To modify the famous opening line of L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between, the western is a foreign country, they do things differently there. True of every western ever made, but never more so than of Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue which was released in early 1970. So, what is it about this still largely unknown and unheralded film? Why might most neutral observers, and even some Peckinpah aficionados, consider it to be an unfathomably strange, or at best just mildly interesting, one-shot in a genre, and a particular filmmaker's oeuvre, so often associated with violence? And at the other extreme, why might some, a discerning minority to be sure, consider it to be its maker’s ultimate masterpiece? Indeed, there are westerns, and there are westerns. And then there is The Ballad of Cable Hogue.
And if one must have a simple, overarching description of the film, it is worth noting that The Wild Bunch has been likened to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. If so, and it is an apt comparison in more ways than one, then it follows that Cable Hogue is Peckinpah’s Magnificent Ambersons, a softer, gentler, more introspective exercise in cinematic poetry.
In terms of its actual production, much has been written about the film. It was a difficult shoot, in an inhospitable environment, that was plagued by bad weather. The film went significantly over its budget and finished well behind schedule. And in the end, in an all too familiar bit of Wellesian denouement, Warner Bros. simply didn’t know what to do with it. So, in spite of many positive reviews, it was given a very limited release, essentially thrown away, and allowed to die an unnoticed death. Interestingly, this American abandonment and subsequent box office failure notwithstanding, Cable Hogue received extensive international distribution.¹
Thankfully, Peckinpah’s western films began to receive serious attention shortly before his death in 1984. And since then, interest in his life and work has exploded, with the work of many writers, both academic and popular, forming a substantial body of serious Peckinpah scholarship. As a result of this attention, many now count him among the greatest American filmmakers. Even his detractors admit that he is a force to be reckoned with. And within the context of this process of rediscovery and reappraisal, Cable Hogue has slowly found its champions; and screenings and retrospectives at film societies and art houses have helped the film achieve a certain cult status, as have various home video releases. And it should be noted that, among his fourteen feature films, Cable Hogue was Peckinpah’s favorite, and he did what he could to promote it over the years.
Finally, before any discussion of the film can proceed, it must be acknowledged that, while Cable Hogue is most definitely a Sam Peckinpah film, he started out with a very good screenplay by John Crawford and Edmund Penney. Then, as was his wont, he put his own stamp on it. In this regard, Peckinpah scholar David Weddle tells us that “… in August 1968, [Associate Producer] Gordon Dawson and Sam did a minor [uncredited] rewrite, adding comical scenes, tightening up some sequences, and polishing the dialogue of others.”² The end result was a highly imaginative story rich in humor, compelling characters, emotional resonance, and historical significance.
So, what is Cable Hogue all about? What kind of film is it? First of all, it is obviously a western, but, as suggested above, it is not your ordinary western. For one thing, unlike most westerns, there is very little “action” in the normally accepted sense of the word. And there is a minimal amount of gunplay and violence. Instead, it might be termed a thinking persons western. This is not to say that violence and intelligence are mutually exclusive concepts within the western genre, The Wild Bunch obviously proves otherwise. In Cable Hogue, Peckinpah simply chooses a palette of different colors.
In truth, Cable Hogue is a deceptively complex, multilayered film that is rich in allegorical insight. To the extent that it is a western, it belongs to that important subgenre of films that deal with the end of the west, the end of an era. This subject was of particular interest to Peckinpah, and he turned his attention to it on several occasions. In this regard, the film is an obvious and resounding success, a poignant elegy for a time and place that he loved and respected.
And one does not have to resort to highbrow criticism to acknowledge that the film also contains elements of a parable on the merits of capitalism. Indeed, Hogue is revealed to be a hardworking entrepreneur who famously finds water where it wasn’t. He seizes this opportunity and, through his own sweat and labor, builds something of value out of nothing. (And as a final punctuation mark on this thematic strand, it is worth noting that the film’s cast of characters includes a kind and benevolent banker!)
