THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE (1970)
After the great success of his violent and richly-themed western THE WILD BUNCH, Sam Peckinpah switched gears and proved that he could handle other tempos and tones with a surprisingly heart-warming comedy, THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE.
The plot centres around the title character, played with lovable roguish charm by Jason Robards; somewhat of a ne’er-do-well bum who’s left to die of thirst in the desert by his double-crossing partners Taggart and Bowen (L.Q. Jones and the ever-engaging Strother Martin). On the point of death, he discovers water and a dubious Reverend, a shifty fun turn by David Warner. Hogue stakes his claim in town at the Land Registry office. There he meets the lovely prostitute Hildy (a beguiling Stella Stevens) and begins to prosper by charging stage-coaches at his literal water-hole Cable Springs. Eventually, Hildy opts to join him, forced to pause unexpectedly in her big plans to save enough money in town and leave to marry well in San Francisco when the townsfolk throw her out. Three weeks pass before she must go to seek her fortune, but not before they fall in love in a very sweet courtship. One day a stagecoach comes by; Hogue finds it contains his long-lost nemeses whom he’s been waiting to gain revenge on for the past three years. He reels them in with his good luck story and when they return to rob him, he kills Taggart but takes pity on the snivelling Bowen, whom he decides to leave his business to and go after Hildy. After one motor car goes by, which the men are afraid of and in wonderment of, along comes another more distinguished chauffeur-driven one containing Hildy. She had married into money as planned but her husband died. She has come to take Hogue with her. He readily accepts but while the car is being watered, it runs over him, causing fatal internal wounds. He asks to hear the funeral orations given in his honour and his companions oblige before the real ceremony…
Soemhow the budget of THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE over-ran by three million dollars and 19 days over schedule which ended Peckinpah’s relationship with Warner Brothers/Seven Arts studio. It would be hard to see on-screen where the spiralling costs went as this is a small-scale quite intimate piece; however bad weather plagued the filming and Peckinpah attracted equally hard-living men to aid him in his renewed drinking, leading to a legendary bar-tab over the course of filming rising to $70,000.
There is much to like in this western, mainly in the through-line of whimsical and gentle humour. Robards is a winning presence, from his early desert soliloquies about his haphazard life and self-serving ‘prayers’ to God for water, through the charming romance between him and the rough-diamond Stella Stevens. It’s a courtship conducted in reverse as they’d already become intimate as ‘professional and customer’ in the saloon bedroom, but out in the prairies he becomes a more tender considerate lover with her, the better part of himself. There is one line that is very special, when Hildy stands in the doorway, having been kicked out by the townspeople and needing to make a go as guest of Hogue’s ramshackle hospitality. He surveys her beauty warmly as if for the first time. She remarks self-deprecatingly that he’s seen it before. “Lady, no-one’s ever seen you before” he replies. It’s a great romantic moment and Robards delivers it with sublime sincerity - in a dang Sam Peckinpah movie!
David Warner also has immense fun as the wayward preacher with his own less romantic, groping interpretation of the laying-on of hands when he attempts to seduce a married townswoman while her husband is out, with near deadly consequences for him.
Even the ending is handled with a genial sunset glow as Hogue lays dying, propped up on a pillow and asking to hear what everyone will say about him in death whilst he is still alive to appreciate it. (Supposedly, this concern for his reputation was a genuine preoccupation of Peckinpah’s in real life). Warner delivers an upbeat and touching eulogy about Hogue without sentimentality, showing that his character does after all have a little divine gift for suitable oration.
The relative failure of THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE is a shame as it was a sadly rare chance to show Peckinpah’s versatility in a light touch for comedy and charitable humanity. Limited in his opportunities following its disappointing performance, he was forced to head back into the sturm und drang of violence and controversy, choosing STRAW DOGS as his next project. It would have its own problems and rewards for the bad boy prodigal son of Hollywood…