The three main characters in this parabolic film are Cable Hogue (Jason Robards), Hildy (Stella Stevens), and Joshua Duncan Sloane (David Warner). Cable has been left by his two partners to die in the desert. After four days, he chances upon a miracle — a desert waterhole. It turns out that the hole is 40 yards from the stage coach route between the towns of Deaddog and Lizard. After several disappointments, Cable obtains claim to the land and eventually convinces the stage-line to sign a contract with him to set up a way station for travelers.

An itinerant preacher, Joshua Duncan Sloane, happens upon the waterhole, befriends Cable, and provides a strong-arm and a ready wit while Cable sets up his empire in the desert. Joshua's wooing of ladies in distress does not work upon Hildy, a prostitute in Deaddog. She works her magic upon Cable but still dreams of a life in San Francisco.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue is a tour de force in cinematic terms. It's clean and crisp and absolutely believable. The characters are given a vulnerability and pride that make them not only likable but memorable. The film is one of the finest Westerns ever brought to the screen. It embodies the typical Western characters with their self-reliance, zest, violence, and dreams. And one gets a real feel for the country through the cinematography.

At its core, here is a parable about a man whose life is caught in a swirl of survival, revenge, building a business, falling in love, and finally, making a decision about life's priorities. No wonder they are able to say about Cable Hogue: "There wasn't a star in the sky he hadn't nicknamed. There wasn't a man he was afraid of. He never went to church but the whole desert was his cathedral . . . He built his empire but he was man enough to give it up when the time came.