Blake Edwards was first successful on TV, as the creator, in 1958, of “Peter Gunn.” TV historians Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, in their authoritative “Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows,” write that the character of Gunn “was one of the first suave, aggressive, lady-killer private detectives to be seen on television.” Gunn, as played by Craig Stevens, was definitely Cary Grant light, but I don’t mean that pejoratively. What Edwards had plugged into was a light, sophisticated gumshoe who was just the character millions of Americans wanted to invite into the intimacy of their living rooms in the late 1950s.
Flash forward 13 years, and now filmmaker Edwards makes “Wild Rovers,” starring William Holden and Ryan O’Neal and featuring Karl Malden, Tom Skerritt, Joe Don Baker, Rachel Roberts and Moses Gunn. A terrific cast in a beautiful, yet intimate widescreen Western.
“Rovers” is on in a few hours on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) — at 12:30 a.m. Pacific time, which is 3:30 a.m. East Coast time. The film is not available for streaming on Netflix or Amazon, though it is available on DVD.
Critic Hal Erickson of Rovi has famously said of “Wild Rovers,” "If you want to know what ‘The Wild Bunch’ would have looked like with Blake Edwards rather than Sam Peckinpah in the director’s chair, we submit for your approval ‘Wild Rovers.’ "
The film is basically a bromance between an aging cowboy, played by Holden, and a younger cowpoke, played by Ryan O’Neal. They are both splendid. When he made "Wild Rovers," Holden had only made one movie (the non-Western, little known “The Christmas Tree”) after shooting “The Wild Bunch.” But his performance in “Rovers” is far more relaxed, knowing and poignant than his Pike Bishop in Sam Peckinpah’s classic.
For O’Neal, “Wild Rovers” was his next major movie after he made “Love Story.” (He made the TV movie “Love Hate Love” in between.) I’m not a big O’Neal fan, but he’s fine here, and he and Holden play well off one another.
It’s territory Blake visited earlier in career, when he co-wrote the screenplay and helped produce the comic drama “Soldiers in the Rain,” with Steve McQueen and Jackie Gleason, which I wrote about several weeks ago.
As in that movie, there are plenty of light moments offsetting the drama in “Wild Rovers.” However, due to Philip Lathrop’s stunning color photography and Jerry Goldsmith’s exquisitely expressive score, I find “Wild Rovers” most lyrical, which is not an adjective I’d use to describe most of Edwards’ films.
Edwards said that “Wild Rovers” was his favorite of all his movies. Unfortunately for Edwards, when it was initially released in 1971 by MGM, the studio was run by Jim Aubrey. Aubrey, whose biggest claim to fame was giving us “The Beverly Hillbillies” when he ran CBS, insisted that the film be cut from its 137-minute length. Edwards disowned that version. The version TCM is showing has been restored to its pre-Aubrey cuts length.
One final note about "Wild Rovers." Here’s the poster that was initially released for the movie (and is also the cover of the soundtrack LP):
According to the website of the American Film Institute, “After the film’s release, an article in daily Variety on June 25, 1971, ‘stated that the studio would withdraw its original advertising campaign, featuring an image of Ryan O’Neal and William Holden riding a horse, with O’Neal’s arms around Holden. According to the article, the ads had engendered "insider wisecracks" about a possible homosexual relationship between the characters, and would be replaced by images of the stars standing separately, holding guns.’"
Here are the replacement ads: