After viewing Ride the High Country, Jean Renoir remarked that "Mr. Peckinpah knows much about the music of the soul." But this could have been said even more accurately about The Ballad of Cable Hogue, because "the music of the soul" is really what it's all about. What Sam Peckinpah tried to do in this film was illuminate the essence, the soul of his characters—not through the realistic rendering of character and event, but by "objectifying" their various states of inner reality. This is indicated not merely by Peckinpah's "artifice,"… but by the film's entire style and content, which are more closely unified than in almost any movie one could mention….
It's as if Peckinpah turned his characters—indeed, the universe—inside-out, in order to expose the reality more fully. In this respect the film is reminiscent of The Winter's Tale, in which Shakespeare seems to have burned his own tragedies inside-out … in order to discover how Nature really functions. (p. 1)
It becomes obvious to anyone toward the end of The Ballad of Cable Hogue that it is not supposed to be a "realistic" movie …, yet the fact of the matter is that one ought to notice it from the very beginning. One of the most striking moments in the film occurs during the titles, when Hogue has spent his fourth day in the desert and is lying in the sand begging God to send him some water. Suddenly there is an overhead shot that seems to come from a great distance above Hogue, showing him lying amidst a whirlwind of sand, helpless, looking very much like an insect, completely at the mercy of Nature. Obviously, this is a God's-eye view of Man. God sees Hogue, has heard his plea, and He answers—and a moment later Hogue finds mud on his shoe. After this remarkable scene, it is difficult to understand how anyone could possibly expect that he is going to see a "realistic" film. Or even a comedy.
Although it lasts hardly more than a second and could be missed with the blink of an eye, this important scene not only sets up Peckinpah's approach to his material but also opens up one of the film's fundamental themes…. [It] illustrates the Biblical precept quoted in all of the film's advertising, and which is repeated numerous times during the course of the movie: "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away." The point is not merely that an individual's life is sacred and that no one has the right to deprive him of it, but that ultimately it is suicidal even to try, because finally the victimizer becomes his own victim—he dehumanizes himself precisely to the extent that he dehumanizes the people around him. Peckinpah dealt with this same theme in The Wild Bunch, which illustrated the futility and madness of violence as it culminated in the suicidal and apocalyptic massacre at the film's end. But in that film he was investigating primarily the consequences of dehumanization; he watched his characters from the outside, remaining at a distance from them as they acted out the final scenes of their inevitable destruction. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue, however, the attempt is to expose his characters' interior. Peckinpah turns Hogue inside-out, "objectifies" his inner reality, while showing him in the process of destroying himself as he dehumanizes the people around him. If the emphasis in The Wild Bunch was on the consequences of man's dehumanization, in Cable Hogue it is on the causes of man's self-destructiveness—among which is the fact that he treats the...
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people around him as objects, rather than as human beings.
Everything in The Ballad of Cable Hogue is represented as an object, because that's the way most of the characters see each other, and the way they see the world. (pp. 2-4)
The irony of Hogue's death represents the culmination of Peckinpah's attempt to turn his characters inside-out and expose the reality that lies within. When finally exposed, Hogue's soul—his essence—is revealed to be nothing more than an object. He has become dehumanized to the same extent that he dehumanized others: he is deprived of water and left in the desert to die—and when he discovers the only water for forty miles around, he sells it, and kills the first person who refuses to pay. Ownership and possession, and the way they deprive people of their humanity, are finally the subjects of Cable Hogue. Subtly, quietly, they work their will upon the selfish mind and destroy the individual's sense of what life is about—the honest and open communication among people…. The Ballad of Cable Hogue is about human objects struggling to become human beings…. In a very real sense, The Ballad of Cable Hogue is a vision of that Faulknerian nightmare of a nation destroying itself through its inability to sever the umbilical to its past. A suicidal clinging to the petty hatreds and desires for revenge against those who have denied us our humanity—while losing the love and joy of living that alone makes survival in the desert worthwhile. (p. 30)
Kenneth R. Brown, "Reality Inside-Out: 'The Ballad of Cable Hogue'," in Film Heritage (copyright 1970 by F. A. Macklin), Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall, 1970, pp. 1-6, 30.