[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
At a basic level, Peckinpah’s is a cinema of oppositions. When one thinks of Westerns, a genre whose configurations and conventions Peckinpah has done a lot to redefine, one tends to reduce moral tensions to a simple antagonism between forces good and evil—something Peckinpah’s films emphatically don’t do. In Jr. Bonner, the kind of moral tension that operates between Buck Roan (Ben Johnson), a onetime cowboy who has become a notably successful businessman and smalltown icon, and Jr. (Steve McQueen), a middleaged cowboy who is having trouble winning, indexes the complexity of Peckinpah’s ideas about heroism and morality. There is a scene early in the film in which Jr.* goes into a saloon in his hometown of Prescott, Arizona, for a drink, and discovers Buck sitting in a corner booth. Jr. sits down and makes a pitch to Buck to fix things so that he’ll ride the bull Sunshine in the rodeo and hopefully win back some of his flagging self-esteem. (Sunshine is a bad bull who has thrown Jr. before; the cowboy is absolutely not seeking an easy ride.) Buck says, “I ain’t goin’ to make a living off somebody else’s pride,” and in the near-mythic uprightness of those few words lurks an inherent set of values that, on the one hand, stands opposed to the waywardness of Jr.’s pragmatic individualism, but that, on the other hand, suggests the same kind of dauntless adherence to archaic codes that lends the doomed Romanticism of Jr. Bonner an almost celebratory force. Buck and Jr. are two of a kind, cut from the same mythic block, even though they seem to be at odds about the means of maintaining their ways of life.
Peckinpah’s characters do not readily yield to neat moral dichotomizing. Identity is the main positive force in Peckinpah’s films, but equally crucial is the moral attitude it embodies, or from which it derives. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue, we tend to forget that Hogue’s persevering out in the desert has as much to do with a somewhat nasty urge to avenge his having been cast out as it does with more enduringly admirable qualities like his love for Hildy and his societally utilitarian, and quite affable, capitalistic tendencies. Hogue (Jason Robards) is sustained in equal parts by forces which are destructive as well as those which are constructive, life-giving. Inherent in Peckinpah’s Westerns is the same dissociation of heroism from simplistic moral attitudes which figures as an essential premise in earlier Westerns by directors like Ford, Hawks, Mann, and Fuller. One has only to think of The Searchers, Red River, The Naked Spur, and Run of the Arrow to realize that the informing qualities of the modern Western protagonist include a sense of alienation, crippling flaws, blind spots, and weaknesses proportionate to the potentially tragic stature of the characters.
In Peckinpah’s Westerns from Ride the High Country through Jr. Bonner, identity clings to lives and lifestyles that seem perennially on the road to extinction. But the plight of the Peckinpah “hero,” residing in a world where even the notion of heroism is ambiguous, is more complicated than the simple fact of his propensity to vanish from the historical scene. Peckinpah’s films ultimately seek to reconcile the necessity and the futility of a Romantic worldview, a dialectic which is important in evaluating Peckinpavian morality and, subsequently, in understanding Peckinpah’s characters within that context. The two sides of that dialectic are often manifested in different characters within a given film: Jr. and Buck here, Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Ride the High Country‘s Steve Judd and Gil Westrum. All these pairs in some way suggest unities; they are seen not as separate entities inherently antagonistic, but as outgrowths of the same passing world who have been unnaturally wrenched into positions of fatal contravention.
While Peckinpah almost always deals with the tension between past and present (both in a historic sense and in the sense that his films are to some degree reflections upon his previous films), his movies are tightly constructed around less readily apparent but equally important oppositions: freedom and compromise, communication and confrontation, repose and violence, myth and reality. The ideas of time and change unify these concerns, provide them with a focus. Peckinpah is always very conscious of the temporal aspects of his movies, and not only in that the seemingly uncontrollable forces of change pose a threat to the survival of his characters. Time is a narrative variable as well as an historical measure, and temporal disorientation is often engendered on a technical and stylistic level, especially as a means of depicting violent action (slowmotion deathdances intercut with normal-speed surrounding action). But disorientation needn’t imply disorganization, or obvious chaos, the way the ragged discontinuity occasioned by Godardian jump cuts creates a conspicuous effect. Peckinpah’s subtlest disorientations serve as fluid, integrating gestures.
