Let’s Talk About… ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ (1969)

Film #49 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

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It is very rare to go into a film knowing little beyond how it ends. Of course I was aware of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s status as a western classic but other than that and the iconic freeze-frame ending I was pretty much in the dark and went into it with expectations that would be proven wrong, with mostly positive results.

Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch might be to blame for many of these misconceptions. Both films came out in 1969 at the start of the New Hollywood era, both are set in the twilight years of the west and deal about men struggling to maintain their place in that changing landscape. However, their execution couldn’t be more different.  Where Peckinpah’s vision is more grounded and his characters cynical and rough, the title characters of Butch and the Sundance Kid feel silly and eccentric; charming send-ups of the archetypes that dominated the western genre for the previous half decade.

Thus, I turned on the film expecting a gritty and violent western with stereotypical steely-eyed outlaw characters and instead found a witty proto-buddy cop comedy that subverts many western tropes. It begins typically enough with terrific cinematography and a high contrast sepia tone.

After a brief visit to a bank about to close because of constant robbing, Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) goes to find his partner Harry “The Sundance Kid” Longabaugh (Robert Redford) in the local saloon, staring down a card player after he accuses him of cheating. The whole scene is tightly framed on Redford’s determined gaze with his rivals mostly out of frame (Apparently a young Sam Elliott plays one of them but you never see him or even hear his famous drawl) Butch walks in and defuses the situation with the kind of easygoing sixties charm you would never expect from a turn-of-the century bank robber, and that’s when you start to suspect this isn’t your typical western, or your typical cowboy heroes.

This is confirmed in the following scene, when the sepia tone gives way to color and Butch and Sundance return to their camp to find the other gang members rebelling against Butch for being away for so long. In any other western Butch would have shot the ringleader of the mutiny to set an example and be done with it, but this film is not interested in classic displays of male bravado. It turns out Butch is squeamish about violence and instead uses his wits (and an expertly timed kick) to restore his place at the head of the gang.  This and the rest of the first act is probably the best part of the film, with every scene poking fun at western clichés (the train robbery, the local lawman forming a posse, the subsequent celebrations at a nearby brothel) with sheer charisma and wit.

Next Sundance goes to pay a visit to his darling Etta Place (The Graduate’s Katharine Ross).  This scene is typical enough, but the following one, where Butch takes Etta on a totally platonic bicycle day trip seems the most out of place in a western, but by this point it has been made clear that this is intentional. Perhaps the biggest surprise I got from my viewing experience is realizing that the saccharine melody “Raindrops keep Fallin’ on my Head” I’ve heard countless times in films such as Spider-Man 2 and Forrest Gump was exclusively composed for this film by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. This and the rest of Bacharach’s whimsical Oscar-winning score firmly place Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the style and culture of the late sixties, constantly clashing against the classic western imagery expertly shot by Conrad Hall, who deservedly won an Oscar for his stellar work.

Another train robbery comes along and the film takes yet another turn. Fed up with the constant robberies, Union Pacific boss E.H Harriman sets a trap for the gang and deploys a mysterious posse of lawmen to track down the outlaws.  A viewer familiar with westerns would expect Butch and his gang to hold their ground and fight them off for the sake of a good action scene (and indeed, this is what studio heads wanted: “John Wayne don’t run away” is what executive reportedly said) but run away they do, and that’s when the film abruptly slows down to a crawl as Butch and Sundance spend most of the second act trying to elude a threat that is only ever seen from a great distance, forcing the audience to trust Butch and Sundance’s word that these men are too dangerous to take head-on.  The chase lasts several scenes and is the weakest point in an otherwise solid film. All of a sudden this boisterous movie filled with terrific and amusing characters is stripped down to two guys traversing vast landscapes whilst running from a seemingly supernatural enemy, forcing Newman and Redford to do all the heavy lifting, but fortunately their unmatched chemistry is up to the task. For Roger Ebert this wasn’t enough however and the sluggishness of this section of the film brought the whole thing down for him several notches:

“Director George Roy Hill apparently spent a lot of money to take his company on location for these scenes, and I guess when he got back to Hollywood he couldn’t bear to edit them out of the final version. So the Super-posse chases our heroes unceasingly, until we’ve long since forgotten how well the movie started and are desperately wondering if they’ll ever get finished riding up and down those endless hills. And once bogged down, the movie never recovers.”

Although I agree with Ebert that the chase bogs down the film substantially and needlessly does away much of what made the first act great, I disagree that it never recovers as the film picks up again when the Butch and Sundance head off to Bolivia with Etta in tow in a montage made up of vintage turn-of-the-century photographs with the three stars “photoshopped” into them, though I did wish they would have filmed these moments instead.

The rest of the film sees Butch and Sundance briefly finding renewed success as bank robbers in Bolivia with the help of Etta with more of the farcical scenes that characterized the first act of the film. All the while Katharine Ross’ Etta is fatalistic about the destiny of the two men in their lives and warns them that she will leave them rather than see them getting killed. Etta is deftly played by Ross and is a good foil to Butch and Sundance’s antics but the character struck me as slightly underwritten, her departure towards the end feeling like she was robbed of a more satisfying conclusion to her arc.

Once she leaves the film is once again helped along by Newman and Redford’s interplay, as there are few other characters of much. Feeling lost, they try to find purpose in a world that is leaving little room for outlaws like them as Butch becomes paranoid about the terminator-like posse that chased them down for most of the film only to never materialize, making them less villains and more of an abstract force of nature that represents the unavoidable demise of the two main characters. Instead it up to the Bolivian police and army to play the antagonists in the final shootout, which turns out to be less epic than I expected as Sundance does all of the cool gunplay by himself after the film makes it very clear that Butch is not a fan of killing. This certainly makes him the most interesting of the two characters but less useful in the film’s real only all-out action scene. Still, this does not undercut the emotion of the classic bittersweet ending that has become synonymous with New Hollywood filmmaking.

All in all, Butch Casssidy and the Sundance Kid is a perfectly charming film that easily overcomes pacing issues with the unrivalled chemistry of its core cast, so much so that you couldn’t imagine it working with different actors. Sure, it has a terrifically quirky score, pitch-perfect comedic editing and gorgeous cinematography but Newman and Redford are the essential ingredients that make this risky mixture of classic western tropes and sixties’ quirkiness a timeless classic, which gets me really excited to give their follow up The Sting a try.

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