In the early years of the twentieth century, an aging ex-lawman, Steve Judd (Joel McCrea), is hired to guard a shipment of gold from a high country mining camp to the town of Hornitos, California. Six miners were recently murdered trying to transport their gold on the one trail leading down from the crest of the Sierra Nevada. In his prime, Judd was a tough and respected lawman, but now his threadbare clothes and spectacles serve as reminders that he is long past his prime. Judd enlists the help of his old friend and partner Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) to guard the gold shipment. Gil, who makes his living passing himself off as a legendary sharpshooter named The Oregon Kid, enlists the help of his young sidekick, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr).
Judd, Gil, and Heck ride up into the mountains toward the Coarse Gold mining camp. Judd doesn't know that Gil and Heck are planning to steal the gold for themselves—preferably with Judd's help, but without it if necessary. Along the way they stop for the night at the farm of Joshua Knudsen (R. G. Armstrong) and his daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley). Knudsen is a domineering religious man who warns against those who "traffic in gold" and trades Bible verses with Judd at the dinner table. That night, Elsa and Heck meet in the moonlight, but Knudsen interrupts their conversation. Back at the house, he admonishes and slaps her for her behavior. Unable to tolerate her domineering father any longer, Elsa leaves her home the next morning. She later joins Judd, Gil, and Heck on their ride to Coarse Gold where she intends to marry her fiancé. Along the way she and Heck flirt and he tries to force himself on her but is stopped by Judd.
When they reach the Coarse Gold mining camp, they soon discover that the girl's fiancé, Billy Hammond (James Drury), is a drunken lout who intends to prostitute her to his four thuggish brothers, Elder (John Anderson), Sylvus (L. Q. Jones), Jimmy (John Davis Chandler) and Henry (Warren Oates). Judd and Heck rescue the girl from the marriage, and the next morning, Judd, Gil, Heck and Elsa start back towards town with the gold. Along the way, Judd talks to Gil about right and wrong and how that's "something you just know." After all the lost years working in disreputable places, he tells Gil that he's now grateful to have gained back some of his self-respect and intends on keeping it "with the help of you and that boy back there." When Gil asks if that's all he wants, Judd replies, "All I want is to enter my House justified."
Realizing Judd will never go along with his plan to steal the gold, Gil plans to steal the gold without his help. During the night as Gil and Heck prepare to leave with the gold, Judd confronts them at gunpoint. Angered by his old friend's betrayal, he slaps him and challenges him to a draw, but Gil throws down his guns. Planning to put them on trial when they return to town, Judd is forced to change his plans when the Hammond brothers appear in hot pursuit of the girl. In the ensuing gunfight, two of the brothers, Jimmy and Sylvus, are killed, and Billy, Elder and Henry escape.
During the night, Gil leaves camp and heads back to the site of the gunfight, where he takes a horse and gun from one of the dead brothers . Then he follows Judd, Heck, and Elsa down the only trail. Meanwhile, Heck has shown himself to be trustworthy, and even though he will most likely go to prison, Elsa tells him she'll be there when he gets out. When they reach Elsa's farm, the Hammond brothers are waiting, having already killed her father. A gunfight breaks out and soon both Judd and Heck are wounded. Just then Gil comes riding in to help his old friend, and together the pair insult and challenge the brothers to a face-to-face shootout in the open. When the dust settles, the three brothers are dead, but Judd is mortally wounded. He tells his old friend, "I don't want them to see this. I want to go it alone." When Gil pledges to take care of everything just like he would have, Judd says, "Hell, I know that. I always did. You just forgot it for a while, that's all." Judd casts a look back towards the high country and then dies. The film's final shot is of a mountain in the background.
Peckinpah flipped a coin in the presence of a producer to see which leading man would enjoy top billing, Scott or McCrea. Scott won the toss.20th Century Fox Movie Ranch, Malibu Creek State Park, 1925 Las Virgenes Road, Calabasas, California, USA
Bronson Canyon, Griffith Park, 4730 Crystal Springs Drive, Los Angeles, California, USA
Inyo National Forest, 351 Pacu Lane, Bishop, California, USA
Mammoth Lakes, California, USA (Twin Lake)
Merrimac, California, USA
The movie was released on the bottom half of a double bill. William Goldman says he spoke to an MGM executive at the time who says the film had tested strongly but they felt the film "didn't cost enough to be that good".
According to MGM records, the film made a loss of $160,000.
The film was a NYT Critics Pick: Bosley Crowther, who saw it in a double bill with The Tartars, greatly preferred Ride the High Country, calling it a "perfectly dandy little Western" and "the most disarming little horse opera in months." According to Crowther:
The two young people are quite good, especially Miss Hartley, a newcomer with real promise. R. G. Armstrong and Edgar Buchanan also contribute telling bits. We know little about the director and scenarist, but Mr. Peckinpah and Mr. Stone certainly have what it takes. And so, if anybody ever doubted it, do a couple of leathery, graying hombres named McCrea and Scott.
Ride the High Country was hailed as a success upon its release in Europe, beating Fellini's classic 8½ for first prize at the Belgium Film Festival and winning the Paris film critics award for best film. Critics were particularly enthusiastic about the film's mix of the conventional and the revisionist in its treatment of the Western. They hailed Peckinpah as a worthy successor to classic Western directors such as John Ford.
The film's reputation has only grown in following years, with Peckinpah's admirers citing it as his first great film. They also note that all of the themes of Peckinpah's later films, such as honor and ideals compromised by circumstance, the difficulty of doing right in an unjust world, the destruction of the West and its heroes by industrial modernity, and the importance of loyalty between men are all present in Ride the High Country. In 1964 the film won the prestigious Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association.
In his autobiography In the Arena (1995), Charlton Heston wrote that he was considering remaking the film in the late 1980s, presumably with Clint Eastwood as a co-star. After viewing Ride the High Country Heston proposed Harry Julian Fink's script of Major Dundee (1965) to Peckinpah.
According to an introduction to the movie on Turner Classic Movies, the original casting was for McCrea to play the Gil Westrum part and Randolph Scott to play Steve Judd. After reading the script the two men agreed that a switch of roles was in order.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Western Film