A scene from Jr. Bonner illustrates Peckinpah’s persistent manipulation of film time and space. Early in the film, Jr. goes out to his father Ace Bonner’s land and finds that the countryside is being scraped raw by an army of machines (Ace’s old shack, still containing a few tawdry artifacts and personal memorabilia, is bulldozed away a few minutes after Jr. has glanced inside). At a particular point in the sequence there is a closeup of Jr. near the shack; he suddenly turns his head—a movement we expect to be followed by a point-of-view shot looking down towards his car. But in fact the next shot we see is of Jr. in his car, from what is obviously no personal POV perspective, and he’s heading straight into the middle of that seemingly carnivorous destruction/construction site where brother Curly Bonner’s Reata Rancheros are destined to occupy living-space. A few moments later we see a caterpillar tractor bearing down on Jr.’s car; cut from that to another cat actually crashing through Ace’s shack, completing the momentum of the sequence with a bit of violence whose cinematic proximity to the previous shot (across the distance of a cut) lends a sharp, paranoiac immediacy to Jr.’s predicament even though his car, his vehicle of transportation between rodeos, doesn’t actually get demolished.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue is filled with such stylistic oddities and temporal-spatial irregularities, constantly making us aware of the film’s modicum of patly objective realism, but just as persistently tugging us into exclusively cinematic illusion. Cable Hogue’s death affords an important instance of the sometimes eerie continuity that pulls us through time without a flicker of regard for its integrity. Hogue is lying on his golden bed out under the afternoon desert sky, surrounded by his friends. The Rev. Joshua Duncan Sloane (David Warner), at Hogue’s request, begins to intone a premature eulogy; Peckinpah cuts to the same setup at a more dusky hour, the only difference being that Josh is now indeed standing over Cable’s grave completing the eulogy in earnest. The group breaks up, Josh roaring away into the night on the motorcycle that he says is “just a means of transportation” but now seems like some metaphysical conveyance into the unknowableness of the future. Hildy’s car drives off toward New Orleans, and the stagecoach—which would have had no more demand for Cable Springs, as the new West has no more need for the stagecoach—disappears in the opposite direction, drawn back into the obscurity of the past.
Thus, Hogue’s death is part of a stylistically generated illusion (a time gap bridged by Josh’s voiceover), associating his very demise with the highly malleable quantities of cinematic time and reality—a correlation that nicely complements Hogue’s tenuous position on the historical continuum in life. Death (and the frequent fellow-traveler violence) often finds its way to the center of Peckinpah’s world, but in The Ballad of Cable Hogue the director makes use of basic stylistic elements to temper its rampancy. His kinetic editing—characteristic of all Peckinpah films, particularly in scenes of destruction or when the death toll is rising—now becomes an almost playful manipulation of the medium, with more emphasis on making us aware of different kinds of time—narrative, historical, cinematic—than on providing us with visceral consummations of violent tension.
Earlier scenes prefigure the kind of stylistic playfulness that gives Hogue’s death its surreal quality. While Joshua and Cable are building a shack on the latter’s land, we see Joshua taking time out on an old mattress while Hogue hammers on the frame of the house. Josh says something to Cable and the camera cuts to Cable alone, who answers and swings his head around and up and continues talking. We cut to Josh, who is now perched on the roof of a more nearly completed version of the shack. The conversational progression makes perfect sense, but the way it is visualized has little to do with what we think is possible within the limit of our mundane conception of time and space. But its power to imply a continuity that resides only in the world of the film (or in the world of the imagination) is an achievement of purely cinematic expression in a movie that, even in partaking of its own mortality, at least momentarily transcends it.
Another strange aspect of the death motif in The Ballad of Cable Hogue is its obliqueness. There are a couple of relatively straightforward killings in the film—the guy Cable guns down early on when he fails to come up with the ten cents it costs for a drink from Cable Springs, and one of the two false partners who strand Cable in the desert in the first place—but there are also a number of deaths that creep in from the far corners of the story, deaths that we hear about only via secondhand accountings: the brother of the grieving woman Josh tries to seduce (thinking it’s her husband whose death she’s learned of), Hildy’s husband who expired joyfully in bed in San Francisco. Hogue’s own death is reduced to black comedy. Its elliptical narration makes it seem like a dream set at the twilit edge of credibility, a mirage in the desert landscape. As much emphasis is placed on the demise of a fly that is quite pointedly exterminated by a land-office clerk, or a lizard that is shot to hell as the film opens, as on the deaths of the scoundrels Hogue perfunctorily shoots down, or even on the absurd and cosmically “sad” car accident with which the film’s undercurrent of mortality culminates.
