For students of leadership for a just society, Ride the High Country crystallizes beliefs and codes of behavior worth studying, affirming, and claiming today…

If you want to know what made the statesman and military leader George Catlett Marshall (1880–1959) great, then watch Ride the High Country (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), and you will receive a taste of that knowledge. This 1962 picture, which marks the end of the era of the classic Western, stars Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott in their last major screen appearances (wanting to go out on a high note, Scott retired for good after this movie). The film introduces a young and manifestly talented Mariette Hartley, and it features an outstanding supporting cast that includes Edgar Buchanan, James Drury, Warren Oates, and L.Q. Jones. If you want to grasp why the loss of leaders of Marshall’s caliber is a tragedy, then see this movie, an elegiac remembrance of virtues past, but also a film not without hope for things to come.

Shot in CinemaScope by the first-class cameraman Lucien Ballard in settings—principally, the Inyo National Forest, near Bishop, California—that included the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this film’s beauty is both natural and moral. Following its release in Europe, Ride the High Country defeated Fellini’s 8½ for first prize at the Belgium Film Festival and won the Paris film critics award for best motion picture. For some critics and viewers, including this writer, Ride the High Country—the picture that launched Sam Peckinpah’s reputation as an important filmmaker—is even better than his intensely violent, revisionist Western The Wild Bunch (1969).

Notwithstanding Ride the High Country’s merits, students of statecraft might demand to put the following question: In order to discover what we need to know, why not focus on philosophy and theology, history and biography, leadership and moral excellence directly—and exclusively? Why turn to fiction, especially to movies, which are produced by profit-minded studios and designed to appeal to mass audiences? Not only early-nineteenth-century conservative Christians might eschew such useless diversions as novel-reading. Many others, even today, might consider the movie-going route an unnecessary, if entertaining, detour when a more direct path to needful facts and insights is available.

Because the best movies have a multisensory power to bring so much together on the big screen—character development within a carefully paced narrative arc punctuated by sound and silence (spare, intelligent dialogue in Ride the High Country; a plaintive main theme by composer George Bassman), illustrated by exactly rendered light and images—films have the capacity to 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.

A cinematic portrayal of a historical personage—such as Patton (1970) or Lincoln (2012)—can stir us as written biographies often do not. The problem with some historical figures, however, is that they do not play well even on the cinema screen. In Saving Private Ryan (1998), Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall is about as stiff and formal as he could often be in real life. We need to know about the leadership of a George Washington, too—but no movie could do justice to his vitality and complexity. In Marshall’s case, as specialists in military and diplomatic history are aware, his speeches and writings fail to enthrall. And yet we know that his highly distinctive life and character need to be remembered. A profitable path to doing so may be somewhat oblique: in this case, a movie that evinces no knowledge of him whatsoever.

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 students of leadership for a 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.

Among this movie’s widely appreciated episodes, the ending is the most famous: one of the most powerfully evocative death scenes in all of cinema history. It’s a scene that—rather troublingly—marks not only the death of the film’s good guy, a former United States Marshal named Steve Judd (played by Joel McCrea), but also, potentially, the death of all he has stood for through many years of dedicated service to law and order in the West.

That somber assessment is made possible by this film’s opening scenes, in which Steve 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 Steve Judd is merely in the way. It’s the early twentieth century, a horseless carriage chugs slowly through the center of town, and a uniformed constable (not a sheriff with a six-gun) yells at Steve, who, after some years of barely scraping by, looks a little the worse for wear in his shabby apparel: “Get out of the way, old man; can’t you hear? Can’t you see you’re in the way?”

In real life, Ride the High Country marked all kinds of disappointing closures. But in the film, when Steve dies, the viewer is deeply satisfied that this lawman’s principal concern is realized. 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; in fact, un-self-consciously religious. To today’s audiences, familiar with either overly sentimental or casually dismissive renderings of Christian themes in films (and, interestingly, Ride the High Country includes a violent, misshapen Christian, Elsa’s father, Joshua Knudsen), the straightforward treatment in this Western might well prove a relief.

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 western 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’re entitled to the gold after all those years of loyal service, taking bullets for next to nothing. Approaching his theme indirectly, Gil asks Steve: “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. Indeed, 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 who’d set him straight years before when Steve was just starting out had an advantage over the younger man which went beyond physical strength: “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. His reply to Gil’s “Is that all you want, Steve?” is “All I want is to enter my house justified.” It’s a line that Sam Peckinpah—who rewrote much of the original film script—borrowed directly from his father and, in all likelihood, indirectly from Luke 18:14, in which the humble tax collector (who confesses himself “a sinner”), rather than the Pharisee, went down to his house justified before God.

Toward the end of Ride the High Country, a climactic shootout occurs in which Steve and Gil team up for one last time. They kill the three remaining Hammond brothers—the film’s true villains—and Steve is mortally wounded. Before he dies, his courageous example and the bond between the two men are enough to prompt Gil’s turning back toward the right path. “Don’t worry about anything [that is, not only what will happen to the gold, but also, by extension, what will happen to Gil]. I’ll take care of it, just like you would’ve,” Gil tells Steve, 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.” When Steve tells Gil “So long,” he pauses a moment and then adds “partner.”

Steve’s gracious word of acceptance springs from his Christian character, which apparently took shape following his own experience years earlier of being set right and given a fresh start. Without hesitating, Steve responds to Gil by expressing his abiding confidence in his friend’s underlying worth; that trust summons and affirms the best in Gil.

Reconciled at the end to Steve, Gil tells his old partner, in the film’s final line: “I’ll see you later.” Spoken in this scene, these words, which otherwise might be heard as a trite phrase of farewell or of casual consolation, instead convey a real hope. Then, in his last moments, alone, Steve turns his head to face the mountains, and there is no question that, though a sinner, he will enter his house justified.

There’s nothing flashy or moralistic about Steve 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.

In all these respects, he resembles General George C. Marshall, whose virtues are discussed in “A Case Study in Principled Leadership: General George C. Marshall’s Core Beliefs”, which you can read by clicking here.

There you will read that, like Steve Judd, Marshall believed in honesty at all costs, in service and self-sacrifice; he repudiated self-seeking, unbridled emotion, cynicism, and any excuse to do other than your best.

Whether these sorts of heroes are only for the past is a decision that each student of leadership has to consider. What Sam Peckinpah’s 1962 movie offers today’s viewer is an unforgettable invitation to ride the high country.

The essay was originally published in The Statesman (March 2014) and is republished with gracious permission from the author.

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