Sam Peckinpah has a popular reputation as a macho movie director obsessed with portraying graphic scenes of violence and pursuing a relentlessly misogynistic outlook, particularly in the films he made after The Wild Bunch (1969). However, a more considered look at the director’s filmography refutes these kneejerk assumptions; interspersed with well-known works like Straw Dogs (1971) and The Getaway (1972), which seem to display these qualities, are films like The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Junior Bonner (1972), which show a more lyrical, romantic side to the director. While Junior Bonner was set in the then contemporary American landscape of the 1970s, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, like The Wild Bunch, takes place as the sun was setting on the Old West and making way for a new 20th century world of fast-paced progress, about which Peckinpah seemed ambivalent.
In the opening scene of The Ballad of Cable Hogue the titular character (Jason Robards), a grizzled prospector, sees a lizard in the desert, approaches it carefully, even talks to it, establishing himself as a humane individual. As he gets up close to the lizard to kill it for food in a civilised way, a sudden gunshot rings out from afar, blasting the creature to pieces. This gunfire signals the presence of his two companions, Taggert (L. Q. Jones) and Bowen (Strother Martin), who, after callously killing the lizard from a distance, then trick and betray Hogue, leaving him to die in the desert. This short opening scene establishes the plotline of Cable being abandoned in the desert, left to die and then miraculously stumbling onto a source of water. It also defines the characters, with Taggert and Bowen shown as deceitful and uncaring, and Hogue portrayed as an essentially decent man.
Miraculously surviving in the desert thanks to his discovery of water, Cable constructs a makeshift dwelling near the waterhole. He later meets Joshua (David Warner), a wandering preacher who applies a liberal interpretation of the bible to suit his own needs. Leaving Joshua to mind the water, Cable goes to the nearest town to register his claim on the land, meeting a prostitute, Hildy (Stella Stevens), who, along with Joshua, will play a key part in Hogue’s life. Hildy’s introduction, and the camera’s focus on her bosom, alongside repeated shots of her cleavage as Cable recalls it later in the film, introduces a broadly comic element that runs throughout. When Hogue first gets his $100 from a bank to help him make a start, he sees Hildy again in the distance and then looks at the money he holds, seeing the picture of a Native American on the top bill suddenly becoming animated and smiling. Later, there are scenes of fast-motion used for comic effect, turning the film into farce, revealing a playful side to Peckinpah that may have been surprising for audiences at the time; after all, the film arrived hot on the heels of The Wild Bunch, which featured big action set pieces and established the slow-motion ballets of violence that became Peckinpah’s signature (although seeing that classic as just a blood-soaked action film is reductive). Other techniques are less self-consciously humorous but just as impactful, such as the split-screen/multi-panel title sequence (a device used again in Junior Bonner) showing Hogue surviving for days in the desert without water, and the use of double-exposure later in the film to highlight the “present moment” in one image while overlaying it with that of a stagecoach to indicate the passing of time.
What of Peckinpah’s apparent obsession with violence and misogyny, though? While there is brutality in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, it is quick, shocking and tragic. Also, Hogue’s desire to get even with Taggert and Bowen does not play out as expected, with Hogue not consumed by a thirst for vengeance. While Hildy embodying a kind-hearted prostitute could have been a cliché in another filmmaker’s hands, she feels like a living, breathing person here. Hildy follows her own dreams and fulfils her ambitions without needing Hogue’s help, but she still loves him and can see that he is a genuine man. In turn, Hogue sees Hildy as a human being and is not offended by her profession; in fact, while the townsfolk condemn her, he is happy for her to live with him at the waterhole. Their relationship is visualised in one of the best sequences of the film, with a montage of their happy times at the waterhole shown as they sing “Butterfly Mornin’s” to each other. As Paul Seydor notes of this scene, “If Peckinpah were only the misogynist he has been called, scenes like this would be inconceivable” (1).
The Ballad of Cable Hogue, like Ride the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch before it, and Junior Bonner and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)after, is an elegiac work symbolising the end of an era.As David Weddle states, “At its core, the film is yet one more act of mourning for the Old West” (2). The film received a poor release in the US at the time and, like Junior Bonner, does not seem to have attained the same level of recognition as Peckinpah’s more confrontational – and controversial – works. As the director himself said,
It was really a shame. Cable Hogue is possibly my best film. A real love story. I am always criticized for putting violence in my films, but it seems that when I leave it out nobody bothers to see the picture. Jason Robards and Stella Stevens gave two of their finest performances in that film. I still cry when he says to her, “Now, there is a picture.” And she says, “You’ve seen it before, Hogue.” And Jason replies, “Lady, nobody’s ever seen you before.” Talk about a love scene. They were sensational. (3)
Romantic couples have been the focus of other Peckinpah films like Straw Dogs, The Getaway and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), but these relationships were more fraught and strained (The Getaway may resolve itself positively, but the other two films feature more destructive couplings). While The Ballad of Cable Hogue may be a bittersweet love story, it is still perhaps Peckinpah’s most tender film.
1. Paul Seydor, Peckinpah: The Western Films – A Reconsideration, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1997, p. 225.
2. David Weddle, Sam Peckinpah: “If They Move… Kill ’Em!”, Faber and Faber, London, 1996, p. 389.
3. Garner Simmons, Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage, Limelight Editions, New York, 1998, pp. 119-120.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970 USA 121 mins)
Prod Co: Warner Bros. Prod, Dir: Sam Peckinpah Scr: John Crawford, Edmund Penney Phot: Lucian Ballard Ed: Lou Lombardo, Frank Santillo Art Dir: Leroy Coleman Mus: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Jason Robards, Stella Stevens, David Warner, Strother Martin, Slim Pickens, L. Q. Jones