Aging cowhand Ross Bodine (William Holden) and his much younger friend Frank Post (Ryan O’Neal) are working on the ranch of patriarchal Walter Buckman (Karl Malden) and his sons John (Tom Skerritt) and Paul (Joe Don Baker), with all the exciting prospects you have in that kind of job gaping before them.
So, Frank out of youthful stupidity and Ross because he’s got nothing to show for his fifty years, the cow hands decide to rob the local bank. The robbery does succeed, even, thanks to a rather ruthless plan, and doesn’t end in any bloodbath whatsoever. As to not leave any bad blood behind, they even leave the money meant for the payroll of their home ranch with the banker. Because the territory line behind which the sheriff (Victor French) has no jurisdiction anymore is so near, Frank and Ross seem to get away scot free despite a few minor troubles.
Unfortunately, the banker and his family embezzle the money, leaving Buckman very angry because of the perceived betrayal (though I’m not too sure his reaction would have been much different otherwise), sending his sons out to go as far beyond the borders as necessary to bring his wayward cowhands back, preferably alive but not necessarily so.
Wild Rovers’ director Blake Edwards is – of course – much better known as a director of comedies but he seems to have made it a point to work in a few different genres in between the comedies. Even though these films generally have their problems they also feel a lot like labours of love to me, Edwards milking his commercial success to get astonishing amounts of money for his dream projects.
The film at hand is a case in point, with its Jerry-Goldsmith-doing-Aaron-Copland score, the lavish photography by Philip Lathrop, and its mostly excellent cast, often looking and sounding like someone’s wet dream of a Western. Unfortunately, it’s at the same time a much too self-indulgent movie for my tastes, the sort of thing where a director seems so in love with parts of his movie he just can’t let them stop, leading to some scenes that barely should be in the film at all going on forever, some ill-advised The Wild Bunch without the punch-style slow motion, and pacing that at times slows to a crawl. Then there’s the musical Overture and Entr’acte (seriously) that has no business at all in a film this slow and long already, something so useless to the film I don’t even know what to say about it.
Less a problem of self-indulgence than one of miscasting is Ryan O’Neal, who isn’t at his worst here, but whose specific kind of blandness and lack of a projected screen personality chafes badly against a William Holden who at this point of his career made things look easy and natural even when they were getting rather theatrical.
On the other hand, Wild Rovers features nearly as many moments of brilliance as it does of self-indulgent bloat, moments when Edwards’s pretensions stop being pretensions and start becoming the real thing, like basically every time Holden opens his mouth, that ill-fated poker game in Benson, or some of the shots of Holden and O’Neal travelling.
As a matter of fact, I found myself enjoying Wild Rovers more often than not, regularly buying into its world building, as well as its attempt at reaching the archetypal by way of the specific, and while I was bored for more than one scene, I can’t help but recommend it for all the parts of it that aren’t boring.