrete images, not just through empirical discoveries and logical deductions. Especially in relation to the moral life, we are acutely aware that not only the mind but also the volitional and emotional aspects of the self must be engaged.
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 Christians concerned about leadership for a free and 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.
In the film’s opening scenes, U.S. Marshal Steve Judd (played by Joel McCrea) 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 Marshal Steve is merely in the way. It’s the early 20th century, a horseless carriage chugs through the center of town, and a uniformed constable (not a sheriff with a six-gun) yells at Steve: “Get out of the way, old man; can’t you hear? Can’t you see you’re in the way?”
By the end of the film, this lawman realizes his principal concern. 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 and in fact unself-consciously religious. This straightforward treatment is a relief, compared with today’s films, in which Christian themes are overly sentimental or casually dismissed.
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 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 are entitled to the gold after all those years of loyal service, taking bullets for next to nothing. Gil asks him: “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. 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 had set him straight years before. “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. Gil asks: “Is that all you want, Steve?” and he replies: “All I want is to enter my house justified.” It’s a line that Peckinpah — who rewrote much of the original film script — borrowed directly from his father and indirectly from Luke 18:14, in which the humble tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, went down to his house justified before God.
By the film’s denouement, Steve’s courageous example and the bond between the two men are enough to prompt Gil’s turning back to the right path. “Don’t worry about anything. I’ll take care of it, just like you would’ve,” Gil tells him, signaling the reclamation of his integrity. Steve replies: “Hell, I know that. I always did. You just forgot it for a while, that’s all.”
There’s nothing flashy or moralistic about Marshal Judd. He recognized moral ambiguity; right and wrong are often not easy to discern in a world of competing principles. But he accepted a moral view of the created order and of his role in it. He embraced the core virtues of real leadership: courage, duty, humility, and self-mastery, even in the face of changing times.
David Hein is professor of religion and philosophy at Hood College. An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Statesman, the online journal of the John Jay Institute Center for a Just Society. Used by permission.
Image: Randolph Scott (left) and Joel McCrea