Sam Peckinpah, who is currently being honoured by the 2015 Locarno International Film Festival, has a complicated relationship with sex. A broadly masculine output, his films were concerned with the insecurities and challenges of men. He was so deep in the male psyche that he was rarely able to look beyond his own experience and afford women nuance, or personality. But, this skewed perspective is truthful to his world view and that of his characters: his films, like his characters, are honest if not tremendously flawed.
Sex in the hyper-masculine world of Peckinpah is often reduced to a base desire. In films like The Wild Bunch, beyond the opening scene, the only appearances of women are the wordless and nameless prostitutes in a brothel. They serve as props and their ability to be bought renders them uncomplicated to the male characters: they are there to laugh, to drink and to fuck. Scenes like these are not about the relationship between men and women at all, they reduce women to something less than human. If Peckinpah’s depictions of women were to end here, his work would be far less palatable. This world view would not only be unfair to women, but also untrue to his exploration of masculinity.
Peckinpah’s men comply to the standards of heteronormativity and part of that is their desire to possess and be possessed by women. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue the topic of relationships is central to the storyline. The Battle of Cable Hogue is very much a comedy about a man who is not suited for modern life. Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) is a pioneer who stumbles upon a water source between two towns and tries to turn it into a business. After wandering in the desert and stumbling upon this little piece of fortune, he decides to treat himself to a bath and a night with Hildy, a prostitute. The depiction of Hildy is very much in the spirit of the sex comedies of Jayne Mansfield, focusing and exaggerating her notable assets with a lecherous gaze. Unlike a film like The Girl Can’t Help It, however, which treats this depiction of sex ironically, Peckinpah treats it more earnestly. Cable Hogue ogles and desires Hildy because she appeals to him sexually: there are no shades of grey here, no self-reflection. In the world of Peckinpah, sex is often just sex.
In their first meeting, the pair never consummate their relationship: before getting intimate, Hogue remembers he did not set up boundary markers around his desert discovery, so he rushes out on Hildy to fix his mistake. This leads into a slapstick chase scene, which is less than effective — but it is not their last meeting. Hogue finds himself returning to Hildy and not just for sex: while he is unsuited to modern life, he desires against his better judgment a domestic life with her. Hildy is not the broad stereotype you’d expect her to be either, she is strong willed and independent: she is the closest thing to a Hawksian heroine you’ll find in Peckinpah’s career.
Hildy rocks Cable Hogue’s plan and his understanding of life. As he seems to finally be achieving his dream after a life of hardship, he is willing to give it all up to be with his female companion. This trajectory is very contradictory to how Cable Hogue perceives himself, and perhaps how Peckinpah seems to perceive the world. The ideal Peckinpah man is independent, and from his point of view, women impede men’s freedom. This makes Cable Hogue all the more exceptional in his work, because Hildy is actually the source of his freedom rather than the obstacle he must overcome. She was able to move between the old world and the new, and she offered him an opportunity to transition into modern life without giving up who he was.
Cable Hogue’s dream for wealth was crippling and self-destructive, because on the brink of modernization, capitalism and its luxuries robbed men of their initiative and mobility rather than encouraged it. In Peckinpah’s films, the wealthy and the sedentary were affronts to masculinity: they represented men who were corrupt. Unfortunately for Cable Hogue, as well as many other Peckinpah protagonists, society had shifted from the stagecoach to the motorcar, from the entrepreneur to the corporation, leaving little room for the pioneers, the adventurers and the outcasts.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies, and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.