The Ballad of Cable Hogue

Plantin’ and readin’, plantin’ and readin’. Fill a man fulla lead, stick ’im in the ground, then read words at him. Why when you’ve killed a man do you then try to read the Lord in as a partner on the job?

—Simms Reeves (Hank Worden), Red River

The Ballad of Cable Hogue is tough on the Lord. He gets all of the blame and none of the credit. Abandoned in a wasteland by his gold-prospecting partners, Cable calls on the Lord, albeit with untrusting upward glances. Job-like, he offers to repent for whatever the hell it was he did—mistaking his ordeal for punishment for some unspecified wrong, rather than the trial of endurance, the rite of passage that it is. When he does indeed survive, it becomes his own doing, and none of the Lord’s.

David Warner and Jason Robard as Rev. Sloane and Cable Hogue
David Warner and Jason Robard as Rev. Sloane and Cable Hogue

Conversations with God—who does not answer—bookend the film; and religion, or whatever passes for it, is never far away during the interim. The appearance of the Rev. Joshua Duncan Sloane establishes The Ballad of Cable Hogue as a movie about two men who talk to God—or who perhaps have their own way with life and write the Lord in as a partner on the deal.

For the Rev. Sloane, religion is a handy vehicle of seduction—and when, after all, was it not? And why is winning someone’s body any less honorable than winning someone’s soul? When he tells Cable he has to ride into Dead Dog for the evening because “the calling is upon him,” Cable responds: “The Lord’s work? That’s a helluva thing to call it.” Then, after a pause, he recognizes the truth: “I reckon you’re right.”

And so it continues. The banker in Dead Dog hits it off with Cable because of their shared distrust of religion. The railings of a tent-preacher against the evil of machines reminds Cable of the possibly-treacherous preacher to whom he entrusted his land claim.

There is a palpable tension between Cable’s dialogue (or monologue) with God and his personal vendetta against the friends who betrayed him. Ben-Hur would seem a strange bedfellow for a Peckinpah western, but there it is. True to the genre, the Rev. Sloane tries to talk Cable out of his revenge, reminding him, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” Cable offers no resistance: “That’s fine enough with me, just as long as he don’t take too long, and I can watch.”

In case you didn’t think Sam Peckinpah had a heart, I commend to you The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Peckinpah’s avowed personal favorite of all of his films. I’ve been commending it to people for the past 40 years—like Rev. Sloane commending Cable Hogue’s soul to an unresponsive God. For my own part, The Wild Bunch is Peckinpah’s greatest film and quite possibly the greatest film; but The Ballad of Cable Hogue is unquestionably my second-favorite Peckinpah film.

“But it’s a musical!” squeals one of my friends. Well, if it is, so are Rio Bravo and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. But even if it is, so what? The singing is mostly diegetic, but not the gratuitous production numbers of the musical genre. The first burst of song comes from the treacherous Taggart and Bowen, who taunt Hogue with sing-song as they leave him waterless in the impacable desert. The Rev. Sloane sings a few notes of “Wait for Me, Sunrise,” but that song, and the film’s key song “Tomorrow Is the Song I Sing,” are principally part of the film’s nondiegetic score. An unseen choir intones “Shall We Gather at the River” during the comic bombardment precipitated by Cable’s non-paying departure from Hildy’s crib—Peckinpah sending up not only Ford but his own The Wild Bunch. Cable and Preacher sing a few bars of “Can’t Go Back to Memphis Anymore” as they set out to raise hell in Dead Dog. Cable and Hildy sing “Butterfly Mornings” through one of the film’s several gorgeous “time passes” montage sequences. Jerry Goldsmith’s score—recalling his earlier sortie into down-home rural America, the criminally unavailable Lilies of the Field—imparts a folksy, genuine intimacy to the film.

None of this amounts to anything remotely classifiable—let alone dismissable—as “a musical.” Indeed, much of the film’s glory is that it mixes elements of the musical, the comedy, the love story, and the western, to tell a tale Peckinpah desperately wanted to tell, the like of which no one has told before or since.

The traditional western is backward-looking, loaded with nostalgia and loss for what is passing or past. The Ballad of Cable Hogue looks toward tomorrow. The film’s eyes are on sunrise, not sunset; on mornings rather than evenings. The songs stress this as much as Peckinpah’s mise-en-scene: “Tomorrow is the song I sing” … “Wait for me, sunrise … I will see what tomorrow will bring” … “Butterfly mornings.” Like the great western heroes, Hogue doesn’t survive the transformation he helps bring about. But unlike them, he doesn’t die—or ride away—looking back.

