Friday, 31 July 2015

Wild Rovers (1971)

As an extremely loose generalisation I'm not all that fond of Westerns. However since I reckon nearly all of John Ford's oaters, most of Clint Eastwood's, and a hefty selection of others by the likes of Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, and Sam Peckinpah, maybe I enjoy them more often than I admit. Against this there are a host of B-movies which do their best to destroy the genre, and it is probably those which shade my flawed admission.

Now Blake Edwards is not a name that one associates with Western movies. Directing from the 1950s, he started being linked with first-rate comedies from "The Pink Panther" in 1963 and "The Great Race" in 1965. If one ignores (as I do) the increasingly desperate 'Panther' sequels, his comic craft reached its pinnacle in the early 80s with "10", "S.O.B.", and "Victor Victoria".  However, being Western-born (Oklahoma) and penning various Western scripts early in his career, maybe directing one (as well as producing and writing it) was just something he had to get out of his system. The above title is the flawed end-product -- a brave stab where the succulent parts do not quite manage to create a juicy whole.

It's another buddy movie but certainly sub-Butch Cassidy. William Holden fresh from "The Wild Bunch" and Ryan O'Neal trying to escape his "Love Story" icky-ness, work for big-time rancher Karl Malden. Holden is the old hand beginning to feel the weight of time on his shoulders and O'Neal is the callow youth, still wet behind the ears, who can't hold his booze; yet there is some tangible chemistry between the unlikely pair. Both are worried about their futures and, on a whim, decide to rob a bank: 'We're going where cowboys can kick off their spurs and be happy -- I promise you' says Holden's Bodine. The balance of the film has them attempting to outride the posse led by Malden's sons, Tom Skerrit and Joe Don Baker, with little idyllic interludes en route to the inevitably downbeat finale.

I was curious to discover just how much of Edwards' comic sensibility would leak into the script and there are indeed little throw-away felicities. At one stage Holden tells his sidekick that things can't get worse, just as a chamber-pot of urine is emptied on their heads. Or there is a scene with Moses Gunn's mule-trader (the pair initially made their escape with only one horse between them) where the puppy O'Neal has insisted on taking with them is suckled by Gunn's nursing-mother puss. Other pluses are some breath-taking photography in Monument Valley, a fine horse-breaking scene in deep snow, and a judicious use of folk tunes, some of which Holden croons. However, despite the film's highpoints, it is never as elegiac or humorous or violent as the best Westerns which it strives to emulate.

The movie was not much of a success, especially after being butchered and truncated by MGM. It is in fact dragged down by a superfluous ranchers vs. sheepherders sub-plot and Rachel Roberts' screechy turn as a madam. Edwards eventually tried to establish its potential cult status by releasing a longer version, complete with an intermission and exit music, which is the version I just watched. He really needn't have bothered since it remains a patchy if occasionally enjoyable pastiche. Holden with his expressive, remorseful face, is as usual very watchable, but he was better served by Edwards in his last film role ("S.O.B").  
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