A western directed by Blake Edwards, the man behind the Pink Panther movies? To some this may come as a surprise, but Edwards had a life-long penchant for the genre. With this bleak, melancholic movie he also wanted to prove that he was more than just a skilled entertainer, but his film was drastically cut by the studio and edited against his wishes. Most of the footage has been restored in the course of the years, but the longest available version, running 132 minutes, is still not the version Edwards had in mind. Compared to the theatrical release (109 minutes) the longer version solves a few problems, but creates a couple of others as well.
William Holden and Ryan O’Neal are two cowboys who realize they will be poor, hardworking cowboys forever, unless they take matters into their own hands. The only way out of the deadlock, seems robbing a bank, so that’s what they decide to do. But they’re destined to be cowboys, not bank robbers, and the robbery is the beginning of the bitter end.
Wild Rovers shares its elegiac tone with Peckinpah Ride the High Country (1962) and William A. Fraker’s Monte Walsh, made one year earlier. But it’s not really about the end of the West. Late into the movie, Holden, the aging cowboy and the movie’s part-time philosopher, has a speech about predestination and man being unable to change his fate. He realizes that their efforts are futile, and that he and his young pall will never reach the promised land, Mexico. The low camera-angles, showing the magnificent landscape as if it were reaching for the sky, underline the futility of impotent creatures living in a cruel world that will always have the better of them.
Both Holden and O’Neal are magnificent and the longer version works in their favor. But if it makes some of the good things better, it also makes some of the bad things worse. The longer version is more coherent, but slows an already slow-moving movie further down, and makes an already longish movie even longer. There are only a few sparse action scenes; they're in slow motion and rather bloody, but one of them (Malden ending a long dispute with his neighbor in violent fashion) isn’t well integrated into the movie.
Malden’s character of the unflinching patriarch is part of the film’s Freudian subplot about Malden’s son – played by Tom Skerritt – who refuses to give up the chase even though he knows the man who has ordered it, his father, is dead. This aspect of the movie never comes to life, it feels forced, and the final scene – Skerritt being deserted by his younger brother (Joe Don Baker), and talking to his late father – is dreadful.
Wild Rovers is by no means a bad western, it's a good one, but it’s not a western for those who prefer them action orientated; it’s thoughtful, but it’s also self-indulgent and too conscious about its own high aspirations. There’s a lot to admire in this movie, but ultimately it aims too high for its own good.