Movie Review: The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)

“Cable Hogue says…”Seek…and ye shall find.””

2 Stars
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)


Director: Sam Peckinpah

Cast: Jason Robards, Stella Stevens, David Warner

Synopsis: An ageing prospector stumbles upon a waterhole in the desert and turns it into a thriving business.

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As usual with a Sam Peckinpah movie, The Ballad of Cable Hogue came in late and over-budget.   In the words of its female lead, the luscious Stella Stevens, the movie wasn’t released but flushed by its production company, Warners.   Upon completion, the studio also cut its ties with the troubled director, who found the prospect of further work in Hollywood so unlikely at the time that he went to the UK to make the dark psychological thriller, Straw Dogs.   Quite why Warners gave up on the picture is something of a mystery.   The Ballad of Cable Hogue isn’t a great movie, but there’s a quirky warmth to it, and its characters are a likeable bunch.

Cable Hogue is played by Jason Robards (Once Upon a Time in the West, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid), an actor whose taciturn ruggedness – which was not unlike that of Bogart – made him ideal for the role of the grizzled prospector.  Robards came to the movies in the 1960s, a decade which saw America (and the rest of the world) undergo a societal shift which is mirrored by the one the American West is undergoing in The Ballad of Cable Hogue.   It’s set in the early 1900s, less than a decade before Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch with which The Ballad of Cable Hogue shares a number of themes, and tells the story of a man who is as much of a part of the land as the sand and rock beneath his feet.

Left for dead by his treacherous partners, Taggart (L. Q. Jones – Major Dundee, Hang ‘Em High) and Bowen (Strother Martin – Black Patch, The Deadly Companions), and without a horse or provisions, Hogue roams the desert for four days, and attempts to strike a deal with God when things grow desperate.   He eventually stumbles upon a spring to which – who knows? – he might have been led by divine intervention.   Either way, it’s a discovery that not only saves his life, but sets him on the road to entrepreneurial prosperity, thanks to the spring’s location on a stagecoach trail midway between two towns that are 40 miles apart.

This divine link is stretched even further when Hogue’s first paying customer turns out to be a preacher (his first customer – stubbornly non-paying – found himself lying in a shallow grave with a bullet in his chest).   But Joshua Sloane’s (David Warner – Money Talks) relationship with the Lord turns out to be as tenuous as Hogue’s: his collar revolves, depending on his circumstances, and he’s fond of comforting grieving young widows by massaging their breasts.  In fact, so doubtful is Hogue of Joshua’s intentions that he cuts short a visit to curvaceous prostitute Hildy (Stevens – The Nutty Professor, The Poseidon Adventure) – “the ladiest damn lady you ever met,” – with whom he has become instantly smitten, to ensure the lecherous preacher is behaving himself.   Hildy’s lure is too strong to resist, however – and fortunately for Hogue, she feels the same way about him – so she temporarily moves into his shack overlooking the spring, and for a while they lead a life which is as close as you can get to idyllic in the middle of the desert.   However, Hogue still burns with the urge to exact revenge on the dogs who left him to die in the desert, and unexpectedly gets his opportunity when they turn up as passengers on a passing stagecoach.

With The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Peckinpah’s customary depiction of the grim reality of life in the West is tempered by the film’s wry humour, and, perhaps because of that early running conversation with God, Hogue is a far more thoughtful and introspective character than is normally found in a Peckinpah film.   He also enjoys the kind of loving and giving relationship that few of the director’s typical heroes experienced, and, perhaps surprisingly, given the knockabout nature of the film, is a far more rounded character as a result.   The grizzled Robards and vivacious Stevens make an odd couple, but they work well together, even if Stevens’ blonde mane and fresh features seem a little too pure for the role.

A Peckinpah comedy might sound like something of an oxymoron, but he adapts to the genre quite well.    Some of his ideas don’t really work – a couple of cartoon-like speeded up moments are particularly unfortunate – but the pungent screenplay by John Crawford and Edmund Penney mines dark humour from the grimmest of scenarios.   David Warner steals great chunks of the film from his co-stars as the roguish Sloane, and many members of Peckinpah’s stock company of characters actors make welcome appearances.

Although not typical of his work – the body count totals just three – The Ballad of Cable Hogue was amongst Peckinpah’s personal favourites, and demonstrates a pleasing and unexpected change of pace for a man who remains fixed in the public’s consciousness as a director of violent shoot-em-ups.

(Reviewed 6th November 2016)


Ballad of Cable Hogue – Trailer



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