There are, of course, great westerns that do offer a vista on the future—The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Once upon a Time in the West, to name two—but their forward gaze is a bleak one, sharply contrasted with the passing days of titanic individualists whose strength and vision made meaningful myth out of the frontier experience.

Cable Hogue takes a more active role in transforming the wild land to something as familiar and welcoming as home. Rather than facilitating the development of land and community, he takes a personal hand in it. He builds. In contrast to the anachronistic archetypes of Once upon a Time in the West, he finds out he is a businessman: “People goin’ somewhere on a road—and I’m on it.” He pulls a fortune out of a strategically situated waterhole and turns it into what is destined to become the first gas station, rest stop, and roadside attraction on a still desolate northern Arizona highway.

The film shares with its contemporaneous cousin McCabe & Mrs. Miller an elegiac glimpse of the American Dream lost almost as soon as it is grasped. But Altman’s film is dominated by a dim view of America’s corporate future, reiterating the western’s perennial theme of big capital squeezing out the little-guy entrepreneur, leaving no middle tier between the wage slave and the corporate fat cat. Cable Hogue, unlike John McCabe, gets his piece and gets out before the buy-out, facing even his own death with an indomitable optimism.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue does reiterate the key elements of the western: the strength and demise of self-sufficient individualism; the frontier becoming community; changes in transportation technology signaling the coming of a faster-paced but less robust way of life; America’s manifest destiny; the hero’s personal revenge counterpointing his not-quite-realized social mission; lone men and the impact on them of the absence and presence of women, and the way the feminine principle drives men to achieve without their quite knowing it; the inevitability of transformation—for better or worse—to a new order of economics, morality, and justice. But part of the film’s triumph is the way in which it reverses many of the standard motifs of the traditional western. Cable doesn’t achieve what he does through superior prowess or near supernatural power, but more by accident. He lets himself be taken advantage of, as no John Wayne icon ever would; but he learns from it as the men of The Wild Bunch fail to do. He stays at home, and it is his woman (if she can be considered anyone’s woman but her own) who goes off in search of fortune, promising to come back for him—which she does, as the ladiest damn lady you ever saw. He distrusts civilization, but recognizes the necessity of goin’ in amongst ’em, does well at it, and grows to like the idea—though his next destination turns out to be neither San Francisco nor New Orleans.

Stella Stevens as Hildy
Stella Stevens as Hildy

Despite its radical difference in tone and outlook from Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, and The Wild Bunch, the film is unmistakably, quintessentially Peckinpah. That much is announced by the opening shot of a Gila monster, recalling the one perched atop the gold in Peckinpah’s beloved Treasure of Sierra Madre, and shortly blown to pieces by Cable’s treacherous partners. Or by Cable’s little dance in the street of Dead Dog, an homage to Treasure’s prospector Howard (Walter Huston), by way of The Wild Bunch’s Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien). There are a million Peckinpah gestures in the film. It’s filled with delicious moments. Like the one in which the little guy’s personal success—both financial and sexual—combines with Manifest Destiny when Cable lowers his flag, then quickly raises it again as he sees his beloved Hildy arriving. Or the luminous moment in which Hildy, backlit at dusk by the oil lamps inside Cable’s bedroom, steps to the door in her nightdress, and Cable says, “Now that’s a picture.” Hildy says, “You seen it before,” and Cable replies, as if in prayer, “Lady, nobody’s ever seen it before.” Or the chill that descends when Cable unthinkingly reduces love and friendship to financial transactions, asking Rev. Sloane to pay for his meals, and telling Hildy she doesn’t have to “because you haven’t charged me nothin’,” and the Marxist critique of capitalism rears its unwelcome head.

And then, of course, there’s the Rev. Sloane’s eulogy, the other bookend: spontaneous Pentecostal rhetoric, bursting with inspiration and occasional blank verse. “In some ways he was your dim reflection, Lord … Take him—but, knowing Cable, I suggest you not take him lightly.”

Much in the way I urge you to take this film.

This is a Peckinpah that nobody ever saw before.

© 2010 Robert C. Cumbow