Recalling a similar moment in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine — a film that Peckinpah liked very much — there is the memorable flag raising scene. There is no irony at work here. Instead, Peckinpah is raising a glass to what was best about the west, and to what the west was capable of becoming. When looked at within the context of the times in which the film was made, it is also possible that he is sharing his vision of what America could, and should, become. Indeed, cinematic displays of patriotism were not in vogue in the late 1960s and early 1970s which is, perhaps, one reason why the scene works so well. And, as director Joe Dante, who saw Cable Hogue during its extremely limited 1970 release, has observed, the scene “ … put a lump in my anti-war throat then, and still does today.”³
It is also a very funny film at times, with humor ranging from sophisticated wordplay, speeded up camera trickery, and a bit of good old-fashioned slapstick. In this regard, a case can be made that Peckinpah laid the groundwork for Cable Hogue’s comedic side in his highly regarded 1960 television series The Westerner which starred Brian Keith as amiable drifter Dave Blassingame. Of its thirteen episodes, ten are serious dramas. The initial episode, entitled “Jeff,” is, in fact, a flat-out western noir. However, three episodes, which Peckinpah directed, are light, whimsical affairs that clearly reveal a flair for comedy. (He is not the credited writer of these episodes. However, he was intimately involved with every aspect of the scripting process, and personally did a lot of rewriting.⁴) It can also be argued that these three episodes, which feature an unscrupulous but likable con man named Burgundy Smith, also laid some groundwork for Joshua. Peckinpah’s casting of David Warner as the bogus but charming clergyman can only be called a stroke of genius. Similarly, he stacked the deck in casting John Dehner, television’s definitive smooth-talking rogue, as Smith.
Also noteworthy is the film’s soundtrack which features a very subtle score by the distinguished composer Jerry Goldsmith. However, it is Richard Gillis’s three songs that one remembers fondly, with his evocative lyrics adding tone and texture to the film’s depiction of its three principal characters. In 2002, Varèse Sarabande released a limited edition soundtrack album which has since become something of a collector’s item; it is currently available for purchase as a digital download. And “Tomorrow is the Song I Sing,” which is effectively the film’s theme song, will also be found on Gillis’s CD entitled Blow the Gates to Heaven. (As evidence that Cable Hogue does indeed enjoy a certain cult status, it is worth noting that it has provided the nominal inspiration for music from American indie band Calexico, Welsh musician John Cale, and Japanese rockers Les Rallizes Dénudés.)
And finally, and most importantly, one cannot overstate the extent to which the film is a brilliant study of three unique characters who are brought to life by three equally brilliant performances. Indeed, as Roger Ebert has noted in his glowing review of the film, there is a point at which “…Cable Hogue stops being any kind of Western and begins to be a strange and wonderful fantasy about people.”⁵ And it is crucial to note that, in doing so, the film turns the western genre on its head in that, in lesser hands, it might have been just another six-shooter saga of revenge and retribution.
Central to the film, of course, is Jason Robards’s portrayal of Cable Hogue. Hogue is one of a dying breed, the type of rugged individualist who helped tame the west, but who lives to see it overtaken by the march of time, and, in the end, is laid low by that unstoppable harbinger of progress, the automobile. Robards, one of the finest actors of his generation, was at home on stage and before the camera. Generally considered to be the greatest interpreter of Eugene O’ Neill, his film work ranged from the understated humor and pathos of A Thousand Clowns to a delightfully flamboyant portrayal of Al Capone in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. In Cable Hogue, he offers a delicately nuanced performance that aptly conveys the heart and soul of the film’s very sympathetic title character.
As Hildy, Stella Stevens gives her finest performance in what was, for her, the role of a lifetime. Appearing in several quality films, she was an appealing and popular young actress throughout the 1960s. And, for better or worse, she was also one of the era’s leading sex symbols. Appearing in Playboy three times, she was constantly sought out by photographers throughout the decade. (Interestingly, she was cast against type, as a nun, in the 1968 comedy Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows.) But in Cable Hogue, she too offers a delicately nuanced performance that is an integral part of the emotional fabric of the film.
