The Ballad of Cable Hogue (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Total spoilers

In 1969 and 1971, Sam Peckinpah made the two films which are generally considered his masterworks: The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971). In between them, he made The Ballad of Cable Hogue, a film which was largely ignored at the time and has been largely forgotten over the years, but which Peckinpah always considered his own favorite film. If you are familiar with this movie and with Peckinpah's career, you might be surprised to hear of his preference for it, because it is quite dissimilar to his other films. Oh, it is a Western; it features many members of his usual character actor repertory; and it covers some of Peckinpah's familiar territory: the end of the Wild West era of rugged individualism; but the similarities to his other films stop there. The most salient point can probably be summed up in the first adjective that comes to mind when I think of this film: "charming." Many positive adjectives have been used to characterize Peckinpah's work, but "charming" is not among them. That epithet is generally reserved for movies starring Cary Grant, or Maurice Chevalier, or Audrey Hepburn, yet it is the right word to summarize The Ballad of Cable Hogue.

You see, Hogue is a romantic comedy, and the lead characters even sing to one another! You could call it a musical without fear of angry rebuttal, because in addition to the sweet duet, it includes a lush musical score by Jerry Goldsmith, with a long vocal for the beginning and ending theme music. It is even edited like a musical, montage-style. You know how the characters in a musical often continue to sing the same song as they go from location to location and situation to situation? This film uses that same editing trick, except with conversations rather than songs. One character may ask another a question while they are unloading lumber to build a house, but the other answers from the rooftop as the house is half complete built, then back to the other as they apply the final touches to the completed house.

Yeah, I know that the concept of a Sam Peckinpah musical romance sounds like the premise for a Monty Python skin, but that's what this is and it's a damned entertaining and sometimes surprisingly tender movie. In fact, I agree with Peckinpah's judgment of it. I don't know that I would call this his "best" movie, but it's my favorite. Frankly, I don't even like the whole "best" discussion. I don't really know how to measure whether one movie is better than another, and I plan to stray away from that discussion until somebody gives me a set of working criteria that can help me evaluate whether Pulp Fiction is "better" than Fantasia. For the record, the best available objective criterion (IMDb rating) places Cable Hogue somewhere in the middle of Peckinpah's filmography.

  1. (8.09) - The Wild Bunch (1969)
  2. (7.59) - Straw Dogs (1971)
  3. (7.58) - Ride the High Country (1962)
  4. (7.39) - Cross of Iron (1977)
  5. (7.39) - The Getaway (1972)
  6. (7.38) - Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
  7. (7.28) - The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)
  8. (7.09) - Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
  9. (6.70) - Junior Bonner (1972)
  10. (6.61) - Major Dundee (1965)
  11. (6.42) - The Deadly Companions (1961)
  12. (5.96) - The Killer Elite (1975)
  13. (5.83) - The Osterman Weekend (1983)
  14. (5.82) - Convoy (1978)
  15. (4.59) - Jinxed! (1982)

In the beginning of the film, the prospector Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) is abandoned by his partners to die in the desert. He swears that if he ever gets out, he will hunt down the double-crossers and kill them. Pretty familiar Peckinpah territory so far. Now comes the severe right turn. Cable wanders through the desert for days until he stumbles upon an undiscovered water hole. Turns out his discovery is quite close to a stagecoach line,  and is the only water in a forty mile stretch of desert. Since Cable is an entrepreneur at heart, he buys the tiny tract of land and turns it into a rest stop for weary travelers. In the process of establishing his business, he treats everyone fairly, and 95% of them are fair to him. With the exception of one wayward baddie who truly needs killin', Cable doesn't have to do anything violent or ruthless to establish his claim to the land, to get financing from the bank, or to build his business in the wilderness. It's about 1909, and the lawless old West is basically gone, replaced by men and women who work out their differences rationally.

Cable falls in love with the fanciest fancy-lady (Stella Stevens) in the closest town, and they share many tender moments, but she is determined to make a better life for herself than Cable can offer her in his ramshackle desert home, so she wanders off to San Francisco to marry a rich man. Cable's heart is broken, but he's not the kind of guy to dwell on such matters. He gets back to work, and continues to wait for news of the two men who betrayed him.

The two men finally arrive, but Cable does not kill them immediately. He gives them a chance to walk away peacefully, but sets a trap to lure them back with the promise of buried riches. If they had not come back to rob him, Cable would have let them go. When they do come back to rob him, Cable does finally kill one, but ends up forgiving the other because the guy is a weakling who had always been under the thumb of the tough guy. In fact, Cable not only forgives him, but actually gives his waystation to the partner-turned-enemy-turned-partner, because the love of his life returns from San Francisco as a rich widow with ... an automobile! (Set the symbolism meter to .... changing of the West.)

I almost wish that the film had offered us that storybook ending filled with the reconciliation of the two men and the reunion of the lovers, but life is not so simple, and this is a movie about real, breathing characters. The ending is sad and the symbolism is a bit heavy-handed, but it's bittersweet rather than tragic. And charming, dammit, very charming! Especially Robards. I've never been a great fan of Jason Robards in general, even in films I like and admire, and I've always felt that his reputation far exceeded what he accomplished with his miniscule emotional range. That may be so, but he sure as hell nailed this role. Cable Hogue is one of the most interesting and complex characters ever to grace the screen, and Robards managed to deliver the role with a quirkiness that never stepped on the credibility. I ended up liking Cable immensely, and rooting for him every step of the way.  And even though Robards can't sing for shit, I even liked his duet with Stella Stevens, not just because she is naked at the time, but in the same sense that I liked Lee Marvin's crusty vocals in Paint Your Wagon - those two performances both seem to come from the heart of a masculine, tone-deaf character who would enjoy singing, and who would sing as well as he could if placed in exactly those situations. My dad was the same kind of guy - very manly, but loved to sing to himself, and couldn't. Robards captured that kind of guy perfectly. (His other duet, with the equally tone-deaf David Warner, is one of the worst examples of singing ever recorded on electronic media, but the two characters were supposed to be dead drunk at the time, so it's forgivable.)

The rest of the cast supports Robards soundly, and they had a good script to work from. The West of this film is filled with interesting minor characters, almost all of whom are written with enough complexity to make them believable and recognizable as people who might really have existed somewhere near these locations in the Valley of Fire, Nevada, and Apacheland at the foot of Superstition Mountain, Arizona.

Very appealing movie. I rate it as one of the 25 best Westerns ever made.



  • Widescreen transfer, anamorphically enhanced
  • Full-length commentary by four Peckinpah scholars.
  • New interview with Stella Stevens
  • Vintage featurette: Sam Peckinpah's West



Stella Stevens shows her entire body from the rear, while standing up in daylight.  She also shows her breasts down to her nipples while sitting in a bath.

The Critics Vote ...

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 7.3/10, and it might well be higher. The arithmetic mean is actually 7.7. My vote was 9 -  and I don't give that many 10s.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a B-. At the time it was released, it pleased no one. It was too saccharine for Peckinpah fans, and too coarse for lovers of musicals or romantic comedies. As time has passed, the spin has reversed, and it now can appeal to everyone. Standards have changed, and it is no longer too coarse for mainstream moviegoers, while it is interesting to Peckinpah fans because ol' Sam loved it so much himself! I'm with Sam. I like it very much.

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