Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Dir: George Roy Hill, 1969. Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross, Strother Martin. Westerns.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

The massive hit from 1969, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is often cited as a "Western that people love, who usually don’t like Westerns." But it also often makes "all-time most overrated" lists, especially from folks who do like Westerns. That contradiction may be because the film is completely carried by the charisma of its two superstars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Also it's closer in spirit to a light comedy or even the "outlaw reexamination" genre started by Bonnie and Clyde than the landmark Westerns of its era that Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone were directing at the same time. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is an incredibly simple tale, and regardless of its place on the Western checklist it’s perfect entertainment.

The script seems to have very little dialogue and often the same lines are repeated, "You keep thinking, Butch," which is ironic since the script by William Goldman (Marathon Man, All The President’s Men) has been hailed for its perfect three-act structure (pre-film school era Goldman wrote a number of books about screenwriting and the business which also helped elevate his status as a quintessential writer). Act One is an introduction to Butch (Newman) and Sundance (Redford), two charming but frustrated bank robbers who are now hitting trains. Butch is the brains and Sundance the gunman. They also share a woman, schoolteacher Etta Place (the mumbly Katharine Ross of The Graduate), Sundance is her lover, while Butch flirts but is more the big brother. Act Two is one long chase as a hardcore posse follows Butch and Sundance over miles of picturesque Western plains (shot by the legendary cameraman Conrad L. Hall), ending famously with the two jumping off a cliff into a raging river. Act Three has the heroes and Etta traveling to Bolivia where they work as muscle for a paymaster (Strother Martin) and culture clashes impede their bank robbing career, finally ending with a shoot out with the Bolivian army.

The film famously has a couple of long passages with only Burt Bacharach’s wonderful music playing, Newman and Ross frolicking on a bicycle to "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head." And then in an ingeniously staged long scene sepia photographs are used to show the passage of time and the journey East to New York and then Bolivia aboard a ship while "South American Getaway" plays.

Credited as a producer, Newman helped to get the film made; he was already a giant in the biz, coming off of Cool Hand Luke, but Butch Cassidy helped take him to another level. A number of actors almost co-starred with him including McQueen and Brando, before they settled on the lesser-known Redford. He was a star but known more for his good looks and light comedy. Sundance was the role he needed to help him break into more serious and better quality films, making him one of the biggest stars of the next decade. Director George Roy Hill was also known for lightweight material, in particular the Julia Andrews duds Thoroughly Modern Millie and Hawaii, but Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid put him in another stratosphere, peaking a few years later when he reteamed with Redford and Newman on another megahit, The Sting.

Coming on the heels of the more radical (and violent) Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid easily tapped into the growing youth market and became another symbol of the counter culture. The two outlaws were not shown to be killers, but lovable rogues doing the best they can. Like the bikers in Easy Rider, society, institutions, and the law were the downers totally getting in the way of their fun, while trying to force them into conforming to society (instead of Vietnam, Butch and Sundance often refer to the war in Spain that some Americans were embroiled in). In real life Bonnie, Clyde, Butch, and Sundance were probably a lot less likable and certainty not as physically attractive as played by four Hollywood sex symbols, and definitely more deadly.

1969 was also the year of Peckinpah’s bloody masterpiece The Wild Bunch and a year after Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon A Time In The West. All three films present a changing and evolving American West and all three films represented an evolution in the Western film. The days of the cut 'n dry John Wayne type were over, complicated times called for complicated heroes. With The Godfather just a few years away, not since the Warner Brothers depression era gangster flicks had American audiences and critics been so accepting of bad guy. But there hadn’t been so much upheaval in American society since the '30s when again, everything we thought to be true and good about American life was called into question. Or maybe it just takes the million-dollar smile of a Newman or a Redford to make a bad guy so damn likable.

_____________________________

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid won four Oscars: Best Cinematography, Best Original Music, Best Original Song, and Best Original Screenplay. It was nominated for an additional three Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Sound.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 6, 2011 4:19pm
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