by Dennis Polifroni
How does one categorize a film like BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID?
Sure, it’s a western of some sort. Revisionist? Definitely. It takes place in times long gone and forgotten but is imbued with a lot of the values and morals of the modern age. Neo-Western? Kind of, as its a western of it’s time and the time is not the time depicted in the film. BUTCH is most definitely a product of the late 1960’s.
As one of my 25 “favorite” films of all time (in my book there is a great difference between “best” and “favorite”. “Favorites” are movies that I have loved ever since my youth and, more often than not, films that I view more than once a year for pure joy), BUTCH fills out a list that includes the likes of Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN (1978), Mike Nichol’s THE GRADUATE (1967), THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), the monumental KING KONG (1933), Disney’s FANTASIA (1940), Chaplin’s CITY LIGHTS (1931) and Spielberg’s JAWS (1975)(see my full list at the bottom of this page). These films, like BUTCH, put an immediate smile on my face and, at times of great reflection when thinking about my youth and the times that no longer exist, bring tears to my eyes because of the feelings I first discovered when they joined me in this adventure called life. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID was also, and this is important to me in a big, BIG way, the very first film I ever saw in a movie house. Even at the ripe age of 6 years old, I knew that what I was seeing on that immense screen was something special and, in the case of seeing Paul Newman for the very first time (in my eyes, at that moment, a mile tall), a reminder to me that gods DID truly exist (I fell in love with Paul Newman after this film and never missed a chance to see him on the big screen from that day forward. To me, Newman was the very definition of a great actor who was also an out-n-out movie star). BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID is a film that I will defend till my death, a surefire crowd-pleaser and one of the rare films that can make me stop in my tracks if I see it playing on TV or I find showing at a revival theatre. The film is like a beloved family member, one who is so interesting and pleasing to me that I almost become hypnotized every time I’m in it’s company.
But, what kind of western is BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID exactly?
To be frank. I don’t think it’s a western at all. Yes, it has all the visual and textural trappings of a classic western. The film takes place in the valleys and deserts that have become signature backdrops to the work of Mann and Leone and John Ford. The production design is reminiscent of all the old clapboard towns that many a villain and hero rode into in pictures like MY DARLING CLEMENTINE and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. It’s populated with characters straight out of the classic western repertoire and, at any given moment, you might find yourself facing off with gunslingers, Mexican “Banditos”, whore-house hookers, tin-starred lawmen and old dog kicking drunks hitting you up for a coin to waste away on another shot of hard whiskey. Yet, with all of these trappings, BUTCH is not really a western. It’s lineage seems to come from a place and a genre that fits mostly into the world of literature. As written for the screen by William Goldman (whose books and screenplays include MAGIC, MARATHON MAN, ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN, MISERY and THE PRINCESS BRIDE), BUTCH is really a fable. It’s a story kinda/sorta based on truth but with much of it’s detail elaborated upon till the truth is spread out so thin you’d think it was a silk sheet lining a king-sized bed.
As the true star of the movie, writer William Goldman was, and is, the most integral factor in the success of the film. Not wanting to write a “cowboy” novel when he was writing books, he honed in on the history of Robert Leroy Parker (aka Butch Cassidy) and Harry Longabough (aka The Sundance Kid) and, while fascinated by their exploits as proficient bank and train robbers, grew disdain for a straight examination of their history as criminals. Goldman possessed a singular wit, he was fond of sarcastic one-liners and often called a verbal “ball breaker” when attending gatherings of friends at local coffee houses to discuss art and literature. Seizing the idea of creating a work that emphasized his type sarcastic personality, he found himself dressing both Butch and Sundance with a kind of love/hate relationship, an almost “Odd Couple” dynamic, and furthered the misadventures of the duo by adding a sense of bumbling ineptitude that went against the true facts of these men, but heightening the hilarity of their shortcomings and endeared them to audiences by becoming figures we could relate to in the process. Gone were the God-like statues of Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in Ford’s THE SEARCHERS or the legendary figure of authority and grace that would become the filmic lineage of Wyatt Earp in no less than three successful films depicting the famed Sheriff (the best being Fords own MY DARLING CLEMENTINE). Goldman kept the classic structure and themes of the western, he emphasizes a change in the worlds evolution from wildness to more structured and civilized communities that will dominate the United States the closer we came to the turn of the century. However, with this emphasis of change, Goldman takes the opportunity to depict life in the West as a kind of floundering idiocy, a lawless world where the deeds of criminals winging it to steal for their whiskey and grub was looked upon with hero worship and smiles rather than the tears and horror stories so many that remembered those days would attest to. BUTCH is NOT anything like Andrew Dominick’s superb look at the life of another real-life western criminal, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES.
No. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID is not a western by the traditional or even modern standards. It is, more than anything, just a ripping yarn about two guys crossing their fingers so luck will hold out long enough to see their fortunes made and having a blast along the way. Like Goldman’s novel and, later, screenplay of THE PRINCESS BRIDE, the writer is looking to take history and set it on its ear. He wants to make you recognize the time and place, understand that the history is really there if you look at it close enough, but entertain and tickle the reader/viewer while doing so. If nothing else, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID might be the most fun you’ll ever have with a western themed movie. It’s a pop-corn film for sure. You laugh and you cry, are excited and relieved, and we can’t help but cheer for these lovable buffoons as they do what we only wish we could do if adventure ever reared its head at us straight on.