Perhaps it is partially because Hogue’s death is so seemingly pointless, so maddeningly free of specific, human causes (do we blame the car? the System? God?) that the close-to-unbelievable fact of his passing assumes an almost ontological weightiness. Peckinpah is certainly playing around with ideas of cosmic significance, although it is hard to know how seriously to take him. For instance, early in the film, just as Cable is about to discover water in the middle of a sandstorm, there is a very odd shot from somewhere about thirty feet above the desert floor, looking directly down on Hogue’s insignificantly procumbent form as though gazing into the depths of some undersea world. Aside from the purely visual jar of being catapulted into a weird point-of-view, there is a feeling that we have been given a vague nudge into the realm of the metaphysical. An unexplainable and unsettling intimation of both omniscience and omnipotence seeps down from that height where no camera has any business being. Cable Hogue does have about it a strong sense of religiosity: not the conventional, churchy varietyâ€”something Peckinpah makes clear from the start, when a peevish, unsympathetic clergyman with wife in tow pulls up in that ever-returning stagecoach and warbles on about the evils of drink, etc.â€”but a more organic sensation of human importance closely linked to Peckinpah’s concern with identity. If Hogue’s essence seems to linger even after he’s been covered with the earth of Cable Springs (there is something disturbingly Hogue-like about that lone coyote snooping around Cable’s abandoned well like some vigilant reincarnation), he virtually eked identity from the very landscape surrounding him while he was alive, blending his mythic presence with the primal constants of wind, earth, and water. Scarcely a scene goes by in which Hogue doesn’t tell somebody he is Hogue, and if no one is around to convince he’ll yell it into the desert, as though he’s aware of the fact that he belongs to a species—perhaps is a species—on the brink of extinction, about to be pushed forever aside. Hogue’s preoccupation with identity, with his claim to a piece of the world, is something that, like Cable himself, shouldn’t be taken lightly; for Cable Hogue is a movie that is very much about identity, just as it is very much about time, about death, about Westerns, and in some way about Sam Peckinpah.
In Jr. Bonner, Peckinpah treats mortality with a poetic, respectful silence and restraint. Indeed, literal death does not occur in the film; but the metaphoric deaths of ways of life, types of men, and no longer viable values converge to form a resonant texture of decline, of a sort of insidious change which Peckinpah’s heroes infrequently, survive whether, as in the case of Jr. Bonner, their demise takes the figurative form of being caught in the antagonistic flow of time and change or, as in Cable Hogue, the antagonism rears up in a tangible form capable of bringing about physical death. The stylistic playfulness of Cable Hogue is, in Jr. Bonner, the solemn (but gentle) means by which Peckinpah is again able to define mortality in cinematic terms. Just after the barroom brawl in the Palace Saloon we move to the backstairs where Ace (Robert Preston) is telling Ellie (Ida Lupino), the wife he has run out on before and is about to leave for the likely last time, of his wild scheme for digging gold in Australia. As the scene concludes, the camera pulls slowly back so that we can see them going on up the stairway that seemingly leads nowhere (although their purpose is to spend the afternoon making love in farewell to each other). At the top, an ancient man in an undershirt leans like a presage of old age over the railing and gazes into the yard. Ellie and Ace are already frozen in the time they can’t transcend, and all that remains is for them to be literally caught in their respective final freeze-frames: Ace isolated from Jr. (“Don’t you hear me, boy?” he yells), Ellie delivering her concluding line (“You had to win, didn’t you?”) from behind the closed screen door of the house Curly is about to sell. Mortality is a prime ingredient in Peckinpah’s world, but different kinds of pain comprise as large a part of the spiritual and physical order of things. In Jr. Bonner pain is expressed in the most sublime Peckinpavian manner, echoing the spiritual crippling of a fatally compromised Pat Garrett, but at the same time implying a moral assertiveness that suggests the Romantic vision of an anachronistic Steve Judd. Jr., in fact, is somewhere between the two, but the gap between him and the potential haven of a Romantic vision remains insurmountable. If Ace Bonner can be seen as a sort of latter-day Steve Judd, his distance from Jr. is suggested in the scene wherein two train engines pass between the men like a sudden, tangible exclamation of both their incorrigible individuality and their self-imposed isolation. Jr. cringes towards the camera, bent over with the pain his rodeo wounds are giving him, and as the rushing train engines fill the frame behind him their power and chaotic clatter seem to echo that pain, to assume part of what it is that does violence to Jr.’ s world. The chasm between father and son suddenly takes on a larger, historical dimension. The passing train engines, pulling relentlessly toward the future with nothing in tow but their own self-contained rules of motion, crystallize the essential unity of the personal and the historical in Peckinpah’s movies, as well as associating the idea of intangible violence and pain with a more visible articulation of change and “progress.”
