After the intense bloodshed of The Wild Bunch (1969), this comic western fable took the opposite approach to director Sam Peckinpah's continuing examination of the end of the West.
Left for dead by a couple of lizard-slaughtering desperados in the middle of the desert, prospector Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) is saved by his unexpected discovery of water where there wasn't any.
Hogue turns the water hole, felicitously located near a stagecoach route, into a thriving business, creating a rest stop for a never-ending series of parched travelers. On his occasional trips to the closest town, he meets chipper prostitute Hildy (Stella Stevens), who joins him in his oasis, completing Hogue's little paradise.
But even though Hogue may be able to succeed and avenge himself against his original attackers, there is one thing that he cannot stop: progress.
Completed before The Wild Bunch was released, and replete with comical and even musical interludes, Peckinpah's gently picaresque telling of Hogue's rise and fall stands in distinct contrast to the visual violence of its predecessor. The underlying message about the cost of modernity, however, equals The Wild Bunch in seriousness.
The callous randomness of Hogue's fate is as shocking as the Bunch's final blaze of glory; as in Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller from the same period, a tool of civilization provokes a most uncivilized end for an Old West dreamer.
Although the film was as light-hearted in approach as the 1969 smash hit revisionist western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Warner Bros. mishandled the release and it did barely any business; Peckinpah returned to his trademark gore in his next film, the controversial Straw Dogs (1971). Still, The Ballad of Cable Hogue is less an anomaly for a master of violence than an ironically charming chapter in Peckinpah's career-long elegy to the western.