THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE was director Sam Peckinpah’s next feature after blasting open controversy with The Wild Bunch. Another western where the frontier changes to meet the modern age at cost to the people involved, but unlike the fury of the 1969 classic, this 1970 ramble goes for whimsy rather than rampage, with a body count of a mere three (and a splattered Gila monster). Though some critics and a few fans liked the musing, it was initially a commercial dud (co-star Stella Stevens commented that “Warner Brothers didn’t release it, they flushed it”), but time saw its reputation rise. *
The Arizona desert in the early 1900s. Left alone by his greedy partners to perish in the sun-baked wasteland, rough-hewn and honest prospector ‘Cable Hogue’ (Jason Robards) makes a miraculous discovery of a waterhole. That not only keeps him alive but whets the idea for a way-station to supply passing stagecoaches and travelers. Over a few years, with help from a randy itinerant preacher, ‘Rev. Joshua Duncan Sloane’ (David Warner), and romantic relief from kind-hearted prostitute ‘Hildy’ (Stella Stevens), ‘Cable Springs’ becomes a going concern and the part-philosophical/part-practical Hogue a part of the area community. Can good luck continue?
REVEREND: “Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord.” CABLE: “Well, that’s fair enough with me… just as long as he don’t take too long and I can watch.”
Written with rowdy old-style country flavor by character actor John Crawford and Edmund Penney; as directed, it’s a hit & miss array of character vignettes. Some of the ruminations and teases are sly and charming, others clunky and obvious: the sped-up-film farce bits fall flat and the p.c. sensitive will find much to irk them, but…who gives a hoot in hell? Lackadaisical and lyrical, touching and clumsy, it’s uneven and overlong at 121 minutes but the sturdy cast, atmospheric settings and simple, elegiac scoring keep it mostly on track to a poetically fitting conclusion.
Robards is fine, crusty and gentle, determined and brusque (though it sounds like much of his dialogue was post-dubbed, which distracts some) and it’s a nice change to see Warner not only play a halfway-decent person but allowed enough room to create a fully-rounded character. Fresh off being craven slime in The Wild Bunch, Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones stay grungy in order to have and eat their cake as the bad-penny partners. More reliable veteran support is on hand with the likes of Slim Pickens, Peter Whitney, R.G. Armstrong and Gene Evans. Best in the cast is the too-often overlooked 60s fave Stella Stevens, who has one of her meatiest roles as hooker Hildy, sexy and sage, hopeful, hurt and healing: a career high-point. **
Jerry Goldsmith wrote the spare score, but the soundtrack background applause belongs to singer-songwriter Richard Gillis whose “Tomorrow Is The Song I Sing”, “Butterfly Morning” and “Wait For Me, Sunrise” add much quiet, unforced emotion.
Credit is also due cameraman Lucien Ballard’s lensing of parched scenic locations in Arizona (Gold Canyon, Superstition Mountains, Tortilla Flat, Apache Junction), Nevada (Overton,Valley Of Fire) and New Mexico (outside Sante Fe).
Weather and typical cantankerous Peckinpah working style (firing 36 people, boozing) saw the budget run to $3,716,946, so lagging at 41st place for the year was not a healthy result. Cogerson lists its gross as $7,400,000, other sources have it at $5,000,000.
With Vaughan Taylor, Susan O’Connell, William Mims, Kathleen Freeman, Max Evans and James Anderson.
* Peckinpah: “I am always criticized for putting violence in my films, but it seems that when I leave it out nobody bothers to see the picture.” Of his 14 feature films as director, just three were box-office successes (The Wild Bunch at #20 in 1969, Straw Dogs #27 for 1971 and The Getaway a big hit at #7 in 1972); most fared as poorly, or much worse, than ‘Cable Hogue’. The budget overrun on this film, (which included a bar tab for the crew that came to $70,000—a sloshing $489,000 in 2019 bucks) put the director in dire straits with the suits at Warner Brothers (echoing his earlier trouble with Columbia on Major Dundee), so he headed to England for his next exploration/exorcism, the stunning thriller Straw Dogs.
Film buffs who know their cars may smile when they realize that the jalopy that ends the story is ‘The Leslie Special’, from The Great Race, another Warner Brothers picture.
Peckinpah fans note this is the 4th of five times L.Q. Jones showed up for Sam and the 4th of five times his character was killed off. Good ‘ol L.Q. on Peckinpah: “There are three or four or five directors who are sheer genius in what they do, and Sam is certainly one of those….. And as much as I think Sam’s a genius, I also think he’s a fucking idiot. But then, it takes a genius to fuck up in the idiotic ways he does. Everybody hates Sam; everybody loves Sam.”
** Stella Stevens, 31 at the time, drew her best-ever role in this little-seen picture, mostly known to aficionados of the director. One-time native of Hot Coffee, Mississippi, 3-time Playboy Playmate Stella lent knowing charm, bright intelligence and bountiful sex appeal to The Nutty Professor, The Silencers, The Poseidon Adventure, numerous other films and many TV shows.