Peckinpah’s consciousness of the past, his sense of historic awareness, often seems to contradict the Romanticism inherent in the mythic mold in which he would like to cast his protagonists. His most sympathetic characters—Jr. Bonner, Steve Judd, Billy the Kid—step out of the past carrying the baggage of outmoded lifestyles and philosophies, and the distance they cross is defined by the very changes that act to destroy them. Questioning the viability of legend (as in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) is one way in which Peckinpah expresses his ambivalence towards a past which is both Romantically ideal and historically true (hence abrasive and perpetually threatening). In Jr. Bonner, Peckinpah handles the ambiguities of the past by posing time as a moral index. About midway through the film, Jr. and the other bullriders are gathered around the entry table drawing bulls for the afternoon event. Jr., anxious about whether Buck has arranged his appointment with Sunshine, is nervously fingering the carriage of an old typewriter that sits on the table. His friend draws a mean bull, Jr. makes a crack, and the friend tells him to “just watch me, if you got the time.“ Jr. answers, “I got the time,” and just as his name is matched with Sunshine’s, Peckinpah cuts to a closeup of Jr.’s fingers spinning the typewriter carriage. The simple juxtaposition of imagery and dialogue suggests a variety of possible interpretations, all closely tied to one another. First and foremost, what has actually happened makes us wonder about Buck’s moral stature: he rigged the drawing, plain and simple. Peckinpah has consciously made it difficult for us to come up with a tidy ethical evaluation of Buck’s doings. In this light, the references to time take on moral dimension. And indeed, a central element of the Peckinpah myth is the temporal relativity of morality; the environment of the present is something from which Peckinpah’s heroes can no longer derive sustenance and identity. Jr.’s maverick individuality (a residue of the myth of the past) finds expression partly in his decision to sacrifice moral integrity (the reality of a fallen present); while he is in some sense “free,” he is also fixed in this particular, imperfect place and time that both defines and limits his individuality. He has time-“nothing but time,” as in Cable Hogue’s temporally liberated universeâ€”only as a man who doggedly retains those vestiges of a Romantic existence in a world where such quixotic gestures seem not tragic, but irrelevant.
In all of Peckinpah’s Westerns there is a lyrical sense of nostalgia pulling us back into the past. But the feeling of irredeemable eras slipping hopelessly away is counterbalanced by the director’s constant attempts to redefine history in his own terms, just as Cable Hogue symbolically christens his turn-of-the-century domain by hoisting a conspicuously 50-starred version of the American Flag. If pessimism colors one aspect of Peckinpah, his distrust of the future is tempered by his genuine respect for the pastâ€”which itself becomes both a source of value and an index of change and, by implication, of loss. While the structure and movement of Cable Hogue manifests an almost symphonic coherence, there is at the same time a shaky sense of fragmentation, of fuzzy disorientation and incongruity in the way its historical setting seems to wander through various physical and ideological territories. None of the peculiar trappings of civilization really seem to belong to Cable’s world, nor do any of the more traditional symbols of the West as well as the Western seem any longer of viable significance. Peckinpah takes the iconography of the Western and bends it in a way that makes the stagecoach seem finally as out of place as the automobile, and both as oddly misplaced as the golden bed Hogue’s friends carry outside and then stand around while he passes away. In Jr. Bonner there is almost an air of chivalry being tentatively redefined through the way the characters communicate with one another. Ace meets his old friend Roy and they talk about old times over the back of Jr.’s horse; just as Ace swings up into the saddle, Roy simply but gallantly drifts aside, out of the frame, keeping their distance a constant. Nothing needs to be said. It is just something that happens in Peckinpah’s world. Even in Ellie’s simple utterance to Jr. that it “figures” he’d be going up to the hospital to see Ace (after she and he have had a reunion over milk and apple pie!), there is both the quiet understanding of someone who knows how things stand as well as the hint of a stylized reticence that suggests a slightly outmoded directness we might more readily have associated with the landscapes of unspoken heroism in Ford’s West.
