The Archivist #66: The Softer Side of Peckinpah with THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE (1970)

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and Blu-ray discs (which, unlike the DVDs, are factory pressed rather than burned). Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

For many movie lovers, the name Sam Peckinpah brings to mind the legacy of “Bloody Sam” — a tough world of shifty morals, scowling antiheroes, and violent shootouts. While the director’s success was sporadic and fans vary in citing favorites from his oeuvre — many of which have been widely reappraised — it’s 1969’s bloody outlaw tale The Wild Bunch that has emerged as his historically most successful and appreciated, and which most directly colors our perception of the director’s work.

After The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah followed with perhaps his most dissimilar film, at least tonally. The Ballad Of Cable Hogue is another western, and it might look similar thanks to cinematography by The Wild Bunch’s Lucien Ballard and familiar faces including Strother Martin, Slim Pickens, L. Q. Jones, and R. G. Armstrong, but it’s a very different kind of film, and a rarer look at the director’s softer side.

Jason Robards is primarily known as a supporting actor with only a sprinkling of starring roles, but if Cable Hogue isn’t his best character, then he’s certainly the biggest: a hardscrabble but easy-going man who is introduced to the audience by two reversals of fortune. Left to die of thirst in the desert by his treacherous partners, he finds life at death’s door in the form of a previously unknown well.

That well, positioned on a stagecoach line halfway between two distant towns, enables him to build a homestead and business, as a pit stop for travelers and their horses to quench their thirst. He soon strikes up two new friendships, with itinerant preacher and unrepentant hedonist Reverend Joshua (the always welcome David Warner) who joins his employ, and adorable prostitute Hildy (the always welcome Stella Stevens), with whom he falls deeply in love.

But despite his new home, friends, and sudden influx of wealth, his new happiness won’t be sustainable forever — Hildy dreams of a big city lifestyle, and deep inside the hunger for revenge against his former partners still eats away at his soul.

After ambling along pleasingly with very little conflict (except to serve as comedy), the third act forces Cable and the audience to reconcile with the temporality of his happy existence, with reflections on personal sacrifice, love, and even forgiveness. It’s weird stuff for a Peckinpah film, but it’s also exactly the right stuff.

The Package

The Ballad of Cable Hogue was released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive on June 6, where it joins Peckinpah’s Ride The High Country on the label.

It’s worth noting that this presentation also has all-caps subtitles, which were met with fan criticism with Ride The High Country.

Special Features and Extras

The Ladiest Damn’d Lady (27:00)
“An Afternoon with Stella Stevens”. A long-format interview of Cable Hogue’s leading lady, directed by Nick Redman. Stella is of course wonderful and the material is of interest, discussing the film, her career, and of course Peckinpah. But this treatment is bizarrely annoying from a video perspective. The 16:9 shaped material was apparently matted on 4:3 for older TVs, but rather than being opened back up to widescreen for the Blu-ray, it’s actually been made worse — thoughtlessly pillarboxed, ensuring it will have 4 black bars on any screen.

Theatrical Trailer (2:58)

Feature Commentary by Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle
As with most Peckinpah Blu-ray releases, this usual gang of historians provides an engaging audio commentary.

Parting Thoughts

I’ve seen most of Sam Peckinpah’s films and consider myself a fan, but The Ballad Of Cable Hogue was a personal blind spot until the release of the Warner Archive Blu-ray. The film has an underlying sweetness and affection for its very flawed characters that makes it undeniably endearing. It’s an outlier for Peckinpah that has immediately become one of my favorites.

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
The Ballad of Cable Hogue — [Blu-ray] | [Instant]

Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have slight compression inherent to file formats. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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