Even though he enjoyed a long and lucrative career directing light comedies, it’s a shame Blake Edwards made only one proper Western, because Wild Rovers reveals the writer-director’s unexpectedly lyrical approach to the cowboy genre. Starring the unlikely but compatible duo of William Holden and Ryan O’Neal, the gorgeous-looking movie tracks the adventures of a pair of cowpokes whose foolhardy decision to rob a bank triggers a series of deadly events.
Presented as an old-school epic, complete with a musical overture and an intermission, the film moseys along at a deliberate pace, but it’s never boring; the locations and photography are intoxicating, the action is exciting, and the performances keep everything lively. Moreover, Edwards’ inventive screenplay presents a rich mixture of familiar Western tropes and witty flourishes; the best original elements include novel characterizations and sharp dialogue.
Holden plays Ross Bodine, a veteran cowboy who’s ready to settle down even though he doesn’t have a financial stake, and O’Neal plays Frank Post, a young man still naïve enough to believe he can shape his own destiny. When Ross casually mentions one day that the only cowboys with money are those who rob banks, Frank gets his teeth into the notion and eventually talks Ross into performing a heist. The movie takes its time getting to this point, creating a persuasive sense of camaraderie between the protagonists before things get sticky, and the robbery sequence is offbeat.
Instead of busting into a bank at daytime, the men casually intimidate the bank owner at his home during evening hours, holding his wife and daughter at gunpoint while forcing him to head to the bank and unload the vault. Charged with overseeing the hostages, Frank bonds with a puppy and protects the banker’s family from a mountain lion rather than doing anything menacing. Narrative choices like these make Ross and Frank compelling characters—we see how easily they buy into the romantic fantasy of a victimless crime, and feel their anguish when they realize how badly they miscalculated.
Holden adds an unusual color to his standard world-weary persona, accentuating amiability over cynicism, and O’Neal gives a performance that’s as naturalistic as anything he’s ever done. Eschewing the usual rouge’s gallery of overly familiar onscreen varmints, Edwards surrounds his leads with carefully chosen supporting players—including Joe Don Baker, Moses Gunn, Karl Malden, James Olson, and Tom Skerritt—all of whom make valuable contributions. Framing the actors’ work are spectacular widescreen images created by veteran cinematographer Philip Lathrop, a regular Edwards collaborator; his crisp photography of a sequence in which Ross breaks a wild bronco in a snowy field is particularly outstanding, making the sequence a joyous celebration of the cowboy lifestyle. Even the film’s music is noteworthy, with the great Jerry Goldsmith subtly expressing everything from jubilance to heartbreak.
The unhurried pace of Wild Rovers ensures the picture isn’t for everyone, but the film’s unexpected emotional complexities reward patient viewers with a tough, elegant statement about masculine identity. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)
Wild Rovers: RIGHT ON