The historical disjointedness of The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and of Peckinpah’s cinematic world in general, is perhaps the most visible manifestation of the thematically and stylistically dialectical quality of his work. Cable Hogue is a film that moves through time and space as though gliding through a lucid realm of consciousness. But it is also a film that seems very much to be rooted in time—in history, or some stylized conception of it—and there is always a notable sense of minutes, days, years, even eras creeping or, as the case may be, swooping past. Cable stumbles out of the wilderness and onto a set of wagon tracks stretching in both directions like an emblem of unrealized possibility but also, simultaneously, of impinging realities that will limit and exterminate the likes of Cable Hogue. When Cable rides into town, insidious-looking power lines are strung overhead (“Cable” himself is a sort of wire strung between Then and Now, halfway between two worlds) and an electric streetlight stands right in front of Hildy’s place. Later a car will come out of nowhere in the desert and pass by a whimpering, underwear-clad Samuel D. Bowen (Strother Martin), who screams for help but is ignored by the occupants who laugh at that funny man as though they couldn’t (and they don’t, and can’t) care less about the mortal drama taking place just outside their self-enclosed vehicle that drifts indifferently out of one period of history and into another. And finally, of course, there is the car that will run across Cable Hogue, who dies trying to save the man he’d lived to kill.
Jr. Bonner is likewise distinctly pitted with highly visible expressions of antagonism and contradiction. The title character lives in a world where facing off with whatever it is you’ve got to come to terms with holds the sole key to surviving with a degree of self-respect, and a number of scenes in the film vividly index the importance of confrontation through often striking visual compositions: e.g. Jr. and the bull Sunshine trying to psyche one another out across the width of the anamorphic screen, Jr. ‘s very real danger of being demolished by a be-goggled cat driver who has about as much sympathy with prideful hometown heroes as Sunshine does. But confrontation in Peckinpah’s movies is balanced by the communicative efforts of his characters. Merely the way his people talk to one anotherâ€”using words chosen with a sometimes epigrammatic sparenessâ€”emphasizes the necessity of directness in speech, and also implies the presence of a basic stratum of truth. All that Ace can say when Jr. tells him that Curly (Joe Don Baker) is going to sell the old house in town and put Ellie into a curio shop is: “Curly’s done right well”—words that are inescapably true in an economic sense, but suggest a situation that is morally wrong, or at least unjust. But in fact the sole purpose of confronting one another, or confronting some kind of truth, is to be able to communicate. When]r. and the rodeo groupie (Barbara Leigh) sit in a telephone booth while the brawl goes on outside in the Palace Saloon, the touch is light (the brawl itself is presented as rough-and-tumble comedy) but the mise-en-scene is thematically pertinent: we use telephones to talk to one another.
Communication is a step towards resolution, and the ways in which oppositions are resolved (if they are resolved) provide the core of meaning and experience in Peckinpah’s movies. But there are no easy answers. No simple catchphrases will suffice to define the moral ground on which Peckinpah’s characters tread, or to delineate poles of behavior by which we can neatly categorize them into slots of good and bad. All those faceoffs in Jr. Bonner aptly figure the often palpable tensions at work in Peckinpah’s films, but one shouldn’t regard them as symbols of static opposition. Neither is what happens to people in these films a simple matter of the individual vs. the horde, or a clear dichotomy between the past and the future. The recognition of complex interplay is crucial to an understanding of—and to understanding among—Peckinpah’s characters, who, like Jr. Bonner, sometimes find compromise a necessity even in travelling down their own roads.
* While referring in print to the protagonist as “Jr.” seems a form of typographical shorthand, the evidence in the film indicates that “Junior” would be less appropriate. The name carries no connotations of babishness in the movie, “Jr.” is what appears on the cowboy’s horse trailer, and, often as not, “Jay-Are” is what he answers to.
© 1976 Rick Hermann
The author would like to express his appreciation to Lindsay Michimoto for her editorial assistance in the preparation of this article.
THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE (1970)
Direction: Sam Peckinpah. Screenplay: John Crawford and Edmund Penney. Cinematography: Lucien Ballard. Editing: Frank Santillo, Lou Lombardo. Music: Jerry Goldsmith; songs: Richard Gillis. Production: Peckinpah; executive: Phil Feldman.
The players: Jason Robards, Stella Stevens, David Warner, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, Slim Pickens, Max Evans, Peter Whitney, R.G. Armstrong, Vaughn Taylor, Gene Evans, Susan O’Connell, William Mims, Kathleen Freeman, Richard Gillis, James Anderson, Matthew Peckinpah, Easy Pickens.
JR. BONNER (1972)
Direction: Sam Peckinpah. Screenplay: Jeb Rosebrook. Cinematography: Lucien Ballard. Music: Jerry Fielding.
The players: Steve McQueen, Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Joe Don Baker, Ben Johnson, Mary Murphy, Barbara Leigh, Bill McKinney, Dub Taylor, Don “Red” Barry.