The Gospel According to Cable Hogue
By Denis C. Grasska
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) found little to like about 1970’s “The Ballad of Cable Hogue.”
Its film reviewer wrote: “Going to some absurd extremes is director Robert Altman’s off-beat, turn-of-the-century western about a man’s last stand against the machine and the alienation that comes with it. Some violence, bawdiness and profanity undercut Jason Robards’ warmly credible performance.” The film ultimately received the USCCB’s dreaded “morally offensive” classification.
But, to this writer at least, it appears that the USCCB’s reviewer might have missed something important — well, besides the fact that the film was directed by Sam Peckinpah, not Robert Altman. “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” which recently marked its 40th anniversary, is more than the tale of “a man’s last stand against the machine.” It is also a film about divine providence and Christian forgiveness.
To be fair, the film’s “morally offensive” classification is arguably justified. In fact, the film’s permissive attitude toward non-marital sex and prostitution, coupled with liberal amounts of gratuitous nudity and sexual situations, are more than enough to turn off Catholic viewers.
And the main characters are all deeply flawed human beings: Hogue (portrayed by Robards) is hardly an exemplar of chastity and, for much of the film, is also consumed by a desire for revenge. His love interest is a prostitute named Hildy (Stella Stevens). His friend, the Rev. Joshua Duncan Sloane (David Warner), is a traveling (non-Catholic) preacher who carries around photos of his “parishioners” — all female, at least one naked — and whose concept of pastoral care is more carnal than spiritual.
Meanwhile, those minor characters with ties to organized religion are almost uniformly obnoxious.
Nevertheless, there are at least a few aspects of the film that are likely to resonate with Christian audiences.
“The Ballad of Cable Hogue” opens with the title character’s betrayal at the hands of his friends, Taggart (L.Q. Jones) and Bowen (Strother Martin), who take his canteen and supplies at gunpoint and leave him to die in the desert.
“There’s water enough for two, but not for three,” Taggart says.
As his former partners walk off into the distance, Hogue demonstrates that his thirst for water is coupled with a thirst for vengeance. “I’ll live to spit on your graves,” he shouts.
During the opening credit sequence, we see Hogue staggering through a barren landscape. With thirst wearing him down, and with no one else to talk to, he begins addressing God.
“Ain’t had no water since yesterday, Lord,” he grumbles. “Gettin’ a little thirsty. Just thought I’d mention it. Amen.”
In subsequent prayers, he continues to complain about the lack of water, makes promises to repent for his sins — “whatever in the hell it was I did” — and can be sarcastic and downright irreverent. But those prayers are answered nonetheless.
With a dust storm swirling around him, Hogue collapses to the ground and offers one final prayer: “Lord, you call it. I’m just plain done in. Amen.” In a crude, frontier-way, that short prayer recalls the words of Christ on the cross: “Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit” (Luke 23:46).
At the conclusion of this prayer, Hogue notices that his boot is caked with fresh mud. After a quick search, he discovers a small waterhole — the only source of water in a 40-mile stretch of desert. Fortuitously, the waterhole is located exactly halfway between the towns of Dead Dog and Gila. In the words of a stagecoach driver whose route passes through the desert, the discovery is “worth a damn sight more than gold.”
Hogue develops the waterhole into “Cable Springs,” a stagecoach stop for weary passengers. As its proprietor, he becomes a wealthy man — something that never would have happened if he hadn’t been betrayed and left for dead. Essentially, God does for Cable Hogue what he did for Joseph in the Book of Genesis: He takes the treacherous actions of others (in Joseph’s case, being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers) and weaves them into a pattern for good.
But despite his newfound financial success, Hogue remains obsessed with killing the two men who betrayed him, and he is determined to remain in the desert until that confrontation occurs.
“It ain’t worth it,” Hildy counsels him in one scene. “Revenge always turns sour. You ought to just forget it.”
“Some things a man can’t forget,” he replies. “I got me two of ‘em: Taggart and Bowen.”
It takes three years of waiting, but Hogue finally crosses paths once again with his two former partners. He foils their attempt to rob him and, as his chosen method of revenge, orders them to remove all but their underclothes and make their way across the desert without any supplies. When Taggart refuses and tries to shoot Hogue, the latter kills him in self-defense. Bowen, reduced to blubbering and simpering, admits that he would never survive the desert and apologizes for his actions years earlier.
In a shocking twist, Hogue not only forgives Bowen, but that same day appoints him as his successor. He decides it is time to leave the desert and begin a new life somewhere else with Hildy. Moments later, we are shocked even further when Hogue saves Bowen’s life, pushing him out of the path of a “horseless carriage” and getting mortally wounded in the process.
Watching these scenes, which take place near the film’s conclusion, one is reminded of Christ’s command to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you ... If you do good to those who do good to you, how can you claim any credit? Sinners do as much” (Luke 6:27-33).
The film’s depiction of divine providence and its presentation of Christian forgiveness are quite touching. But ultimately, viewers must decide for themselves whether such scenes are enough to compensate for some of the film’s other attributes, those that led the USCCB to classify it as “morally offensive.”
In a funeral sermon for Cable Hogue, the Rev. Sloane commends his late friend to the mercy of God with the following words: “A man is made out of bad as well as good ... Right or wrong, I feel [Hogue] is worth consideration.”
The Rev. Sloane might say the same thing about the film that bears Hogue’s name.
The Southern Cross