Cowboys will be boys

Blake Edwards’ other big roadshow flop, besides DARLING LILI, and made right after it, is WILD ROVERS. Maybe a kind of film maudit, a way of saying nobody likes it except us.

The movie is impressive, in an uneven kind of way. Shot by the versatile Philip H. Lathrop, who had done EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES, THE PINK PANTHER and WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY? for Edwards, and POINT BLANK, FINIAN’S RAINBOW and THE ILLUSTRATED MAN for others, it’s one of the handsomest westerns I’ve ever seen. And it has a marvelous score by Jerry Goldsmith which I’m still humming.

The script, written by Edwards alone — he ALWAYS had co-writers, otherwise — isn’t as strong as the visual side, upon which endless expense seems to have been lavished. An incredible range of tricky location shots. This is a seventies western so it attempts to get in on the whole revisionist bit — there’s sexual vulgarity and the west is a place of dangerous anarchy and nothing ends well for anybody. But it doesn’t seem to have a critique in mind, either of westerns or the old west. It’s a conservative film that just happens to be following seventies trends rather than fifties ones. So we get slow motion and a freeze frame and lap dissolves — the full FIDDLER ON THE ROOF panoply of nouvelle vague tricks expanded to the Panavision epic format. Interesting how this stuff was picked up particularly by the more “white elephant” branch of Hollywood cinema — there are jump cuts in FUNNY GIRL.

Penniless, ne’er-do-well cowpokes William Holden and Ryan O’Neil realise they’ll never get rich poking cows, so they rob a bank (using the same technique deployed in Barry Levinson’s BANDITS: hold the manager’s family hostage). Karl Malden, their former employer, takes this personally and sets his sons, Tom Skerritt and Joe Don Baker, on their trail. (It’s a great cast: add in Rachel Roberts as a shotgun-wielding madame and Moses Gunn as a dog-loving veteran, then keep adding…)

Holden and O’Neil’s characters are thoughtless idiots, addicted to boozing, brawling and whoring: a story with a clear point to it would show how their criminal career change sets off a chain of events that destroys them and a lot of others. But Edwards too often resorts to coincidence: encounters with a cougar and a suspicious and violently-inclined gambler lead to disaster. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a range war with sheepmen causes tragedy, but this has nothing to do with our protagonists’ actions.

Peckinpah has set the scene for this movie — the slomo violence and the randomness of life in the old west are milked/resorted to. As Joe Dante says, Peckinpah evoked the death of the west through the deaths of old character actors. And this caught on — even Duke Wayne started dying. The death of the western dramatised itself: the stars had grown old with the genre, which found it couldn’t outlast them. Notably, Holden doesn’t pass on his spurs to O’Neil here. And O’Neil gets shot in the same leg as in BARRY LYNDON.

The heroes aren’t as charming as Edwards seems to think, though Holden the actor certainly brings a lot of appeal. The stars apparently bonded, something not everybody can do with Ryan O’Neal, seemingly, and their camaraderie is convincing. But the tragic presence seems to be “stupid people can’t stay out of trouble” and that’s not enough, somehow. There’s more going on with their pursuers, and Skerritt and Baker are good — they’re not in any way worse humans than the heroes, but they’re not seen as charming. The key seems to be that our heroes think they’re in a comedy, and they’re wrong, while the posse know they’re in a generational tragedy. Or Skerritt does. The reliably dyspeptic Baker just thinks the whole manhunt is a terrible drag. The trouble with these scenes is they’re repetitive.

I’m glad I saw the extended version, but it’s longer than it needs to be. The beautiful snowy horse-wrangling scene, which may be the one that fully earwormed the score into my brain, goes on so long you become aware that were intercutting a medium shot of Holden, no doubt riding a mechanical bull affair with a stuntman on a real horse. Later, we can see some snow is fake. Problems that could have been solved if Edwards hadn’t seen “long” as a cardinal virtue.

But I think you should see this! Image and score are so good, and there’s something going on here, even if not all of it is fully compelling or original.

4 Responses to “Cowboys will be boys”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    The only thing I remember about this movie is the ad: Ryan O’Neil hugging William Holden. Very “Brokeback” avant la letter.

  2. Yes, there’s a strong sense that the (just) unspoken homoeroticism of the buddy picture is one slow dissolve away from coming to the surface.

  3. Ersatz Peckinpah. I hated it.

  4. The most Peckinpahesque aspects are certainly the least effective and the least honestly felt.

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