The “big guys” versus “little guys” dichotomy found in a variety of westerns pertains not only to cattle ranching and mining, as it does in Open Range (2003) and Pale Rider (1976); it may also highlight a battle over water rights or flood control. Definitions of the western as a genre tend to promote the transformation of the desert lands of the southwest into a garden, pointing to water rights and irrigation as mechanisms of a prosperous West, so it comes as no surprise that many western films foreground consequences of “big guys” controlling water use, so that “little guys” must either pay exorbitant prices or suffer drought conditions and thirst. In John Wayne’s Riders of Destiny (1933), for example, the antagonist in the film, James Kincaid (Forest Taylor) has one of the only sources of water in the area, and is charging area farmers outrageous prices to use it. Small farmers and ranchers, then, are forced to sell their land because they cannot afford Kincaid’s prices until a government agent (Wayne playing Singin’ Sandy) ensures that area farmers have free access to water.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), however, most clearly illustrates the effects land acquisition laws had on development and, ultimately, environmental damage in the West. The Ballad of Cable Hogue demonstrates the negative consequences of progress, whether for the few (progressivist) or the many (populist). As a powerless individual, Cable constructs an empire for himself based on ownership of water, a commodity he sells for profit. The water sustains him but is doled out to travelers by the cup for a fee. Commerce underpins Cable’s use of resources and highlights the consequences of progress as empire building in the West: environmental degradation and loss of community.
The majority of Westerns take place in an arid landscape of the Southwest where irrigation and water rights provide life to cattle, farmer’s crops, and to settlers. The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), especially, illustrates the impact land and water rights issues had on the environment of the American Southwest. The Ballad of Cable Hogue most clearly illustrates the effects land acquisition acts had on development and, ultimately, environmental damage in the West. The film takes a populist approach to progress and shows what happens in a desert when there’s “water enough for two, not three.” Instead of arguing for communal use of free water, the film sympathizes with a lone hero, who profits off a water hole found on land he claims for his own. The hero has also been searching for gold in the desert, but makes his profit from water. In a film immersed in the environmental history of the old West, this lone hero battles a different corporation, a stagecoach company, as well as criminal gold mining partners, and wins. But that victory comes at a cost.
In The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Cable (Jason Robards) is the “little guy” and illustrates populist views of progress as a working class miner who uses water rights policies to build himself a small empire. Even though the film promotes a broadened view of access to property and encourages “wise use” of water because its use is limited by the price Cable charges, Cable’s property is built on exploitation of resources and signifies movement into a modern world where, in the end, technology usurps Cable’s place. In fact, modern technology literally destroys Cable and appropriates his space in the Western landscape.
After surviving wayward friends and the desert Cable finds water near a stage coach route. befriends a prostitute, Hildy (Stella Stevens), and builds a relationship with Preacher Joshua (David Warner), but Cable’s relationship to water is most prominent in the film. The preacher tells him he has “builded an oasis out of his wilderness” and names it Cable Springs. More importantly, he explains to Cable that he must file a claim to keep the land, so Hogue takes the preacher’s horse and goes to town. Hildy points Cable to the United States Land Office where the proprietor tells him, “under The Desert Land act an individual can file for up to 320 acres for $1.25 per acre, plus proof of reclamation.” The proprietor explains that “land without water is not allowable” unless he can substantiate either agricultural or horticultural development.
The film’s explanation for the Desert Land Act is based in fact. On March 3, 1877 the Forty Fourth Congress enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States passed Chapter 107, “An act to provide for the sale of desert lands in certain States and Territories.” The Act asserts,
That it shall be lawful for any citizen of the United States, or any person of requisite age “who may be entitled to become a citizen, and who has filed his declaration to become such” and upon payment of twenty five cents per acre—to file a declaration under oath with the register and the receiver of the lead district in which any desert land is situated, that he intends to reclaim a tract of desert land, not exceeding one section, by conducting water upon the same, within the period of three years thereafter;
The scenes surrounding the stagecoach line’s response to Cable’s claim begin to highlight the power of water. The company attempts to dig water holes near Cable and fails to find water, so the stagecoach line cuts a deal with him, and Cable places an American flag on his claim to show he’s a stop on the stagecoach trail. After years of business, Cable builds a windmill and upgrades his home and the stage stop, but he will not sell his stagecoach stop and leave with Hildy until he has avenged his former partners’ treatment of him. The former partners finally come to the waterhole and attempt to rob Cable, so Cable kills one (L.Q. Jones) in self defense and almost sends the other former partner, Sam (Strother Martin), out in the desert.
When Hildy drives up in a horseless carriage, Cable seems to have reached his apex: He has avenged his partners’ mistreatment of him and now can sell his water hole and run off with Hildy. Instead, it’s not the desert—nature -- but technology that kills him. When Cable tries to stop Hildy’s car from rolling away, the car rolls over him. Cable eventually dies, and water remains the film’s focus till its end. On Cable’s grave marker, Hildy and Preacher Joshua have written—“He found this water where it wasn’t.”
Although the film’s message differs from that of earlier films focused on water rights, it is still immersed in historical memory, in references to environmental history that attempted to both settle the West and turn its desert lands into a garden, an attempt that fails in Cable Hogue because water serves only as a resource for financial gain. The Ballad of Cable Hogue demonstrates the negative effects that even a populist version of progress can have on individuals and their environment. Both populist and progressive visions of progress are represented by the changing road that passes by what was Cable’s stagecoach stop. Cable both literally and figuratively “stands still” as stagecoaches and wagons turn into motorcars.
The film seems to valorize Bailey’s claim that economic growth facilitates environmental action, but it merely shows how a lone miner is able to exploit water resources for profit. No fecund valley emerges from Cable’s discovery. His water hole does not promote a garden in the desert. Cable uses water only for profit, not for community growth. Most telling, however, in Cable Hogue is the use of technology as a signifier of progress. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue, progress literally runs over Cable, suggesting that unchecked progress may result in death not only for nature but also for ourselves.