The Ballad of Cable Hogue

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 17 Number 1, January/February 1981]

“If I cannot rouse heaven,” says the Reverend Joshua Duncan Sloane (David Warner) in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, “I intend to raising hell.” It’s the hell-raising in the cinema of Sam Peckinpah that has most claimed the attention of both the director’s adverse critics and the contingent of the audience Pauline Kael has termed “the thugs”; heaven has rarely entered the discussion. Yet when Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) states, in Ride the High Country, “All I want is to enter my house justified,” the spiritual authenticity is unmistakable. And it doesn’t spring from institutionalized virtue, even if the rhetoric sounds vaguely churchified. (Peckinpah borrowed the line from his father.) Elsewhere in Ride the High Country, Judd trades Biblical quotations with a pathological fire-and-brimstone type (R.G. Armstrong), each of them footnoting chapter and verse; but the last word belongs to Judd’s partner, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), who cuts across their dialogue to compliment Fire-and-Brimstone’s daughter, “Miss Knudsen, you cook a lovely ham hock,” then glances at Judd: “Appetite, Chapter One.”

The Ballad of Cable Hogue is one of the most joyously earthy movies ever made. It’s also quite heavenly. That both qualities are valid in the film traces from their inextricability. And the inextricability has a lot to do with Cable Hogue‘s being a very funny movie.

It begins with a gila monster and ends with a coyote, but human beings remain the film’s proper focus, even at those moments. Cable Hogue (Jason Robards), another life form trying to survive in the desert, steps into the gila monster’s shot, answers its puffed-up greeting with a comradely hiss, and proposes to borrow its life to sustain his own: “Sorry, partner, but you’re only half poison and I’m hungry for meat.” A second later, the gila has been trashed beyond all utility by a rifle shot from two other men, who rise out of the desert itself and propose to do the same for Hogue. Life and death carry on a free and easy commerce throughout the picture. So, for that matter, do mankind and the land, sand and water, civilization and primitivism, history and anecdote, age and timelessness, man and woman, the past (an obsession with revenge and identity) and the future (motorcars and anonymity), and finally the man on the screen and the man behind the movie camera.

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Cable Hogue (Jason Robards)

Or no, not finally. Cable Hogue and Sam Peckinpah fuse early in the film—signally, about the time Hogue’s life is saved by finding water where it wasn’t, and his cry of life renewed becomes a litany of his own me-ness. Out of a driving sandstorm, we dissolve to a tranquil image of Hogue asleep beside his mudhole, and it is here that Peckinpah chooses for his own delayed credit to appear, linked to water, the life force flowing through the film.

The immediate business of survival having been attended to, Cable ventures a few yards from his oasis and discovers tracks in the earth: “Wagons … stagecoaches … buckboards … people … goin’ somewhere on a road … and I’m on it … me and my waterhole. Now all I gotta do is wait.” He means waiting for Taggart and Bowen (L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin), the two fellow prospectors who stranded him amid “fifty thousand gallons of sand”; but quite a few other encounters will fill the next three-and-a-half years, and hour-and-a-half of screen time—a narrative itinerary of scruffy spiritual growth and cockeyed redemption.

* * *

Kathleen Murphy has called The Ballad of Cable Hogue “a musical about the emotional and economic complexities of Capitalism.” The emotions, economics, and musicalization are all introduced in Hogue’s encounters with Ben (Slim Pickens) and Webb (Max Evans), the two stage drivers who soon rattle by in the twilight. While the coach passengers, two professional Christians (William Mims, Kathleen Freeman), move from pompous Good-Samaritanism to indignation in Hogue’s vocabulary, the “pilgrim” establishes immediate rapport with the two underpaid working men, who soon size up his situation and become galootish handmaidens of the Lord’s justice. As they drive off, they loose the passengers’ baggage and furniture from the top of the coach to provide Hogue with the beginnings of a wilderness home life (“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away!”).

But first Webb debarks in mid-conversation to “water my mule” or “count my money” (whichever thematic cue you prefer), and the ensuing comic montage of image and sound is as intricate as any to be found in a Peckinpah shoot-up. Hogue inquires as to his exact whereabouts and is advised that he is halfway between the towns of Deaddog and Gila (which mayor may not be the same place as Lizard). The off-screen splashing of Webb’s urine (a cinematic first?) tinklingly punctuates Hogue’s first location of himself in civilized space, and also anticipates some of the raunchy details of his pending courtship of a five-dollar whore named Hildy (Stella Stevens): a flung bottle of whiskey that lands in a pile of horse manure, and a chamberpot that transmutes from improvized weapon to token of love. Currency is fluid in this film. Nothing and nobody stands still for labels of value.