And finally, as noted above, David Warner is perfection as Joshua. An actor with serious Shakespearean credentials, including a turn as Hamlet, he also enjoyed a measure of what might be termed countercultural credibility thanks to his starring roles in the oddball comedies Morgan! and Work is a Four Letter Word. This latter quality served him well in his performance as Joshua, who is, in some ways, a kind of western hippie, albeit a cultured one with an English accent, replete with long hair, beard, and motorcycle. In this regard, it is interesting to note Cable Hogue’s proximity to 1969’s Easy Rider. (In fairness, it must be admitted that Joshua is not a complete scoundrel. He is sincere when he offers Hogue his hand in all good fellowship, and when he eulogizes him.)
Again, Cable Hogue is a deceptively complex, multilayered film. It is also a subtly subversive film in the sense that, through an abundance of irresistibly good humor and sheer intelligence, it manages to avoid wading into any controversy concerning its treatment of sex and religion. With regard to the film’s handling of sex, or, more to the point, its handling of the character of Hildy, there is much more at work than initially meets the eye. Yes, she is a prostitute, a common western trope. But she is also intelligent and resourceful. She knows and likes who she is; she is in charge. Roger Ebert sums her up nicely: “But she’s not just any hooker, mind you, or even the proverbial one with the heart of gold. Stella Stevens makes Hildy an altogether individual woman, perhaps the first Women’s Libber west of the Pecos.”⁶ And add to this the fact that Cable Hogue is not the film’s only successful capitalist. At a critical juncture, Hildy heads off to San Francisco to seek her fortune and, at the film’s end returns, an obviously rich woman, to claim the man she loves.
And love Cable Hogue she does. And he loves her. The truth of which is made abundantly clear throughout the film. For example, one thinks of the beautiful moment, bathed in golden light, in which Hogue tells Hildy that “Lady, nobody’s ever seen you before.” Then there is the lyrical “Butterfly Mornings” montage, the highlight of which — perhaps the highlight of the entire film — comes when Hogue shyly offers Hildy a flower. The look on her face as she receives his gift is a moment of almost unbearable tenderness and restrained emotion. It is not hyperbole to call Cable Hogue one of the all-time great movie romances. Indeed, to cite just one obvious comparison, Cable and Hildy are right up there with Rick and Ilsa from Casablanca. And this from a director not known for his positive presentations of women.⁷
And as for the film’s treatment of religion, as with its treatment of Hildy, first impressions can be misleading. Yes, one can cite several examples that suggest an overall tone of irreverence. For example, as early as the film’s opening credit sequence, we hear Hogue warn God not to get his dander up. Then there is the banker who proudly declares that he would instinctively, and strenuously, always doubt a man of the Gospel. And, of course, one of the film’s three principal characters is a lascivious and fraudulent preacher.
However, when looking beneath the surface, one finds evidence that, at the very least, balances the scales a bit, and, at best, suggests that Peckinpah’s views on religion are more complex than his reputation as a bloodthirsty nihilist would suggest. Indeed, one senses in him a man who was open to the possibility of a no-frills brand of spirituality.⁸ Hence, his skewering of the windbag preacher whose revival meeting Hogue disrupts. And while Joshua is clearly depicted as a thoroughly beguiling character, Peckinpah obliquely invokes Scripture by making it clear that he is also a false prophet⁹ and a wolf in sheep’s clothing.¹⁰
And one can cite the following exchange between Hogue and Hildy:
HILDY: Been awful nice to me Hogue. Never bothered you none what I am?
HOGUE: No, it never bothered me. I enjoyed it. Now, what the hell are ya. A human being. We try the best we can. We all got our own ways of living.
