Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) is a desert-dwelling Hobo in the turn of the century Old West. As he hunts for his dinner, he's ambushed by Taggart (L.Q. Jones) and Bowen (Strother Martin), his former partners. They steal all his water and leave him for dead in the barren wasteland, mocking his situation as they ride away.
Driven to desperation, Hogue digs up the desert sand and unexpectedly finds water. He then goes to a nearby town and secures the funding to build an outpost for a busy stagecoach line at the watering hole he now calls Cable Springs. He also strikes up friendships with sassy prostitute Hildy (Stella Stevens) and perverted preacher Joshua (David Warner).
The stagecoach business is just a front, though. Hogue knows that one day Taggart and Bowen are bound to pass through. And when they do, there'll be hell to pay...
- Anything That Moves: Joshua. It gets so bad that he actually tries to molest Hildy in the outpost... while hiding there to escape the wrath of a man he's just cuckolded.
- Ballad of X: The title signals that this film is meant more as a fable than a gritty, realistic Western.
- Batman Gambit: Cable had three years to plan revenge on Taggart and Bowen. When they show up, he manipulates them perfectly into a trap.
- Casual Danger Dialogue: Cable Hogue does this to himself when wandering through the desert.Getting a bit thirsty here, Lord. Just thought I'd mention it. Amen.
- Call-Back: When Hogue is escaping from a pissed off Hildy, there's a band in the background, playing "Up the mighty river", the same song sung by the temperance movement in The Wild Bunch.
- Covert Pervert: Joshua lets his hands wander freely around the bodies of the women he "ministers" to.
- The Determinator: Cable Hogue. The man survived getting left for dead in the middle of the Nevada desert, so he's not easily deterred at all.
- Expy: L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin are basically recycling their characterizations of the Psychopathic Manchild bounty hunters T.C. and Coffer from The Wild Bunch in playing Taggart and Bowen, including the hints of Ho Yay in their Heterosexual Life-Partners relationship.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Hildy very much fits the archetype of this as a stock Western character, but she zig-zags it as well. She's the only one who shows any pity to Cable at the beginning, but also she also gets mad at him when decides to go back to the springs. She gets back together with him, but would rather go to San Francisco than stay with him in the desert.
- Male Gaze: Many loving shots of Hildy's curves, as taken from Cable's POV.
- Pull The Trigger Provocation: When Hogue's old criminal cronies shows up to rob him, Hogue points a rifle at Taggert. The criminal taunts him with, "You ain't got the guts, Hogue." Despite his promise to God, Hogue pulls the trigger, killing his nemesis.
- Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Joshua can talk up quite a jumble of erudition when he gets going.What do you call that vengeance that gnaws at your soul?
- Shaped Like Itself: Hildy says that when she goes to San Francisco she'll be "The ladiest damn lady you ever seen," and Cable repeats the line when she visits him.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog Story: A rare positive example. Hogue never gets his revenge. He makes peace with his assailants (well, one of them at least) and is then run over by a car in a freak accident. He turns the outpost over to him, while he dies peacefully in bed under the open sky, at peace with himself and the world.
- Shown Their Work: There were lots of English immigrants in The Wild West, so having David Warner play Joshua was an unusual, but very plausible, casting choice.
- Sinister Minister: Joshua's just a low-level con man posing as a preacher (complete with rotating collar), and he's more Affably Evil than villainous.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: About the only one of Peckinpahs films that can be called idealistic.
- Soprano and Gravel: Robards and Stevens share a duet called "Butterfly Mornings" which has this effect.
- Tempting Fate: Taggart saying "You ain't got the guts, Hogue." Those turn out to be his Last Words.
- Toplessness from the Back: Several nude shots of Hildy from the back. Helps that she's played by former Playmate of the Month Stella Stevens.
- Twilight of the Old West: For most of the film, you assume it's a typical 19th century Western setting, but the appearance of cars and a motorcycle at the end reveal that, like The Wild Bunch, it's actually the early 1900s.
- Undercrank: Both Cable and Joshua have comedic scenes where they run like this. Coming from a director who usually specializes in Ludicrous Gibs, it's rather unbelievable to watch.
- Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Snakes are a crucial part of Hogue's revenge scheme against Taggart (who seems especially fearful of them) and Bowen.
- Widow's Weeds: Hildy at Cable's funeral, even though they weren't married.