Spectacular Hits, Misses & High Jinks

Blake Edwards was a filmmaker many critics and reviewers failed to take seriously when he first appeared on the Tinseltown horizon. He made entertaining movies, sure, but he wasn’t really considered an artist-not like John Ford, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin or Howard Hawks. Why not? It may have been because his name was synonymous with comedies.

Though he did receive an Honorary Academy Award in 2004, Edwards earned only one actual Oscar during his career, for Best Screenplay for which starred his wife, Julie Andrews.

What many film fans may have forgotten, though, is the tremendous range and success of Edwards during his nearly 60-year career in the movies … and television, where he really got his start. Among his many small screen successes as writer were three popular crime/detective series-Peter Gunn, Mr. Lucky and Richard Diamond, Private Detective. In 1962, he directed a superb thriller, Experiment in Terror, and a drama about alcoholism which earned five Oscar nods, Days of Wine and Roses.

The next year, The Pink Panther opened, followed by A Shot in the Dark, The Great Race and other huge hits.

And then there were the setbacks.

One of his worst was 1971’s Wild Rovers, a film that Edwards (as writer and director) first conceived as a three-hour epic Western starring William Holden and Ryan O’Neal, in his first film since the smash saccharine hit Love Story. In post-production, MGM brass cut out 40 minutes, effectively neutering it in the process (at least in Edwards’ opinion). Not too surprisingly, it was a box-office bomb.

Much of the deleted footage has been restored on DVD through Warner’s Archive Collection, partially repairing Blake Edwards’ original sweeping vision for a Roadshow Release. In keeping with that concept, the new version includes a brief Overture, a short Entre’Act and an Exit Music segment, highlighting Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderful score. The running time of two hours, 16 minutes is much longer than the theater release, but still much shorter than what Edwards wanted.

It’s doubtful we’ll ever see Wild Rovers as Edwards intended, but the restored version is still a minor gem, the positives far outweighing the negatives. For Western movie buffs, it’s a must-see.

Holden and O’Neal play Ross Bodine and Frank Post, a couple of ordinary cowpunchers working for big-boss cattleman Walter Buckman (Karl Malden), whose two sons Paul (Joe Don Baker) and John (Tom Skerritt) are total opposites. Older brother Paul is mild-mannered and laid-back; John is full of piss and vinegar. They’re like mirror images of the cowhands Ross and Frank.

The two wranglers scheme to rob the local bank and flee to Mexico, setting off a long pursuit by the two brothers. That’s the basic narrative of the film which, in essence, is a buddy pic about two luckless but likable bank robbers.

A tangential plot, intercut with the pursuit, concerns the battle back on the ranch between cattle rancher Walter Buckman and some sheepmen, which inevitably boils over into bloodshed. It’s a familiar conflict in many Westerns, but seems little more than an afterthought in the Wild Rovers version we have, undoubtedly abbreviated by studio intervention.

Though the existing cut is episodic in nature rather than a fully integrated whole, individual scenes are effective and wildly different, ranging from comic to tragic, lyrical to brutal. Obviously influenced by Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch two years before, Edwards makes good use of slo-mo throughout, not only in the violent scenes.

Along with Philip Lathrop’s cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s score, the film’s highlight is Holden’s brilliant, understated performance as Ross, a nice guy down on his luck. The character is worlds apart from Holden’s memorable Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch, but he makes the fellow just as lasting.

O’Neal rides in the older man’s shadow. He’s OK in Wild Rovers, but compared to Holden, the young hotshot is a tenderfoot.

The way the studio treated Wild Rovers helped fuel 1981’s S.O.B., resulting in a venomously funny treatment of Tinseltown that proved once and for all that the filmmaker had lost neither his bite nor his wit. He could hold a grudge; 10 years later, Blake Edwards still resented what the studio did to his Western.