Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross (1969; Dir: George Roy Hill)
While True Grit in the same year was a backward-looking western playing off the traditions of the genre, Butch Cassidy looks ahead. The language and humor are modern, and were more revolutionary when this movie was released than they seem now. There are more overtly and self-consciously cinematic techniques used. For example, the movie occasionally slides into sepia tones to reproduce the effects of old photographs; it even opens with such a sequence as it introduces Butch and Sundance to us. And the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” interlude where Butch rides a bicycle and frolics with Etta Place and a belligerent bull is reminiscent of the singing scene from Rio Bravo, although Burt Bacharach’s music here is better, if more irrelevant to what’s going on in the rest of the movie. The soundtrack was immensely popular in its time, and the “Raindrops” song won an Oscar for Best Song.
Paul Newman, of course, plays Butch Cassidy and Robert Redford is the Sundance Kid. They were so good in these roles that they touched off a vogue in “buddy” movies, where the primary relationship was a friendship between two males. The peak of this trend was 1973’s The Sting with the same stars and director, which won the Best Picture Academy Award. Butch Cassidy is so enjoyable that it has a lot of re-watchability. For someone who is not familiar with westerns, this movie might be a good place to start.
The plot deals with the late stages of the career of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. Historically, it was sometimes called the Wild Bunch, not to be confused with the fictional outlaws in the Peckinpah movie with that title or with the Doolin-Dalton gang based in Oklahoma, sometimes referred to by that name. The gang is led by mastermind Butch Cassidy, who is slowly coming to the conclusion that there isn’t much future in the train-robbing business at the end of the 19th century, as the railroads devote more resources to his capture and become better at pursuing him.
The movie opens with two brilliant sequences. First, with the opening credits, is a pseudo-version of The Great Train Robbery, followed by a sepia-toned card game that establishes the tone for the movie with its dialogue, as well as setting the characters for Butch and Sundance. As the movie goes to full color, it features two actual train robberies and their aftermath. Butch and Sundance escape their relentless pursuers, but only with great difficulty. They take temporary refuge with Etta Place, a rural school teacher and the girlfriend of Sundance, with whom Butch enjoys the musical bicycle interlude. Etta is played by the luminous Katharine Ross, then best known for her breakthrough role a couple of years earlier in The Graduate. (These two movies represent the peak of her cinematic career.) And Etta doesn’t come between Butch and Sundance.
Using their ill-gotten train-robbery gains, the trio stops in New York to see the sights on the way to South America. They travel to Bolivia and try to go straight, but that doesn’t work for them and they take up bank robbery again as Los Bandidos Yanquis. Eventually tracked down by the Bolivian army in the small town of San Vicente, they shoot it out, ending the movie with the famous final freeze-frame shot of the wounded Butch and Sundance emerging with guns blazing from the room where they’ve taken cover. For many, it’s a more effective end for characters we’ve come to care about than the final slow-motion violence of The Wild Bunch or Bonnie and Clyde.
Butch was an immensely attractive character, both in real life and as portrayed by Newman in this movie. It is now hard to imagine anybody but Redford as Sundance, although the role reportedly almost went to Steve McQueen. Newman and Redford are very persuasive, both in their individual roles and as friends. The cast is excellent, top to bottom. Ross is very good, although there are times when her character seems extraneous. The various members of the gang are very good, too, although Ted Cassidy is physically much larger than the actual Harvey Logan, the meanest and perhaps most dangerous man in the gang. (See the famous photograph of the bunch taken in Fort Worth, where Harvey Logan appears much more innocuous.) Strother Martin makes a memorable appearance as a “colorful” Bolivian mine manager. Jeff Corey, who was the killer Tom Chaney in True Grit, is a sympathetic sheriff here. This was also the film debut of Ross’s future husband, Sam Elliott, but he’s hard to spot.
The famous photograph of the Wild Bunch taken in Fort Worth in 1901, with Sundance in the left front and Butch in the right front. Harvey Logan is standing on the right.
There is violence in this movie, and not just from blowing up safes and railroad cars. Aside from all the shooting in the final scene, there is also a scene where Butch and Sundance take back from Bolivian bandits the mine payroll they were hired to protect. In Bonnie and Clyde fashion, the shootout and the resulting deaths are in slow motion–except here the slow motion is stopped with the hail of bullets, so the last image of the two is of them in action.
The script by William Goldman (The Princess Bride) is an acknowledged gem, and it won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. Lines from it are bandied between aficionados of the genre: “Rules, in a knife fight?” “Can I move? I’m better when I move.” “Woodcock, is that you?” “Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?” “You just keep thinkin’, Butch. That’s what you’re good at.” “If he’d just pay me what he’s spending to make me stop robbing him, I’d stop robbing him.” “Who are those guys?” “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” The squabbling of Butch and Sundance sometimes sounds like an old married couple, but it’s effective. The film was included at no. 73 on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest American films of all time (http://www.afi.com/100years/movies10.aspx).
As with True Grit, much of the movie was shot in Colorado; the Bolivian scenes were shot in Mexico. The cinematographer was the excellent Conrad Hall, who won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for his work here. The movie was nominated for Best Picture but lost to Midnight Cowboy.