(director/writer: Blake Edwards; cinematographer: Philip H. Lathrop; editor: John F. Burnett; music: Jerry Goldsmith; cast: William Holden (Ross Bodine), Ryan O’Neal (Frank Post), Karl Malden (Walter Buckman, R Bar owner), Lynn Carlin (Mrs. Sada Billings), Jim Olsen (Joe Billings), Moses Gunn (Ben), Tom Skerritt (John Buckman), Joe Don Baker (Paul Buckman), Rachel Roberts (Maybell), Sam Gilman (Hansen), Alan Carney (Dave, Bartender); Runtime: 132; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Ken Wales/Blake Edwards; MGM; 1971)

“Never kicks in as anything more than a fashionable mood piece.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Blake Edwards’s prototypical buddy Western never kicks in as anything more than a fashionable mood piece (glorifying the anti-heroes in their death, a reverse of how the old-fashioned Westerns treated their protagonists). It never rises above being derivative of a Sam Peckinpah work like The Wild Bunch; it lacks both soul and dramatic points. Admittedly this could have been a better film if it wasn’t butchered in the editing room by the studio’s James Aubrey, a hack if there ever was one.

Aging cowboy Ross Bodine (William Holden) and his 25-year-old naive sidekick Frank Post (Ryan O’Neal) witness their cowpuncher friend Barney killed when his horse bucks, and start wondering what life is all about. This leads them to a senseless drunken barroom brawl with sheepherder Hansen (Sam Gilman), where the cowpuncher’s boss at the R Bar ranch, Walter Buckman (Karl Malden), pays bartender Dave for the damages done to his Palace saloon. That leads Ross to thinking if he robbed the bank his wasted life would somehow be salvaged. So Ross has the not quite Eisenstein buddy of his hold the wife of bank teller Joe Billings hostage in their home while he forces Joe to fork over the money at a night break-in at the bank, or he threatens to have his partner kill his wife. The successful robbery gives the crime partners over $30,000 and they head aimlessly for Mexico dreaming of being cattle barons, where on the way Ross breaks in a wild bronco and Frank gets into a poker only to get critically shot by the sore loser. Meanwhile Walter, who is incensed that his ex-workers robbed a bank where he keeps his money, orders his two sons, the oldest Paul (Joe Don Baker) and the immature John (Tom Skerritt), to go with him to hunt down the bank robbers. But the sheepherder kills Walter and Paul wishes to stop the pursuit but John, still wanting to prove himself as a man to his father even though he’s dead, insists on continuing. They finally catch up with Ross and he’s gunned down in a brutal way in the desert.

The film has no particular point of view except to characterize the anti-heroes with an existential way of living for the moment and not planning out their lives. Unfortunately Edward’s take on existentialism does little to explore it fairly as a noble philosophy, though it’s an excellently crafted film. The slight story revels in how the west has changed and how the two foolish innocents have little chance surviving in such harsh surroundings. It’s one of Edward’s more darker films, though most of the film is played as a comedy until the tragic third act.

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