Furthering the fun, Goldman, along with the very proficient director, George Roy Hill, had the blessing of capturing two actors, one at the height of his power as a major figure in the film world, the other a rising talent who also happened to be every woman’s dream seducer, come together in what might be considered on of the ten best screen pairings in movie history. Often called the first true “buddy” film, the back and forth banter between Newman (as Butch) and Robert Redford (as Sundance) draws the viewer into an almost intimate relationship with two men who are the very definition of heterosexual intimacy. They are their own yin and yang, out for the same prizes and goals but arguing all the way as to whose approach is better. Butch is seen as the “brains” of the operation (he’s the leader of the famous “Hole in the Wall Gang”), but more often than not it’s Sundance who deflates Butch’s scheming for a more subtle and no-bones approach. The Sundance Kid is no kid at all except in his youthful looks and sex-appeal. Both quick and accurate with a pistol, he’s never really all that sure he wants to kill with that gun because it may break his heart to know that someone ceases to exist because of his rash actions. Basically, the duo are just two guys who wanna walk through life taking what they need as they go and dreaming of things they will never get unless they decide to shed their adolescent thinking and behavior. But, to shed that, they would need to focus in on the reality of their times and existence, something they are too afraid to do.
Of course, as any good writer would, Goldman knows that the key to the story is to introduce a threat to Butch and Sundance’s way of life and after robbing one too many trains and pissing of J. F. Harriman (the banker whose loot keeps getting robbed by the boys), they are slammed into reality and the knowledge that their very lives could come to an end because of their precocious greed and lazy antics. Hounded by a relentless posse of bounty hunters, the mid-section of the film acts like a fateful premonition of their inevitable demise and it’s here that Goldman lays on the moral that no bad deed goes unpunished and that the themes of changing times will not entertain individuals that don’t bow to the new structure of a world gone modern. In this, one can see Goldman referencing the classic western structure. But, it’s a muted reference as the hysterical bickering of Butch and Sundance heightens as the stakes grow far graver and more dangerous. Matter of fact, the bitching and the bumbling of the team never wavers even as they run head first into the barrage of bullets that will finally end Butch and Sundance’s lives. The final shot freeze frames the duo at the last moment they draw breath and we are left with an almost holy ideal that we’d like to think would continue even into our own times. It’s a moment that says things were better when they were on edge and free-wheeling and a time we wish would have lasted forever when bandits like the ones Newman and Redford play were thought of as modern-day Robin Hoods and heroes that spat in the face of a civilization that was too stern for its own good.
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE is a fable. As the title card after the opening credits clearly states “Most of what follows is true”. Yet, the key word in that line is “most” because if it were ALL true, then we’d probably be snoring five minutes into the picture. The film is a fable about a time long gone and a free-wheeling kind of fun that grown-ups felt was their rite when times were beginning to clamp down and threaten the free spirits that made this place we inhabit so interesting and memorable. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID is a simple movie about simple ideas and we should take it as such, simple fun. It’s a western in many ways. However, in the important ways its just funny and adorable and someplace we revisit with smiles and the memories of smiles it first gave us. Not too much to think about because if there were we’d remember it with frowns.
I don’t think William Goldman had frowns on his agenda when he penned this one (and the Oscar he won for his screenplay seems to signify that his course with the film was right and proper and true). I think I’ll watch it again right now.
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID
(1969 110mins) DVD/Blu-Ray
p. John Forman d. George Roy Hill w. William Goldman
ph. Conrad Hall m. Burt Bacharach ed. John C. Howard, Richard C. Meyer
Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy), Robert Redford (The Sundance Kid), Katharine Ross (Etta Place)
Strother Martin (Percy Garris), Jeff Corey (Sheriff Bledsoe), Kenneth Mars (Marshall), Cloris Leachman (Agnes),
Henry Jones (Bicycle Salesman), Ted Cassidy (Harvey Logan)
MY TOP 20 FAVORITE FILMS OF ALL TIME (as promised)
1. JAWS (1975 d. Steven Spielberg)
2. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968 d. Stanley Kubrick)
3. VERTIGO (1958 d. Alfred Hitchcock)
4. CITY LIGHTS (1931 d. Charles Chaplin)
5. FANTASIA (1940 d. Walt Disney)
6. KING KONG (1933/2005 d. Ernest Shoedsack, Meriam Cooper, Peter Jackson)
7. THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939 d. Victor Fleming)
8. THE GRADUATE (1967 d. Mike Nichols)
9. APOCALYPSE NOW (1979 d. Francis Ford Coppola)
10. SUPERMAN (1978 d. Richard Donner)
11. MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946 d. John Ford)
12. THE APARTMENT (1960 d. Billy Wilder)
13. BLUE (1994 d. Krzysztof Kieslowski)
14. SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952 d. Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen)
15. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969 d. George Roy Hill)
16. ANNIE HALL (1977 d. Woody Allen)
17. FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982 d. Ingmar Bergman)
18. RAN (1985 d. Akira Kurosawa)
19. THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998 d. Joel Coen)
20. TOY STORY (1995 d. John Lasseter)