Ballad of Cable Hogue, The: Peckinpah’s Lyrical Western

Sam Peckinpah demonstrates a sense of humor and music in his 1970 Western, “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” one of his most original and lyrical films, with a most sympathetic character at its center.

There has not been much humor in Peckinpah’s 1960s films (“Ride the High Country,” “The Wild Bunch”) actually since his TV show, “The Westerner,” with Brian Keith.

Situated at a crucial time, the film chronicles how the Old West passed and mercantilism spread across the Great Plains. Jason Robards, in top form, plays Cable Hogue, a prospector abandoned in the desert and left to die by his partners, Bowen (Strother Martin) and Taggart (L.J. Jones). Instead of dying, however, Hogue talks to God and with some luck finds water in a previously arid spot. He decided to open a rest stop, “Hogue Oasis,” for thirsty travelers, which soon becomes prosperous.

Stella Stevens plays Hildy, a variation of the prostitute with the heart of gold, who’s determined to sleep her way to fame riches. After a brief affair with Hogue, Hildy moves to San Francisco, but later returns as a rich widow, and she and Hogue begin to plan a future togetherthat is, until an accident prevents them.

The film’s third character, which pops in and out of the narrative, is Joshua (British David Warner), a self-appointed preacher who can’t decide if he should save soulspreferably of young womenor live a more hedonistic life.

This is one Peckinpah Western with no violence and slow motion, though the director uses the then popular device of split screen. The movie, a departure for Peckinpah, came out right after “The Wild Bunch” and “Straw Dogs.” Audiences must have had hard time reconciling the frequent shifts of tone, from Western drama to comedy and even musical, for the film was a commercial failure. There are at least half a dozen songs, some sung by the actors themselves.

The central relationship is touching and funny but never sentimental. Giving one of her best performance, Stevens is terrific, taking what begins as a stereotypical role and turning it into an individualized character. Here and there, Peckinpah gets carried away with Stevens’ looks, and there may be too many close-ups of her breasts and butt; there’s also a semi-nude scene that is quite hilarious.

If you look carefully, you will detect some recurrent thematic and visual motifs. The film’s first shot is that of a lizard and the last one of a fox. And there are of course children on Main Street, making comments on the character of Hogueand the film.

The screenplay is by John Crawford and Edmund Penney. The great cinematographer Lucien Ballard shines again with his Technicolor vistas, and composer Jerry Goldsmith’s score highlights the variegated mood.

Aptly titled, “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” assumes the shape of a lyrical ballad of a bygone era, just before the West changed. In the last scene, Peckinpah highlights those changes by showing horses, carriages, motorcycles, and cars all in the same frame.

Other Peckinpah regulars, such as Slim Pickens as Ben, Peter Whitney as Cushing, R. G. Armstrong as Quittner, Gene Evans as Clete, and William Mims as Jensen, are also good. It’s probably a coincidence, but it’s noteworthy that the three worked together again that same year in “The Brotherhood of Satan.”

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