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Wild Rovers
(1971)

Director: Blake Edwards  
Cast:
William Holden, Ryan O'Neal, Karl Malden


When you were young, it's almost a certainty that at one point or another you looked at the big wide wonderful world that you were living in, and felt that things could only get better for you the older you got. After all, when you are a child, you are restricted in a lot of ways, from riding roller coasters to taking a trip all by yourself to some foreign and exotic land. You probably first decide what you would like your life to be like when you are very young. As you get older, your plans might change somewhat, but you still have a strong feeling of what your life will be like once you are a seasoned adult. And once you reach that point, you will be in utter bliss for the rest of your life. But more often than not, the problems of life get in the way, and some - or more - of your dreams never do happen. It's been my experience that the realization that you are at a point where it seems you have just a short time left to realize your dreams of a satisfying life - or that it's much too late to even try to attempt to reach your dreams - often comes all of a sudden, and not a gradual realization. I've seen this a number of times in feature films. In one of my favorite movies (Your Three Minutes Are Up), there is a scene where Beau Bridges' character Charlie, who is a short time away from being married to his long time girlfriend, clearly has both the pre-wedding jitters as well as the problems that come from planning the wedding itself. Meeting his girlfriend one morning, he is stressed out enough to moan out loud, "There's got to be something better than working your butt off to pay for a house full of furniture." In response, his fiancÚ simply says to him, "You're thirty years old, Charlie - that's all there is."

Just from hearing that simple but devastating statement, it's no wonder that not that much later in that movie, Charlie sees a possible escape by tagging along with his best friend on a cross-country trip and seemingly forgetting about the commitment he has with his fiancÚ. Other movies, like the Bruce Dern comedy Middle Age Crazy, have dealt with the issue of people realizing that they are not getting any younger and feel they have to make some big changes in their life. Having reached middle age not that long ago, I can understand why some people who are no longer so young react greatly with the realization they now only have a short time left to change - or no time at all. Though I see that my life is a lot better than many people's, and that I will probably have a somewhat comfortable life in my twilight years, I can't help but wonder if I could do anything now to make sure I have an even better lifestyle from this point on until the day that I die. Sometimes I wonder what might happen if I made some radical decisions. On my desk, I have a key to a workplace that I used to work at many years ago. When I look at it, on some occasions I wonder what I could do if I went to that business one night, used the key to get in, and loot the place, subsequently wallowing in my newly gotten wealth. Though on each and every one of those occasions I think about it, I always think that there's a good chance I would get caught, and the rest of my life would be worse than what's currently in my plans. (Also, the business has probably changed the locks by now.) So I do understand why some people do break the law, in order to better the rest of their lives. Maybe their pre-crime lives aren't so bad, but as they say, the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence.

Wild Rovers is a movie that more or less examines what happens to a couple of people - one of whom is past middle age and realizes that the rest of his life won't be fancy stuff - who decide to commit a great felony in order to be able to live on easy street for the rest of their lives. But it Wild Roverswas not the premise of the movie that made me decide to review it. I had first seen the movie years and years ago on television when I was a teenager, and I loved it. Years later, I found it on videocassette in a newly restored director's cut version with a longer running time. Watching it again, I loved the movie even more. Much later, this director's cut was released on DVD in anamorphic widescreen. I knew now I could finally see it exactly how director Blake Edwards (who made The Pink Panther series) originally envisioned it. How was it this time? Well, first of all, a plot description. The movie starts off in the Montana territory during the golden age of the cowboy. At the R-Bar ranch, owner Walter Buckman (Malden, The Streets Of San Francisco) presides over a bunch of ranch hands, including the aging Ross Bodine (Holden, Breezy) and the much younger Frank Post (O'Neal, Paper Moon). Ross is at the age when he's realizing that he won't be able to be a cowboy for much longer, and is wondering what he will do when that time comes. One day, Ross and Frank have to transport back to town the body of another aged ranch hand who was killed on the job, and in town they get into a fight with a sheepherder that causes damage to the town saloon, a cost that Walter subsequently starts deducting from their meager pay. As the two men sulk about their misfortune, Frank eventually returns to an idea he had earlier: Why not rob the bank in town, and escape to Mexico where they can then have a life full of comfort? Ross didn't take the idea seriously the first time, but now the idea of poverty and discomfort for the rest of his life gets him to agree with Frank's proposal this second time. So not that long later, one night they ride into town and successfully rob the bank, and start on the long journey to Mexico. When Walter finds out the next morning the bank was robbed, he is understandably enraged, because he kept his money at that bank. So he commands his sons John (Tom Skerritt, Big Man On Campus) and Paul (Joe Don Baker, Framed) to hunt down Ross and Frank in order to get the money back. Ross and Frank have a head start on their pursuers, but it soon turns out it will be a long and eventful journey, when anything could happen.

