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Wild Rovers (DVD Review)

28 Mar, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars William Holden, Ryan O’Neal, Karl Malden, Tom Skerritt.

There’s a familiar crude term that ends in the word “match” to describe the kind of altercation director Blake Edwards got into with then MGM president James T. Aubrey over this troubled Western — at a time when the equally imperiled studio was suffering through about as many revolving door presidents as the Watergate Nixon Administration had attorneys general.

But let’s just say that the two didn’t along — just as Edwards hadn’t gotten along with Paramount brass the year before over the rather splendid but also splendidly money-bleeding Darling Lili. And just as Aubrey, the once enormously successful but eventually fired-from-CBS exec, didn’t get along with any big-screen filmmaker of personality or reputation (read also Sam Peckinpah, David Lean and Fred Zinnemann). Their attitude: We’re not in “Mr. Ed”-ville anymore, Jimbo.

Still, someone must have been out of his mind — and maybe it was Edwards — to think that Wild Rovers had enough heft to be exhibited as a roadshow, complete with musical overture, intermission, entr’acte music (good as Jerry Goldsmith’s score is here) and the usual inflated trimmings. Even Edwards’ running time was (137 minutes) was a little short to support reserved seat exhibition, especially in a new era when that big-city staple of the late ’50s and 1960s moviegoing had all but died out. This said, there are stories that Edwards envisioned three-hour girth, so it’s possible that even this welcome director’s cut (which first surfaced during the laserdisc era and isn’t much improved upon in this somewhat muddy on-demand release) doesn’t have everything that once existed.

Whatever the case, no longer version of any length ever got to theaters. Aubrey cut this version by half-an-hour to facilitate a standard first-run showing, and it was a mighty lonely theater when I paid to see Wild Rovers on its opening night in New York City (though not any lonelier than it was for Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller; they opened a day apart). The difference is that before too much more passage of ‘70s time, McCabe had achieved masterpiece status — while Rovers, even in this director’s cut, never jells, despite a certain level of charitable affection it’s difficult not to feel for it. After the actor’s stupendous 1969 comeback in The Wild Bunch after a full decade of indifferent movies, maybe it was and is difficult to suppress rooting interest for a William Holden Western with “Wild” in the title.

Holden plays a veteran ranch hand on Karl Malden’s spread, a kind of mentor to a sweet-natured fellow saddle-tramp played by Ryan O’Neal. Not counting one TV movie, Rovers was O’Neal’s first film after Love Story made him a star — which tells you something about cinematic fortunes when one takes the long view. Today, that best picture Oscar nominee hasn’t even a billionth of the reputation enjoyed by, say, The Wild Bunch, but at the time it may have kept Paramount Pictures from going under on its way to the howler hall-of-fame. O’Neal’s Rovers presence probably portended a good commercial bet in the spring before its release, but the movie’s commercial chances may have been doomed by the print advertising campaign, which featured a presumably unintended Brokeback Mountain shot in which the two leads are scrunched mighty close when sharing a saddle. Some observers think Rovers has its share of subdued gay subtext, so maybe it was poetic. But I don’t recall a subway poster at the time — in all of midtown Manhattan — that wasn’t altered by graffiti artist waggery with marking pens.

All too aware that hopes of future prosperity aren’t very likely, Holden and O’Neal (kind of on a whim) elect to knock off the local bank — an episode that’s good for one juicily intriguing throwaway bit when the banker’s wife (Lynn Carlin, who’d previously gotten an Oscar nomination for John Cassavetes’ Faces) implores her honest husband to keep a slice of the stolen money when it’s offered. The movie then evolves into a protracted getaway sequence that spans the rest. It includes the best scene Edwards stages in the entire picture: a vicious saloon shoot-out that ends up dooming the venture.

I’ve seen detractors claim that this movie shows that Edwards didn’t have a feel for Westerns, though, in fact, he began his pre-directorial career by writing a couple and even acted in one of them (1948’s Panhandle). As ever a visual master, he captures the limitations of ranch life (basically, meals, booze and brothels) but falls in love with riders riding, slow-motion photography and elegiac incidentals at the expense of story construction. The movie actually concludes as if Malden’s two adopted sons (Tom Skerritt and Joe Don Baker) have been its focus all along. But their scenes are few, and we never discern what it is that makes them tick. Though, again, in a three-hour conception, maybe their characters would have made sense.

The Aubrey-mangled release version made even less sense than what we get here, though Holden’s performance remains authentic and makes this movie (in terms of personal achievement) one of the highpoints of his later career, as it is for composer Goldsmith. Pro that he was, Holden did what he could to promote the picture, and I remember seeing him on “The Dick Cavett Show” giving a wistfully defeated shrug when the conclusion to a saloon-brawl clip excerpted on the show — comically earthy, to be sure — failed to get much of a laugh. Fortunately, MGM’s ability to hang on by its fingernails (so what else is new in the past 45 years?) eventually enabled it to become the distributor of 1976’s Network, the actor’s standout twilight triumph. And ironically, he went out with Edwards’ scathing movie industry satire S.O.B. — one of the better final films a superstar ever had and one ironically inspired by the studio battles over Lili and (you have to think) this film as well.

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