Cable Hogue’s name also goes on water in this movie, in the form of Cable Springs. More quirkily to the point, both Cable and water are spelled with an “le” in Hogue’s vocabulary (WATLE — 10¢ a drink); and learning, while registering at the land office, how to spell his name (if not necessarily water) is only one small sign of how The Ballad of Cable Hogue is about growth and spiritual improvement. This process is carried on without regard for conventional niceties, which is only fitting. Water itself is gregarious. It saves life and helps make Hogue “a rich son-of-a-bitch instead of a poor one.” But it is also suitable for either spitting or pissing on graves, removing the stink of the desert to make lovemaking more pleasurable, providing the liquid base for more interesting beverages, and supplying both literary and visual figures to express continuity and connections: “the River” at which hymn-singing congregations (in this and other Peckinpah films) may gather, the sluice that joins Cable and Hildy in the rapturous “Butterfly Mornings” montage, the windmill that terminates the long, elaborate dissolve passage celebrating Hogue’s “waiting” (in the distance, the stagecoach describing a rhyming curve as it carries the objects of Hogue’s sedentary quest nearer), and “the whole torrent of the years” of which Hogue—and the rangy time-scheme of the ballad bearing his name—finally becomes a part.

The style and texture of the film bear out this gregariousness. Peckinpah seems willing to try just about anything to break away from conventional notions of linearity and (the dread sound of the word) progress. He splits and compartmentalizes the screen, he overlaps images, he speeds up the motion, he strews the dialogue remnants of a sequence over images that suggest that a filmmaker has “no thin’ but time”; and he can compress hours into minutes, and make minutes seem like hours if he wants to.

Categories are denied their accustomed absoluteness. Let Samuel D. Bowen talk and he starts to sing. Let Cable Hogue pray and he starts giving orders. Let two drunken, lecherous guys start running up the outside stairs of a combination saloon-whorehouse and the whanging piano of Arizona Hogan (Richard Gillis) inside the building seems to “score” their comic climb. During the “Butterfly Mornings” sequence, sometimes the players’ lips are moving to the syllables of the lyrics, and at other times they are not, as if the life they’re living were the song (as, of course, it is). What such techniques result in sounds like a paradox, but then Cable Hogue is full of antinomy and paradox; what such techniques result in is an earned freedom and spontaneity.

Peckinpah is willing to mislead us now and again, purposefully. Cable’s first customer becomes the desert casualty he might have been, and we cut from his death to a shot of Cable digging a deep, approximately man-sized hole. Our natural supposition is that this will be the man’s grave. But we are mistaken, as is the Reverend Joshua Duncan Sloane, a self-styled frontier sophisticate who assumes it is the beginnings of a wine cellar. No, Hogue has another sort of distillation in mind: “It’s a three-holer. I’m expectin’ a lot of business.”

Later in the film two other men, digging for treasure, effectively do dig their own graves in this “cactus Eden.” And Cable, who began the film on such intimate terms with a gila monster, and subsequently became an exemplary hotelier specializing in rattlesnake meat, has sufficiently tamed the Serpent that he can freely enlist his aid as grotesque projectile. Hogue himself in that scene seems superhuman; we can understand or follow his movements scarcely better than Taggart and Bowen, the men in his trap, and in Peckinpah’s montage he is only a spectral, heat-wavy, supremely mysterious figure—the way God might have looked to Cable earlier if he’d glanced up through the desert sandstorm (and seen Sam Peckinpah on a camera crane!).

* * *

The Ballad of Cable Hogue was completed before the release of The Wild Bunch and the onset of the controversy over Peckinpah’s aesthetic (ir)responsibility. We know from Max Evans’ book (Sam Peckinpah: Master of Violence) that it was a difficult shoot, yet this film is possessed of a serenity of spirit and wholeness of form to be found nowhere else in the director’s fascinatingly tortured oeuvre.

At a time when the American cinema was characterized by bitter antipathy to the very notion of being American, Peckinpah could film a quiet, deeply moving scene like the one when the stage company gives Hogue an American flag to raise above his oasis. (The Flag has fifty stars on it. One wonders whether the 1969 release date of Easy Rider fell early enough to account for Peckinpah’s gesture of demystification in having proto-hippie Josh Sloane appear for the film’s climax on a motorcycle, which he shruggingly identifies as “just a means of transportation.”) At this point in his career, Peckinpah could even allow himself a Capitalist figure, banker Cushing (Peter Whitney), who is a good man capable of perceiving that the disreputable-looking Cable Hogue is indeed “worth something,” and underwriting his vision. Of course, banker Cushing’s wall also sports a poster for the evangelical tent show he himself deplores (public relations) and a calendar featuring the image of one of the new motorcars that will, in an improbable, inevitable accident, roll over Cable Hogue—who is saving the life of a man he would have killed.

If one moment can be said to epitomize the particular grace of this film, it is the twilight scene when Hildy detours from her journey to San Francisco to share Cable’s bed. As she dons her nightgown in the cabin, Cable shaves at a mirror outside, the last gold of sunset tinging a butte beyond him. “Never bother you none what I am?” Hildy calls. “No, I enjoyed it. What the hell are ya? Human being. Try the best we can. We all got our own ways of livin’.” “And lovin’?” “Gets mighty lonesome without it.” She appears in the door, backlighted by the glow of an oil lamp. “Now that is a picture,” Cable says. Hildy replies, “You’ve seen it before.” “Lady, nobody’s ever seen it before.” And as he strides toward her, we can see that the gold on the butte has died. Or not died: moved inside with Hildy. The riches of Cable Hogue are forever new.

© 1981 Richard T. Jameson