Sunday, January 14, 2018

My Favorite Sam Peckinpah Movie

It's always the violence that people seem to remember Sam Peckinpah films for, the shootouts in "The Wild Bunch," the assaults in "Straw Dogs," and that chattery head of Alfredo Garcia in the burlap bag.  That's certainly what I expected when I when I first saw my favorite Peckinpah film, so I was caught completely off guard by a gentle, mostly non-violent revisionist western comedy, made with several members of the same crew from "The Wild Bunch."

"The Ballad of Cable Hogue" is a mythic tale of the American West, that begins with Jason Robards, playing the title character, betrayed and stranded in the endless desert.  It's only by great luck, and perhaps spiritual intervention, that he manages to find water and survive.  Hogue decides to exploit his good fortune, lays claim to the source of the water, builds a stagecoach stop, and soon flourishes as a businessman.  However, his successes are short-lived, as the world is quickly changing around him.  The era of the iconic cowboy and the isolated Western frontier is coming to an end.  

While I certainly appreciate Peckinpah's more intense crime and western films, I find it very difficult to connect with any of the characters.  "Cable Hogue," however, is a film where I sympathize with just about everyone, because ultimately they're all just trying to get by.  Peckinpah assembles a collection of unapologetic oddballs, miscreants, and outsiders, but they're all very likeable ones.   It's a hard world that they inhabit, where the cinematography emphasizes the bleakness of the landscapes rather than the vastness, and nearly everything looks weathered and worn.  Humanity, however, proves irrepressible.  The first segment of the film is devoted to the lone figure of Cable Hogue battling his way through the desert, withstanding a sandstorm, and bargaining with a distant God.  HIs survival feels hard-won and miraculous at the same time.      

Hogue is probably my favorite Jason Robard character.  He's an ornery old vagabond with few social graces, who delights in being a little wicked, and showing his visitors the real, unvarnished West.  In short, he's about as perfect a stand-in for Peckinpah as you could wish for.  Hogue befriends an itinerant preacher, Joshua (David Warner), falls in love with a prostitute, Hildy (Stella Stevens), and eventually makes peace with Bowen (Strother Martin), one of the men who left him in the desert to die.  Peckinpah treats Hogue as emblematic of the Old West, a more unsavory character than the more civilized townsfolk are comfortable with, but an admirable man in his own way.  The more time we spend with Hogue, the funnier and more endearing he becomes.  Hogue may be unsophisticated, but he has enough wits to impress the local banker into giving him a loan.  He may be crude, but his affections for Hildy are genuine and well-intentioned.  

I was initially expecting a very different kind of film, and it was such a pleasure to discover that "Cable Hogue" was such a light-hearted comic piece.  It's offbeat and subversive, as you'd expect from Peckinpah, but also warmly sentimental and good-natured.  There are only a few instances of violence, mostly played for laughs or pathos.  And while this is certainly not the picturesque, sanitized Old West of Hollywood's classic Western era, neither is is the more nihilistic, cynical world of "The Wild Bunch" and "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia."  Our heroes are rough-edged, but still hopeful and spirited to the end.  Peckinpah puts aside any fancy editing tricks, save for a fast-motion lark or two, in favor of sunny romantic reveries and old-fashioned comedic pratfalls.  Music plays a big role in the film, with a soundtrack full of folksy tunes from Richard Gillis, plus a duet sung by Stella Stevens and Jason Robards.    

Sam Peckinpah westerns may be known for their harshness, but this approached proved not to be incompatible with a brighter outlook on life.  And though the film's depiction of the frontier is far from nostalgic, there's still a great sense of affection for it.  Like "Little Big Man" and other revisionist Westerns of the late 1960s and early 1970s, "Cable Hogue" could seek to change our perceptions of the  American West while also paying its respects.      

What I've Seen - Sam Peckinpah

Ride the High Country (1962)
The Wild Bunch (1969)
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)
Straw Dogs(1971)
Junior Bonner (1972)
The Getaway (1972)
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
The Killer Elite (1975)
Cross of Iron (1977)
Convoy (1978)

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