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.

Minamata (2020): Review

“Check your settings. You cannot let your emotions run the show… focus on the photograph you want to take. Focus on what you want to say. Do it now.”

W. Eugene smith

Minamata (2020) tells the true story of mercury poisoning in a Japanese fishing community and the celebrated photographer that covered the story for Life magazine.

This is the story of Eugene Smith, a man struggling with his own celebrated history as a documentary war photographer and his obsessive reputation.

The defining image of his Minamata work Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath is regarded by many as his masterpiece – high contrast black and white with a subject that defies words – body horror and parental love expressed with a command of light not seen outside of the Dutch masters.

Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath

In a film with photography at its core, cinematographer Benoît Delhomme deserves much praise for his work here. His colour palette through the film perfectly captures the cold Japanese weather. The temperature is palpable. The camera work is superb – his use of depth of field in several scenes is masterful. Yes, I’m looking at you, Zach Snyder. Smith’s work is restaged flawlessly and integrated into the film’s tone with obvious cinematic skill.

The cast of mostly Japanese actors are magnificent. The makeup and prosthetics are stunning. You haven’t seen a film of this tone done this well since Lynch’s The Elephant Man.   

Several moments stand out – Smith’s interactions with the disabled youth he gives his camera to, the factory manager attempting to bribe Smith and Smith’s advice to Masako Matsumura (Akiko Iwase) as she comes to terms with the horror of the people’s situation. If you need any reminding of how good Depp really is, this is the scene.

The elephant in the room, for some, is the great Mr Depp himself. This film is a statement, deliberately so, as his company produces. You need reminding what made the man an icon? The younger readers, who only know his post-Jack Sparrow pre-Amber Heard period, might beg my forgiveness for ever having doubted his talent. Sure, mega-stardom has meant he has made his fair share of terrible films in the last two decades but then again, who hasn’t fallen into that trap?

In calmer times, this Andrew Levitas’ film would be a worthy contender for Best Picture and Best Actor. It’s quiet release into the world shows just how hard a sell this is in 2021 with both Depp and a white saviour narrative. Anyone triggered by this exercise in humanism is missing something at their core.

Minamata, flowing according to the whims of the giant magnet, is out in the world now.

See more of Smith’s work here, here and here.

On the Chachoengsao – Bangkok Train

Fighting to get a seat means you might not lose face

but you might lose a limb.

Chachoengsao, 2020

The reader should disavow themselves of the widespread delusion that train travel in Asia was ever a romantic experience. Those holding fantastical thoughts of exotic winds, picturesque villages and exotic locals are likely to be disappointed. The wind carries pollen from the fields that causes the worst allergies, the villages are corrugated shanty towns, the locals attired in flipflops and oversize Doraemon t-shirts. The heat squeezes you like having an anvil on your chest.

Central Bangkok is 80 kilometres and two hours away. The calculus of ticket pricing was lost to reason. The cost is a nominal 14 baht – less than 20 pence.  

Chachoengsao Station, 2020

The heavy industrial train that juggernauts itself towards the platform is the locomotive equivalent of a tramp-steamer, propelled mostly by its own weight and good will. The light around its utilitarian bulk bends as it approaches; the time dilation caused by such a mass explains why they never run to time. The schedules are just probabilistic approximations as operators never agree on the correct time.

Getting on is life-threatening – the waiting ticketholders rush the doors the second the train stopped; having to stand is clearly the worst of all possible outcomes. Fighting to get a seat means you might not lose face but you might lose a limb. The appendages lost in the struggle matter little.

Hua Lamphong, Bangkok 2020

Standing on the journey exposes the passenger to all sorts of additional risk. There’s little respect for individual space; hawkers, carrying calve muscle-threatening sharp-edged buckets of iced-drinks, rice meals and unshelled eggs, jostle their way through the carriages, unperturbed by the density of standing passengers.

These fierce and determined saleswomen could teach aggressive sales techniques to stock market traders. Many of the locals travel with bulky goods that block the walkways and exits too. There seems an unspoken arms race in carrying the most absurdly bulky items. Personal space is just a gap to stock more goods in.     

Guard, Chachoengsao Station 2020

The ticket inspectors, attired in fitted military-style uniforms, pass amongst the passengers clicking their punches to signal their approach. It is vitally important to collect those small fees.

Thais sleep in every seat. No-one ever seems to miss their stop.

Chachoengsao – Bangkok Train 2020

The train passes through endless fields of rice, banana and abandoned buildings. Labourers plough paddies in the heat. The local platforms vary, some are decoratively painted in bright colours, most are just bare concrete sited as the only obvious marker of a named destination amongst the anonymous fields. So many passengers get off in the most isolated of spots, the only conclusion is they must enjoy long walks.

Eventually, the fields end, the train passes container yards and multi-lane highways. Planes pass closely overhead. Shanty residencies press tightly to the sides of the trains. Strategically placed furniture, often inhabited, identifies safe spaces between the tracks. 

Hua Lamphong Station, Bangkok 2020

From the glass-less windows you see children swimming in highly polluted dykes, old people dozing in the heat and pre-slaughter wicker-caged ‘free-range’ poultry. Mounds of abandoned TVs and broken spirit houses dominate the industrial kipple littered liberally everywhere. Not soiling the environment you live in clearly isn’t a widely shared notion here.  

The one sadness of the journey is where it ends – Hua Lamphong Station in Bangkok, which is now an aging relic of an Asia passing into memory. It is soon to be replaced by a contemporary one. It screams ‘old world’ at the visitor. The horror of modernisation looms.

Hua Lamphong Station, Bangkok 2020

To call Hua Lamphong beautiful would perhaps be to abuse the adjective. It isn’t pleasing to look out – it certainly isn’t one to experience under duress. But as somewhere to soak up some old world chaos, to see decaying old engines, the surreal ephemera that people travel with and the colourful sights of Thais working and travelling, there is nowhere else like it. Stations aren’t just waypoints, here they seem to be temporary homes too – there are no highspeed links and urgency is an alien concept. Communities grow whilst people wait.

Is this a journey that can be enjoyed? Ultimately not, in most circumstances it is hot, crowded and so so tedious. It really is the least glamorous way to get anywhere. The locals know the train system is a joke and it’s taken as a necessity, not a luxury.

Other than the modest existential benefits of experiencing new sights, this is one to live without. Get the sleeper train to Chiang Mai instead.

Hua Lamphong Station, Bangkok 2020