Hogue may be an uneducated desert rat, but he has a good heart. And, in that exchange, do we not hear echoes of “Judge not, lest ye be judged,”¹¹ and “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”¹²
It would be wrong to call Peckinpah a religious person. He simply wasn’t. But underneath the addictions, and the temper, and the penchant for reveling in controversy and combat, he was, in his own tortured way, an idealist, a romantic, and a seeker of truth. David Weddle puts it this way: “Part of Peckinpah thrilled at the rough competitive nature of life and celebrated those who threw themselves fully into the struggle. But another part of him was perplexed and horrified by the pitiless reality of the human animal and could never reconcile it with the Christian ideals he’d rejected but couldn’t quite rid his blood of.”¹³
Bringing a discussion of Cable Hogue to a close is an easy task because the film itself is brought to a memorable conclusion with Joshua’s profoundly moving eulogy for Hogue which is easily one of the greatest set pieces in all of film history. And in it, the film’s many strands and layers are gathered in by an almost impressionistic montage of images, all tied together by the grand cadence of Joshua’s eloquent words. And through the marriage of those words and images, Peckinpah’s ballad finishes on an appropriately bittersweet note.
Boiled down to its essence, a ballad is a poem that tells a story. And what a story The Ballad of Cable Hogue tells. It should certainly be remembered as the most unique western ever filmed, and, in its own quiet way, possibly one of the most important. And when trying to come to terms with the troubled genius who created it, it is necessary to draw open the blinds, throw open the window, and look beyond the “Bloody Sam” horseshit. Many things will come into focus including more than one masterpiece, one of which, while virtually unknown to mainstream audiences, but loved by that discerning minority noted above, is a poem both epic and deeply personal. And, to quote the Reverend Joshua Duncan Sloane, it should not be taken lightly.
1 Peckinpah scholar David Weddle reports that principal photography on Cable Hogue finished nineteen days behind schedule and that its modest budget of $880,000 ultimately mushroomed to a final negative cost of $3, 716,946. He also notes that by 1973 it had grossed only $2,445,863 at the box office. See David Weddle, “If They Move … Kill ‘Em!” : The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah (New York: Grove Press, 1994), 384–387.
See the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) for details on Cable Hogue’s international distribution: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065446/releaseinfo
See the AFI [American Film Institute] Catalog of Feature Films for a specific discussion of Cable Hogue’s exhibition in Italy, Spain, and France: https://catalog.afi.com/Catalog/moviedetails/20621
2 Weddle, If They Move, 383.
Referencing an article in Daily Variety, the AFI [American Film Institute] Catalog of Feature Films also addresses the authorship of Cable Hogue’s screenplay. See: https://catalog.afi.com/Catalog/moviedetails/20621
Also available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwv2XQjrbD8&t=11s
4 See Weddle, If They Move, 174.
5 See review by Roger Ebert at www.rogerebert.com: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-ballad-of-cable-hogue-1970
7 It can be argued that Peckinpah has gotten a bad rap over the years regarding his handling of female characters. Two important cases in point, each of which flies in the face of conventional wisdom, are the characters played by Olivia de Havilland in Noon Wine and Ida Lupino in Junior Bonner. Both are mature, complex women brought to life by two excellent performances. (Should we make anything of the fact that both women are middle-aged?) To a lesser extent, one might also cite the younger characters played by Maureen O’Hara in The Deadly Companions and Mariette Hartley in Ride the High Country.
8 On page 58 of If They Move David Weddle notes that, as a young marine in post-World War II China, Peckinpah began to “dabble in Zen.”
In a Christian context, one remembers the often cited moment in Ride the High Country when Marshal Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) invokes the Gospel of Luke (18:14) in stating that “All I want [out of life] is to enter my house justified.” For a related, and illuminating, discussion of this aspect of Ride the High Country, see David Hein’s essay entitled Going Home Justified. See: https://livingchurch.org/2014/07/11/going-home-justified/
9 Matthew 7:15
11 Matthew 7:1
12 John 8:7
13 Weddle, If They Move, 103.