Stella Stevens and Jason Robards in a sweet love story directed by Sam (THE WILD BUNCH) Peckinpah. Yes, you read that right.
It will come as no surprise that Sam Peckinpah is a filmmaker whose body of work I mostly hold in very high esteem (let us not make mention of THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND), yet in recent weeks I realized I had not yet seen all of his films. Setting out in earnest to correct that gaping hole in my cinematic education, I ordered some of what I had not seen from Amazon and what awaited me was a pair of very pleasant surprises. I'll get to discussing RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY soon, but before that I thought I'd show some love to THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE, easily the most atypical of Peckinpah's films and one of the most under-appreciated and misunderstood.
Coming a year after his fantastically violent (for its time) and simultaneously artistic THE WILD BUNCH (1969), THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE is a work that seems almost intentionally calculated to piss off audiences whose blood thirst was catered to with Peckinpah's previous film. It's a western alright, but when you look at it it's really a love story that happens to have a western setting. Yes, you read that right: a love story directed by Sam Peckinpah, a complex filmmaker and man whose work and person have been labeled as misogynistic innumerable times over the past four decades.
Rated R for no good reason — it would get a PG-13 if submitted to the MPAA these days — THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE is the story of the title character (played by Jason Robards in an outstanding and totally believable performance), a man whose "friends" (L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin) strand him in the desert with no water, yet, after a few day's trek through blistering heat and a sandstorm, he discovers a watering hole and survives to profit from it. After setting up a dinky makeshift way-station where he charges ten cents per drink — the nearest water for horses and carriage passengers is twenty miles in either direction — Hogue meets a sleazy and rather fraudulent traveling preacher (David Warner, in the first of three collaborations with Peckinpah) who gives him the idea of staking a legal claim on the land where the water is. Venturing into the nearest town to make said claim, Hogue lays eyes on Hildy (Stella Stevens in her finest role), a local whore, and in no time Hogue finds himself deeply smitten by her. There are other sub-plots, the most significant one involving Hogue's firm belief that the sons of bitches who left him to die will some day end up at the watering hole and in Hogue's vengeance-seeking clutches, but the film belongs to the romance of Hogue and Hildy, and if ever there were a film featuring a believable "whore with a heart of gold," this is it. The two snags in all of this are Hildy's disapproval of Hogue's plan for vengenace, something that does not sit well with her or the audience because Hogue is clearly not a killer, and Hildy's goal to leave the remote desert town for the high life in San Francisco, a path that will spell the end of a relationship that's a truly beautiful thing to behold. The sweet Hogue treats Hildy like the lady she very obviously is, her vocation as a whore not mattering to him one bit, and his kindness to and respect for her affect the woman deeply, an aspect of the tale that also touches the audience. Stevens deserved an Oscar for her performance, as did Robards, and their romance is a great example of the oft-seen but seldom believable cinematic trope of true love. The montage that illustrates Hildy and Hogue's blossoming relationship once she moves in with him out in the middle of nowhere is both sweetly intimate and heartfelt, and considering my love of Peckinpah's testosterone-fueled cinema of violence and sheer manliness, you can imagine my surprise at discovering the director was capable of anything even remotely within that realm of appreciably tender humanity.
Along with the unlikely spectacle of a Peckinpah romance, the film is also loaded with the most humor in any Peckinpah film before or since, and, unlike many attempts at comedy within a western context, it actually works here to genuinely amusing effect. Hogue's dealings with officials in the town, Cable's initial encounter with Hildy and his subsequent fleeing from the saloon where she plies her trade, the preacher's "comforting" of a nubile and grieving young woman, and several other segments are quite funny and may be somewhat jarring to some those in the audience who expected a standard western, especially when taking into account the film's very straight and dead-serious opening five minutes and largely serious final fifth. It's something to keep in mind when approaching this film for the first time.
Considering how open, honest and tender THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE is, I would have loved to see Peckinpah return to the narrative well from which it sprang, but such was not to be. Peckinpah immediately followed THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE with 1971's STRAW DOGS, a vicious piece of work that more than any other earned him his rep as a misogynist (thanks to its infamous two-on-one rape scene) and remains highly controversial to this day. That film could not have been more of a polar opposite to CABLE HOGUE if it tried, and from then on Peckinpah remained firmly entrenched in the realm of ass-kicking uber-masculinity, forever more denying his potential for the more sensitive story to us he-men who are unafraid of and unashamed about our enjoyment of that which is romantic.
There is much about the film's plot particulars that I have not discussed in order not to spoil its myriad surprises for the first-timer, so I'll sum up by saying that this is a very special film from a director who handled elegiac looks at the old west like no other, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see a side of Sam Peckinpah that puts the lie to those who ignorantly slag him off as a macho shithead. With that in mind, I especially recommend THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE to any women who never gave Peckinpah a chance thanks to his mis-diagnosed misogyny or a dislike of westerns. TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!