Judge Ryan Keefer wonders that if Sam Peckinpah directed a film of his personal musings, perhaps this would be it.
"Ain't had no water since yesterday, Lord. Gettin' a little thirsty. Just thought I'd mention it. Amen."
The Ballad of Cable Hogue came hot on the heels of director Sam Peckinpah's smash hit The Wild Bunch. So much so, that initial screenings of The Wild Bunch were being conducted as principal photography of Hogue wrapped. Does The Ballad of Cable Hogue stand up as a solid follow-up work by the legendary director, or was it another one of many slip ups?
Facts of the Case
Cable Hogue (Jason Robards, All the President's Men) is robbed of his last bit of water and left for dead in the western deserts by Bowen and Taggart (Wild Bunch alumni Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones, respectively). After several days, he manages to find some water in a mud hole and decides to stake a claim for the land. A priest named Joshua (David Warner, Tron) finds and befriends him, but he soon goes into a town and files a claim, and meets a prostitute named Hildy (Stella Stevens, The Poseidon Adventure). He manages to grow his town of Cable Springs into a decent living, and things start to change when (through a chance encounter) he meets the people who robbed him out in the desert.
To sum up events based on David Weddle's biography If They Move, Kill 'Em!, Peckinpah purchased the rights to the screenplay and was going to shoot it as a tribute to his family members, including his grandfather, who staked a claim in the west before Sam was to set out on his own. Once on the set, the now-infamous erratic Peckinpah behavior came back to roost, along with logistical problems that hounded the cast and crew. The production finished behind schedule and over budget, and Warner Brothers, stung by all of the behind the scenes squabbles and Peckinpah's eccentricities, released the film without a lot of fanfare or publicity. This stung Peckinpah greatly, and in later years he stated that Hogue was his favorite film, perhaps his most personal work.
And it shows. Robards provided further insight as to why he was one of the better American actors over the last quarter century with a performance that has a lot of things going for it. He plays Cable as a man who was normally not religious, but only for his convenience. He provides toughness when it's required of him, and above all else, his comedic moments are done very well. As Hildy, Stevens actually does pretty well, and Warner's role as the priest who continually lusts after lonely women is funny, but in a somewhat creepy manner.
Peckinpah received some unfair treatment from some critics for his treatment of women, particularly in this film, but it seems like a somewhat unfounded criticism here. Women are put in tougher situations in other films of his, and the scene that people may think is exploitative isn't. Putting things into perspective, the shot was from Cable's point of view, a guy who hadn't seen a woman in God knows how long, and came into town to get his claim filed for land.
Getting back to Robards' performance, the other surprise is just how empathetic he looks when treated in a bad manner. His eyes really make you feel the struggle he goes through. Some of the humor is tongue in cheek and some of it appears to have some of the sensibility level of a Benny Hill episode. But considering that this film was done after Peckinpah's defining work (The Wild Bunch), it helps provides a contrast to his overall body of work, and is carried remarkably well. Even at its two hour length, the leisurely pace is actually quite enjoyable.
The extras on the DVD are informative and help add to the enjoyment of the viewing experience. Aside from the Peckinpah film trailers (and a James Dean Collection trailer) that appear on each recent Peckinpah western, the first extra is The Ladiest Damn Lady, an all-new interview with Stevens, as she discusses her career, the film, and working with Peckinpah and Robards. She was almost cast for The Getaway, but Peckinpah reconsidered, which is an interesting bit of trivia. Stevens has an interesting observation of Peckinpah where she would have liked to have seen him without his sunglasses, because he was "a liar," but overall she had some good things to say about him through this 25-minute piece. The back of the case advertises a vintage featurette called Sam Peckinpah's West: A Study of the Filmmaker, but I couldn't find it. A nice companion is the commentary that Weddle, along with fellow Peckinpah experts Garner Simmons (author of Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage), Paul Seydor (author of Peckinpah: The Western Films: A Reconsideration) and Nick Redman (director of several Peckinpah extras throughout the recent Warner Peckinpah DVDs, including A Simple Adventure Story: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico and The Wild Bunch). The gentlemen discuss some of the metaphors in the film and identify some of the tributes and nods the film gives. They also mention how effective Robards' internal discussions are (and they are), along with some of the performances in it. All in all, they enjoy watching this film, and it shows.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only thing missing from this DVD is the on-set documentary that Gary Weis (The Rutles) shot on the making of the film. I don't believe it was a finished documentary, as Weis' access was given because of his relationship to Peckinpah's daughter Sharon, and Sharon and Sam had a falling out during the production. Nevertheless, it certainly would have made for interesting viewing, in whatever condition it's in, though footage of it appears as an extra on the special edition of The Wild Bunch.
Those who enjoy Peckinpah's harder edged films will enjoy this nice change of pace. An overlooked film with some excellent performances, there's a good reason why the director enjoyed this film.
The court finds for the late director as a result of this underrated gem in his filmography and orders the public to rent this film and give it a much deserved second viewing.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary with biographers/historians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle
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