With that particular plot premise, it's understandable that one could use it as a springboard to go off in the direction of an actioner type of western, something sort of along the lines of westerns like Serephim Falls. However, writer and director Blake Edwards' vision was for a quite different kind of treatment. Though there are a few scenes that might be considered action sequences, most of the movie is in fact a character study of several individuals, individuals that are all quite different from each other. Malden's character of Walter Buckman, while clearly not one of the up front and centered characters, is neverless made to be very interesting. He hates the sheep herders that have come to the territory, exclaiming at one point they should be run off. But after the sheep herders are jailed for brawling with Ross and Frank, he has a sudden change of heart and convinces the sheriff to let them go free, and gives the herders one more chance to not intrude on his land. It's interesting touches like these that make him neither a villain or a clear cut good guy, and make us watch him with great interest when he's onscreen. His sons also have some interesting features. John is a particular hothead when he feels he's been provoked, and is shown on several occasions that he needs his more level-headed brother Paul to get out of various messes he finds himself in. Their interactions are pretty interesting. Care with the construction of the characters is even given to characters that you might not expect to give treatment. After Ross and Frank rob the town bank by taking the banker's family hostage in order to force the banker to get the money, Ross and Frank before fleeing the scene give the banker several thousand dollars of the take so that the other ranch hands will get paid, as well as a little money for the banker's family to compensate them for the inconvenience. But after Ross and Frank leave, the banker's wife convinces her husband to stay quiet about the money so that they can keep it all. After all, she says, we will never earn that amount in our lifetimes.

It's character touches like those that make the world presented in Wild Rovers not only more interesting, but also a more realistic world than what is often found in the western genre. This also extends to the characters that the movie spends most of the time with, Frank and Ross. It's true that not everything about these two characters is done well; seeing the movie for a third time and knowing how the movie was going to unfold, I was able to spend more studying the little details. It does take some time for Frank and Ross to start speaking, for one thing - thirteen minutes into the movie, to be exact. And when Frank and Ross start talking, it seems like something is missing in understanding their relationship and standing. It feels kind of like starting a book at the second chapter, missing a proper introduction and set up. Fortunately, the movie compensates for these flaws with what follows. One interesting observation is that the movie suggests that we should not be completely sympathetic to these two ranch hands. It's revealed that Ross has two illegitimate children he seems to have abandoned, that he and Frank have for years not saved any money because they always spend it on booze and women, and it's they who start the bar-damaging fight with the sheep herders. But while we may not nod in approval about everything we observe about Ross and Frank, neverless we really get involved with these two enough that we sit patiently until the end credits to see what will happen to them. A big reason for this is because of the superb performances by not only William Holden, but also Ryan O'Neal. Holden gives the character of Ross a true feeling that he has experienced a lot in his almost fifty years of living. He is a little weary, but he still has a spark in him as well as a hope that he can better himself. You will believe why this previously law-abiding man has turned to crime. O'Neal, on the other hand, makes his character have a lot of enthusiasm, but also a sizable streak of naivetÚ that shows he may be in over his head. Indeed, he does some dumb things along the long journey, like deciding to steal a pre-weaned puppy to take along the way. But O'Neal shows his character is not really stupid, just that he still has a lot of growing up to do, and so we just simply disapprove of such actions and not actually getting angry at his sometimes thoughtless behavior. You will see yourself in him, and remember you did some dumb things before you matured and knew better.

If you are only familiar with the works of Blake Edwards that happen to be comedies, you are probably surprised by now that the screenplay for Wild Rovers in part is a serious - and well done - look at complex characters. But you may be wondering by now as to how Edwards did with the western part of the movie, since this genre is one he never tackled before (or after) this effort. For the most part, he manages to make this western a very entertaining and memorable one. He's got the look of the movie nailed down well, shooting in picturesque locations in Utah and Arizona (including Monument Valley), and positioning the actors and props to good effect with the Panavision cameras. This movie has the look you'd expect from a classic western. There are also many very well directed individual scenes that could only appear in a western, from a tense saloon poker game Frank participates in to a joyous and energetic vignette when Ross and Frank, needing another horse while on the run, decide to capture and break a wild horse that just happens to ride by. Wild Rovers has the look and feel of a well crafted western made by someone who has a great knowledge of the genre. It's a true epic, and a must for anyone who loves westerns. However, I will admit that the movie is not perfect. Besides the flawed opening of the movie that doesn't go into enough detail about the two lead characters, I will add that the movie, at a running time of 136 minutes, feels a little too long. That's probably why the studio heads at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer originally cut it down to 106 minutes over Edwards' protests. I don't think the movie deserved such drastic cuts, but I think a number of individual scenes could have been tightened ever so slightly. As it is, there are some pacing problems, like the fact that it takes quite a bit of time before Ross and Frank rob the bank and flee the area. (The better part of an hour, to be more exact.) Also, the subplot concerning Walter Buckman's struggles with his sheep herding neighbors doesn't seem necessary; it could easily have been cut out. Still, while the movie is not perfect, there's more than enough good stuff here to make Wild Rovers a very entertaining viewing experience, and to show that Blake Edwards had more than the talent to make people laugh.

(Posted January 30, 2015)

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See also: Breezy, The Earthling, The Spikes Gang

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