Mar 5, 2019

On Blu-ray: William Holden and Ryan O'Neal in The Wild Rovers (1971)

The Blake Edwards western Wild Rovers (1971) strives to be many things, with varying levels of success. It embraces wide-open spaces, but knows little about what to do with the people in them. Featuring a beautifully-seasoned William Holden and a pretty-and-aware-of-it Ryan O’Neal, it isn’t the epic it would like to be, but it has its rewards. I recently watched the original cut of the film, which differs from the original theatrical release trimmed heavily by MGM, on its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive.

Holden and O’Neal are generationally distant, but emotionally in-sync cowboys who want to discard the cowpoke life for something more luxurious. Weary, and restricted under the control of the self-righteous ranch owner (Karl Malden) who employs them, they decide that bank robbery is their key to the good life. They don’t take into consideration the unwillingness of the society around them to let them whisk that cash away in peace.

I went into Wild Rovers blind. With Blake Edwards as director and O’Neal giving Holden a big bear hug while sitting behind him on a horse on the Blu-ray cover, I expected something light and funny. While the film does have its goofy moments, it is just as often in a struggle to fulfill its grand ambitions.

The warning signs come early. There’s the roadshow-style Overture, Entr’acte and Finale, the lengthy, sweeping opening credits, and the feeling that you are being nudged to prepare yourself for a profound experience. While these elements aren’t necessarily troublesome in themselves, they don’t frame the kind of film that justifies them.

In that part of his career where he knew his craft intimately and exuded wisdom and weariness with a comforting gravity, Holden gives his unimaginatively written character and partnership with O’Neal the warmth of a man who is good with women. The glow transfers somewhat to O’Neal, who could never wear a role the way his costar does, but who also seems to have been positively influenced by the presence of a master. In this overlong, but somehow insubstantial film, the tenderness of their friendship and the lack of movie cowboy stoicism in their conversations is what distinguishes it.

The outdoor photography is also breathtaking, capturing the purity of landscape and wonder of life on the range. As a reprieve from the occasionally stifling feel of the drama, these locations have the effect of taking in fresh air. They are a vivid backdrop for some decent, if overly dependent on slo-mo action scenes. Most impressive is the sequence where Holden and O’Neal attempt to tame a wild horse; a scene which Edwards had the men train for so they could do as much of the wrangling as possible.

While it fizzles as the epic it wants to be, Wild Rovers is gorgeous to behold, ably anchored by Holden, and notable for its less traditional, and more personable take on male friendship.

Special features on the Blu-ray include a trailer for the film and the featurette The Moviemakers.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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