"Wild Rover" is also the name of Judge Clark Douglas' least favorite dog.
They were damned good cowboys, until they robbed a bank.
By the early 1970s, the western genre spent most of its time finding new ways to eulogize itself, with one film after another wistfully looking back on the Death of the Cowboy. Blake Edwards' 1971 film Wild Rovers fits comfortably in this subgenre of postmodern westerns, and ranks as a reasonably satisfying film of its type.
The story is a lean and straightforward one, spotlighting two cowboys named Ross Bodine (William Holden, The Wild Bunch) and Frank Post (Ryan O'Neal, Love Story). Ross has been a cowpuncher for decades, while Frank is a relative newcomer to the profession. Neither can ever seem to manage to save more than a few dollars at a time. As Ross says, "You show me an old cowboy, a young cowboy or an in-between cowboy with more than a few dollars in his poke and I'll show you a cowboy that stopped being a cowboy and started robbing banks."
"Well, let's rob us a bank," Frank responds. It's meant as a joke, but pretty soon the two cowboys begin to seriously contemplate the idea. Eventually they work up the nerve, rob a local banker (James Olson, Commando) and take off for Mexico. Soon, local rancher Walter Buckman (Karl Malden, Pollyanna) sends his sons Paul (Joe Don Baker, The Living Daylights) and John (Tom Skerritt, Alien) after the fleeing crooks.
As I said, it's a simple story. Two guys rob a bank and try to make it to Mexico before the Buckman boys catch 'em. This tale probably could have been told in 90 minutes without much trouble, but Blake Edwards chooses to turn it into a 137-minute swan song for the dying west. Despite the predicament of the lead characters, the film never seems in any particular hurry to get to the next scene. As the film's theme song declares, "Take it easy, boys. Take it slow." Not a bad idea in this case, actually.
It becomes pretty clear early on where this movie is going (hint: it's where most westerns of this sort go), and Edwards wants his scruffy antiheroes to have plenty of nice moments before they get there. Between the initial robbery and the final showdown, we pause for interludes of bronco busting, bonding with a puppy, jovial card games, visits with old friends, a little romance, and reflective conversations. There are plenty of lengthy scenes in which we just watch our characters wander across the landscapes of the American west on horseback, plus an overture, intermission, and some exit music that spotlight lovely Jerry Goldsmith compositions.
I have a soft spot for films like this, and Wild Rovers' easy-going atmosphere only serves to make the picture more appealing. Edwards does bring some of his signature comic touches to a few scenes, but there's little of the rowdy slapstick excess that marked many other westerns of the era. There are quite a few low-key laughs along the way, but the whole affair is underscored with a current of sadness and inevitable tragedy (Goldsmith's excellent score seems to be saying farewell to the characters from the first reel).
The performances are all respectable, highlighted by William Holden's soulful turn as Ross. Holden was a reliable actor throughout his career, but he had such a terrific screen presence during his later years. His work in this film is worthy of comparison with his turns in The Wild Bunch and Network (even if the film itself is a couple notches below those classics). Ryan O'Neal is a bit more charismatic than usual, though he seems out of place in a film like this. Malden, Baker and Skerritt are solid in their supporting roles, but they don't have enough screen time to make a huge impression.
It's awfully disappointing that this fine film is being given a Warner Archive release, as it's a good-looking movie that deserves a knockout transfer (not to mention some decent supplements). As it is, we'll have to settle for a mediocre transfer which offers a lot of scratches, flecks and muddy visuals early on but seems to get a bit stronger once Ross and Frank begin their journey. The audio similarly gets stronger as it proceeds, with some of the early dialogue selections sounding a little muffled. Goldsmith's score is clean and clear throughout, while sound design is a bit more nuanced than you might expect for a film of the era. The only supplement on the disc is a theatrical trailer.
Wild Rovers falls short of being a great western, but Holden's superb performance and Edward's sensitive, assured writing and direction make it a film well worth checking out.
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