Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Ride Back

The Ride Back posterIn Western movies, an American gunslinger who rides down to Mexico does so for three reasons: 1) He is a mercenary looking to make some cash 2) He is a lawman retrieving a criminal to be tried in the United States, or 3) He is a troubled soul seeking redemption. The Ride Back (1957) follows the latter two conventions, depicting the journey of Sheriff Chris Hamish who is dead set on retrieving accused murderer Roberto Kallen from his Mexican hideout to stand trail in the United States, and the bond that forms between them while on the journey back up north.

The film comically opens as Hamish tries to get his search warrant for Kallen signed by a Mexican police officer. The border station doubles at the officer’s home, so he is preoccupied by his wailing child and nagging wife, but after Hamish communicates his mission via charades and simplified English, the officer is happy to assist him. When Hamish arrives in Cerralvo, the Mexican town where Kallen is hiding out, he finds the accused criminal deeply rooted there; he has a fiercely loyal girlfriend named Elena and the local men rush to his aid upon hearing that Hamish plans to take him. This acceptance is partly explained by Kallen’s half-Mexican parentage, but more so by his charisma. Hamish is the opposite in this respect; he has no noteworthy characteristics, is unskilled with a gun and is visibly scared. Kallen even asks him: “Why did they send you after me? Man, you don’t look to me like you’re much.” To which Hamish replies: “I’m not.”

Hamish succeeds on getting Kallen on the road, but only because Kallen treats Hamish as a mere nuisance and expects to be back in Cerralvo by sundown. However, Hamish thwarts Kallen’s multiple attempts to escape and succeeds in bringing him to the border, with a love-sick Elena following all the way. The border officer, loyal to Hamish as a fellow lawman, refuses to hear Kallen’s appeals and detains Elena. However, once in the U.S. the duo encounter the Apaches, a Native American tribe portrayed as roving warriors who mercilessly kill and get smashed on looted alcohol. They hide in a small frontier dwelling whose occupants, except for one little girl, have been murdered by the Apaches. Tensions between the men reach a boiling point as Kallen lets loose his searing contempt for Hamish’s cowardice, and Hamish repeats that he’s taking Kallen back to stand trial. When the mood has cooled, Kallen appeals to Hamish, stating that he killed in self-defense and only ran from the crime because he knew that as an outsider he was as good as hung. Hamish promises Kallen a fair trial, but also admits that this mission is not about the law but about him; Hamish has been always been failure, hated by everyone including his wife, and this is his one chance to set things right.

Kallen gains the timid trust of the girl and the three barely escape from the house under fire by the Apaches. The Apaches catch up to them a mere two miles from Scotssville, where Kallen is to stand trail, and severely wound Hamish. After Kallen has killed their aggressors he is confronted with a staggering moral dilemma: to return to life in Mexico or face the American justice system. At first he charges the girl with retrieving help for Hamish, who is delirious with pain, and rides off south. Before long, however, he returns to find that the blank-eyed girl and the semi-unconscious Hamish have not moved, so he loads them onto his horse and nobly heads to Scotssville, where he can only hope that Hamish can keep his promise of a fair trial.

There are two kinds of American outlaws that escape to Mexico in Western movies, those who are essentially bad and are evading the law, and those who are essentially good and are taking refuge from a broken legal system. In The Ride Back, Kallen is of the latter category; throughout the film he is shown to be increasingly tender-hearted and well-intentioned, but would have been hung in the United States by a prejudiced jury. However, the film sends the message that while juries are fallible, the law must nevertheless be abided by.

The Ride Back shows a great degree of partnership and integration between Mexico and the United States, as evidenced by the Mexican police officer’s eagerness to help Hamish exercise the law across the border. However, Mexican law is portrayed as something very different to American law. The Mexican, even though he is the go-to person for signing search warrants, ambles up to Hamish in a sweaty t-shirt, has to deal with a crying baby left carelessly on the sand, and fails to immediately recognize the paper that Hamish holds before him. Though he is ultimately friendly and helpful, the police officer, and the national bureaucracy that he represents, is not efficient, knowledgeable or professional. There is a great degree of Spanish dialogue in the film for which no subtitles are given; for a non-Spanish speaking audience this adds greater confusion to the Mexican police officer hollering to his family members and greater exoticism to the loving words of Elena to Kallen. This distance created by language is at odds with the apparent closeness of Mexico and the United States; throughout the film Hamish repeatedly asks Mexicans if they speak English and vice versa for Spanish. At the end of the day, the two neighbouring cultures are portrayed as worlds apart.

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