Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) is isolated in the desert, awaiting his partners, Taggart (L. Q. Jones) and Bowen (Strother Martin), who are scouting for water. The two plot to seize what little water remains to save themselves. Hogue, who hesitates to defend himself, is disarmed and abandoned to almost certain death.
Confronted with sandstorms and other desert elements, Hogue bargains with God. Four days later, about to perish, he stumbles upon a muddy pit. He digs and discovers an abundant supply of water.
After discovering that his well is the only source of water between two towns on a stagecoach route, he decides to live there and build a business. Hogue's first paying customer is the Rev. Joshua Duncan Sloane (David Warner), a wandering minister of a church of his own revelation. Joshua doubts the legitimacy of Hogue's claim to the spring, prompting Hogue to race into town to file at the land office.
Hogue faces the mockery of everyone he tells about his discovery. That does not deter him from buying 2 acres (0.8 ha) surrounding his spring. He immediately goes to the stage office to drum up business but is thrown out by the skeptical owner. He pitches his business plan to a bank president, who is dubious about the claim. Hogue impresses the banker with his attitude and he is staked to $100.
Hogue, who hasn’t bathed since his desert wanderings, decides to treat himself to a night with Hildy (Stella Stevens), a prostitute in the town saloon. They quickly develop a jovial understanding but before they can consummate the transaction, Hogue remembers that he has still not set up his boundary markers and rushes out, much to Hildy's chagrin. She chases him out of the saloon in a sequence that wreaks havoc on the town.
Back at the spring, Hogue and Joshua get to work, dubbing the claim Cable Springs. The two decide to go into town and are drunk by the time they arrive. Hogue makes up with Hildy and spends the night with her, leaving Joshua to pursue his passion: the seduction of emotionally vulnerable women.
Hogue and Joshua continue to run the robust business, delighting in shocking the often genteel travelers with the realities of frontier life. In moments of solitude, Hogue and Joshua philosophize on the nature of love and the passing of their era. Joshua decides that he must return to town. Hildy arrives at Cable Springs having been "asked" to leave by the modernizing townfolk, who can no longer abide open prostitution in their midst. She tells Hogue that she will leave for San Francisco in the morning but winds up staying with him for three weeks. This time elapses during a tender, romantic montage.
Then one day, Taggart and Bowen arrive on the stagecoach. Hogue lets them believe that he bears them no ill will. Hogue alludes to a huge stash of cash that he has hoarded, knowing that the two men will return to steal it. When they do, Hogue outwits them, by throwing rattlesnakes into the pit they have dug. When they surrender, he orders them to strip to their underwear to venture into the desert, just as he had been forced to do. Taggart, believing Hogue will once again hesitate to defend himself, reaches for his gun but Hogue shoots him dead.
A motor car appears, driving right past Cable Springs with no need or interest in stopping for water. The drivers laugh at the archaic scene of western violence as they race past. "Drove right by," says Hogue in amazement. "Well, that's gonna be the next fella's worry."
Hogue takes mercy on the grovelling Bowen. He even gives him Cable Springs, having decided to go to San Francisco to find Hildy. The stagecoach arrives and Hogue gets ready to pack up when suddenly another motorcar appears. This one does stop and Hildy emerges, opulently dressed. She has become prosperous and, now on her way to New Orleans, has come to see if Hogue is ready to join her. He agrees but while he loads the motorcar he accidentally trips its brake. The car runs over Hogue as he pushes Bowen out of the way.
Joshua, who arrives by a black motorcycle with a sidecar, gives a eulogy for Hogue as he dies. This segues into a funeral with the cast standing mournfully over Hogue's grave. They are grieving not only the death of the man but the era he represents. The stagecoach and motorcar drive off in opposite directions. A coyote wanders into the abandoned Cable Springs. But the coyote has a collar - possibly symbolising the taming of the wilderness.Jason Robards as Cable Hogue
Stella Stevens as Hildy
David Warner as Joshua
Strother Martin as Bowen
Slim Pickens as Ben Fairchild
L. Q. Jones as Taggart
Peter Whitney as Cushing
R. G. Armstrong as Quittner
Gene Evans as Clete
William Mims as Jensen
Kathleen Freeman as Mrs Jensen
Susan O'Connell as Claudia
Vaughn Taylor as Powell
Max Evans as Webb Seely
James Anderson as Preacher
Felix Nelson as William
Darwin Lamb as The Stranger
Mary Munday as Dot
William D. Faralla as Lucius
Matthew Peckinpah as Matthew
Easy Pickens as Easy
Sam Peckinpah followed his violent, critically acclaimed 1969 film The Wild Bunch with this mostly non-violent Western. Utilizing many of the same cast (L.Q. Jones, Strother Martin) and crew members of The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah shot on location in the desert of Nevada and Apacheland Movie Ranch located in Apache Junction, Arizona. The production was plagued by poor weather, Peckinpah's renewed alcohol consumption and his brusque firing of 36 crew members. When unable to shoot due to weather conditions, the cast and crew would go to a local bar, eventually running up a tab of $70,000. The chaotic filming wrapped 19 days over schedule and $3 million over budget, terminating his tenure with Warner Bros.-Seven Arts. In retrospect, it was a damaging career move. The critical and box office hits Deliverance (1972) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972) were in development at the time and Peckinpah was considered the first choice to direct them. His alienation of Warner Brothers left him with a limited number of directing jobs. Peckinpah was forced to do a 180-degree turn from The Ballad of Cable Hogue and traveled to England to direct Straw Dogs (1971), one of his darkest and most psychologically disturbing films.
Largely ignored upon its release, The Ballad of Cable Hogue has been rediscovered in recent years and is often held by critics as an example of the breadth of Peckinpah's talent. They claim that the film proves Peckinpah's ability to make unconventional and original work without resorting to explicit violence. Over the years, Peckinpah cited the film as a favorite. All the town scenes were filmed on location at Apacheland Movie Ranch in Apache Junction, Arizona. The desert scenes at Cable Springs and elsewhere were filmed in Nevada at Valley of Fire State Park.
Critics have called The Ballad of Cable Hogue a "Death of the West" film, depicting the transition from old to modern civilization. Other films of this category include Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Paint Your Wagon (1969), Monte Walsh (1970), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), The Shootist (1976), Unforgiven (1992) and Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).
The Ballad of Cable Hogue has an original score by Jerry Goldsmith and songs by Richard Gillis. Each of the main characters has a theme: Hogue's "Tomorrow is the Song I Sing", Hildy's "Butterfly Morning", and Joshua's "Wait for Me, Sunrise." The soundtrack was eventually released in 2001, by Varèse Sarabande in a limited edition album of only 3000 copies.
Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator site lists the film as 93% "fresh" based on 13 positive reviews out of 14. Audience score is 81% positive based on over 3700 ratings.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue had an operating budget of $3,716,946. The film earned $5,000,000 worldwide, with $3,500,000 in box office sales in the United States, and an additional $1,500,000 internationally.
Welsh musician John Cale wrote and recorded a song titled "Cable Hogue" for his 1975 album Helen of Troy.
Tucson band Calexico wrote a song called "Ballad Of Cable Hogue" on their 2000 album Hot Rail, which shares similar lyrical themes to the plot of the film.