The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)

They really did not know how to market this film at all. The trailer is just as bad.

3.5 stars out of 4. Quirky and meditative.

How do you follow up one of the most notorious films ever made? When The Wild Bunch hit theaters, many recoiled at the amount of violence and the scathing nature of this look into ourselves as a people disguised as a “Western”. So, Sam Peckinpah came back with a whimsical little quasi-comedy about a man staking a claim in the desert because he found some water.

Whimsical. Comedic. These are really the last words you would ever think of using in the same sentence as the director’s name. Cable Hogue is such a radical departure from everything Sam had done before, that it is sometimes hard to believe what you’re seeing. And it isn’t that he couldn’t direct lighter material. It just feels weird. Unnatural, in a way especially during the songs. (Oh yes, there’s songs too.)

Jason Robards plays the titular character who is not that far off from the character of Cheyenne from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in The West (1968). In fact, Cable Hogue seems almost an extension of that same character, if not a cousin. The film opens with Cable abandoned in the desert by his two nefarious ex-partners. He staggers about the barren landscape in search of water, people, shelter-anything. (This is done to some very cheesy and dated split screen titles.) After four days of fruitless wandering and bickering with God, Cable arrives at the point of death. In a violent sandstorm he loses consciousness only to awake and discover water.

This spot lies between two important stops on a stagecoach route. Realizing the importance of his find, Cable quickly re-purposes the small strip of land and begins to work his claim like a man possessed. His first “customer” is the odd and supposed Reverend Joshua. Joshua questions Cable and prods him into officially buying the land in town. Of course, he is nearly laughed out of the said town when trying to explain his find. Cable is granted his measly little plot of land by the land office and promptly thrown out of any prospective investor’s domain. Eventually a banker takes pity on the downtrodden man and decides to back him at a minimal loss. In the process of all this, Cable encounters Hildy the local blonde vision and prostitute. After deciding to enjoy a bit of his new found wealth, he inadvertently angers her when realizing he hasn’t set up property markers and leaves before the transaction has been…consummated.

After achieving this he returns with the oddball preacher already obviously tipsy. He makes up with Hildy and the Reverend is free to go and “console” those women around who need “solace”. The two comrades return to the desert and build the place into a respectable stopover for the bustling stagecoaches to take on water and food. As more and more success is heaped upon Cable, hildy suddenly appears after being thrown out by the ever-respectable town society. They no longer want dens of vice in their precious settlement and thus Hildy is now on her own. She says she will push on to San Francisco to find her dream of wealth but will stay with Cable for a few days. she stays for an idyllic three weeks. This finally collapses after one unintentionally hurtful muttering.

Hildy leaves, and Cable is left alone without anyone save for himself and his undying desire for vengeance against the two bastards who left him to die. And of course, one day they show up in a stagecoach. Astonished to find Cable both alive and substantially well, they quickly make their goodbyes and double back to rob him for the second time. Cable is long ready for this moment and wastes no opportunity to embarrass them and gain the upper hand, but he still after all of this time does not want to actually kill them. This is not just a lowly frontiersman, but a symbolization of what a man used to  mean in the world.

Hildy later returns, in a car no less, looking like a wealthy lady of society. she is now a widow and has a massive fortune to play with. Now she wants to know if Cable is finally ready to leave and go away with her. he takes one look at the transportation of the future and sees that his precious settlement is soon to be nothing for his freedom will be eradicated. He agrees to leave and the viewer’s heart enters into a state of complacency.

Of course, that state of complacency is stuck down by your own rationalizations because that would just be too easy.

This is still recognizably Peckinpah territory, as Cable is a lone individual attempting to remain steadfast and claim a foothold in the open land in the midst of an overbearing society that wants little more than to crush him. It is a quirky mishmash of comedy, tenderness and the Peckinpah envisioned West. Many who knew Sam have said that few ever saw his softer side and that this was a closely guarded element of his personality that few were ever allowed to glimpse. Cable Hogue certainly feels like this softer side came out a bit and decided to make a film. But it cannot ever fully distance itself from rationalizing. There is a constant underlying theme in the film of “This can’t turn out very well” that gives the proceedings an almost logical procession to follow. It is as if Peckinpah believed in something but could not cut out the voice in his head saying that it could never happen this way in the real world. And it is this internal discussion that makes the film a meditative and metaphoric discourse on the progress of man and society.

Some have said that the structure of the opening gives the idea that the rest of the film is merely a dying man’s wishful thinking. Whether this is actually true is of course up the the individual viewer.

The film ran over-schedule and over-budget. The studio didn’t know how to market it, nor did they want to even try. Cable Hogue was buried upon release and has been little seen over the years. But this is probably as it should be. Sometimes you just have stumble upon the gems in the desert.

EDITIONS: Warner’s DVD is a overall nice disc, featuring a commentary,trailer gallery, and interview with lead actress Stella Stevens. (The listed vintage featurette is nowhere to be found) The 1.85 image is presented at 16:9 anamorphic 1.78:1 in a nice enough looking transfer. Colors are robust and damage is pretty much nonexistent. The source used was relatively clean but at some points a bit too grainy, especially in the opening titles. Sound is a clear but unremarkable Dolby 2.0 mono. Available individually or packaged at great discount in the Sam Peckinpah Legendary Westerns Collection.

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Film Directors, Film Review, Sam Peckinpah

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