Peckinpah’s Finest: The Argument for The Ballad of Cable Hogue

Don’t make me out no saint, but don’t put me down too deep.

The what of the who? Right? I’m trusting you’ve never heard of this movie and I’m going to tell you why it’s worth your time.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue is a comedy western, and to the surprise of many, the film Sam Peckinpah chose to follow The Wild Bunch with. Got your attention now? I hope so.

The Wild Bunch blew many a bloody squib through the Hays code in 1969. Bloody Sam’s tropes are all present in that one – friends betraying friends; men without honour believing they live by a code and contradicting it at every turn. Bloody death, hail of bullets. The eulogy of the western. It appeared the same year as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Peckinpah-lite) and a year after Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Clearly the end was nigh for that genre. The violence of The Wild Bunch sickened many.

Yet, there is much that is remarkable about The Wild Bunch, not least of which being the fact that Peckinpah followed it with a comedy that stands the test of time far better than the rest of his films.

Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia are the same film – friends betraying friends and all have not aged well. They feel like genre works of their respective decades. That’s not to say they are not great films; they all stand amongst the true greats of the genre.

But Cable Hogue? Why such obscurity? Why such latent greatness? Considered a minor entry in Sam’s filmography by many, why should its place in the lexicon be rethought?

The film opens with Hogue betrayed by his prospecting partners and left to die in the desert. He finds a water hole and lays claim to it. His ambition being to turn a profit from passing coach traffic. David Warner plays a wayward clergyman (his form of faith-healing involves putting his hands on women’s breasts). Hogue prospers, falls for Stella Stevens and then alienates her; he has his revenge and then, well, someone invents the motorcar. I won’t spoil the ending. It’s another sad story of the passing of the wild west.

Let’s be clear, the heart of this film is Robards. His charisma carries the film with ease. There is subtlety here – compare his Hogue to his Cheyenne in Once Upon a Time in the West. In contrast to that character, Hogue isn’t a superman of the frontier, he is one of the little people, beaten, cynical and world-weary. You feel the emotional pain and fatalism in how Robards carries himself. The world has not been kind to him. When he says he hates to go in amongst ’em, you feel every ounce of his disdain for the company of his fellow men. Unlike the members of the Wild Bunch, you can’t help but feel sympathy for him.

Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) and Hildy (Stella Stevens)

David Warner gives a flawlessly slimy performance – all lust, sweat and appearing permanently in need of a good bath. Warner, never a screen-leading man in his own right, was never better than his roles for Bloody Sam. Compare his role here to Cross of Iron or the predatory man-child of Straw Dogs. Much like Robards, Warner is another who improves films just by being in them.

The snowflakes in today’s audience would no doubt accuse Sam of toxic masculinity – his movies are certainly a man’s world. But, let’s consider Stella Steven’s Hildy: yes, she’s that most tissue-thin of female clichés – the happy hooker with a heart of gold – and spends much of the film in a state of undress. Yet, I ask you this – which of the characters actually ends the film in a better material situation by their own design?

I am unapologetic for my love for this film and I freely admit to being under the spell of the Peckinpah myth. I would rate Straw Dogs as his finest film – certainly the most powerful, but in Hogue we see a movie with a cynical romantic heart and a great character piece that belongs to a different cultural age where the only discussion of intellectual properties was between copyright lawyers. Brands were for cattle.

I’m sure all cineastes go through a Peckinpah period. To fellow fanboys, I recommend David Weddle’s Peckinpah biography If They Move, Kill ’em. As for The Ballad of Cable Hogue, you could do worse than searching it out.

Just don’t turn your back on the people you search with.

Published by Lee Russell Wilkes

Been bouncing around the world for a while taking photos. Like most people, I have gone to ground during the pandemic. Decided it was time to put some of them out in the world.

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