Though Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch wasn’t the first film to respond skeptically to romanticized visions of the American West, it made a powerful enough impression to inspire a volley of likeminded Westerns. That’s partly because, beneath the blood and sand, Peckinpah offered a beguiling sort of romanticism of his own with his fatalistic vision of beautiful losers refusing to fade gently into the past. The flawed, intriguing, and largely forgotten 1971 Blake Edwards effort Wild Rovers—available through the Warner Archive imprint—doesn’t imitate Peckinpah’s style, but tries to capture some of the same spirit, including casting Wild Bunch star William Holden as an aging cowboy trying to make one last stab at glory before he gets too old.
Holden plays a ranch hand on the cusp of 50 who’s come to realize the life he’s lived until now will most likely be the life he lives until he dies. That means taking orders from fair-minded but paternalistic boss Karl Malden and his sons (Tom Skerritt and Joe Don Baker) and never purchasing the slice of paradise he’s always dreamed of calling his own. Then, after a lifetime of playing it straight, he decides to listen to young drinking buddy Ryan O’Neal, rob a bank, and make a run for Mexico, a decision that brings down even more consequences than the freshly minted desperadoes could foresee.
Though the film was released at 106 minutes, the DVD presents the 136-minute cut Edwards favored. (The director’s battles to preserve his vision are said to have provided inspiration for the Hollywood satire S.O.B.) Though Edwards doesn’t always know the difference between “stately” and “draggy,” it’s hard to imagine the film working as well at a shorter length. The story is almost comically thin, depending less on suspense or plot twists than on the image of two people making their way through a harsh, beautiful landscape. And though the film is gorgeously shot, and nicely scored by Jerry Goldsmith, that’s only enough part of the time. Holden is terrific, delivering a gentler variation on his Wild Bunch character and seeming surprised that he’s managed to fall into a life of crime at such a late date. But O’Neal is typically problematic, and Edwards seldom reins in his callow boisterousness. Wild Rovers is a noble effort anyway, however, slyly suggesting that those who fall into vice lead better lives than those who cling to virtue. And it builds to a powerful finale that’s as powerful a depiction of the West’s death as any of the many deaths it died around that time.
Key features: A trailer.