Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid

SPOILER ALERT! I do go into detail on the film’s numerous plot points. So if you haven’t seen the film, I would watch it first and then give this a read. But if you have seen the film, enjoy my thoughts/review of the film.

My brother Adam and I have started doing Top 10 episodes for our podcast Holmes Movies. We have done three episodes so far. One was about our favourite films from Denmark, one was about our favourite train films and the recent one was about our favourite shootouts from films. Lot of westerns were mentioned on this episode including Chisum, Open Range, The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. For anyone who knows my brother Adam and I they will know that we are die hard western fans. We played shootouts and Cowboys and Indians in our garden in South London when we were growing up. And we did the same thing when we went to visit our grandparents in Denmark. Our grandfather even made us toy rifles out of wood and pipes and he recorded Westerns that were playing on TV onto VHS tapes. Films like Support Your Local Sheriff, The Searchers, The Alamo, Last of the Mohicans and Geronimo: An American Legend. It was wonderful and we still love watching westerns today and we get excited when a new one gets made and released. The westerns we watched the most were the ones with John Wayne. Growing up, he was our favourite actor. We branched off from that to watch movies with Clint Eastwood and all the Spaghetti Western movies he did with Sergio Leone. One of the films we did watch when we were younger, can’t remember if it was in London or Denmark, was George Roy Hill’s Oscar winning Western classic Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. It starred Robert Redford and Paul Newman as The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. Butch Cassidy’s real name was Robert LeRoy Parker. The Sundance Kid’s name was Harry Alonzo Longabaugh. Paul Newman and Robert Redford would reunite for a second time 4 years later in a non-western film also directed by George Roy Hill called The Sting. That is also a classic film and won a bunch of Oscars too, George Roy Hill won Best Director. When watching Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, I do feel like you’re not going to a better cinematic duo than Paul Newman & Robert Redford. Leonardo DiCaprio & Brad Pitt? Eat your hearts out. Every time I sit down to watch this movie over the years since watching it as a child, I have learnt to appreciate it and I become more of a fan of it each time. I might even include it in my Top Favourite Films of all time list. 

When I first watched it, I didn’t think that much of it. It’s not a big action western with a lot of shootouts and it didn’t quite grip me. I think I was more of fan of John Wayne’s films because there was always a lot of action. Yes, of course, there are some shootouts in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid and there is a big one at the end of the movie that we talk about on the podcast. As someone who wasn’t patient enough yet and wanted to see a lot of action and shooting, I found the film to be a little bit dull and in my opinion it just plods along at a boring pace. If John Wayne was in it, it would have been heavier on action and less of a revisionist western. This subgenre of westerns was becoming very prevalent in the mid to late 60s. As I got older and a little bit smarter, I realised that Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid had a lot on its mind. It wasn’t just about shootouts and robberies. It was mainly about two famous outlaws struggling to find their place in a changing west and refusing to change with the times. They could not escape the life they choose to lead no matter what they did. A lot of revisionist westerns were like this. Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid shares a lot of characteristics with Sam Peckinpah’s classic Western, The Wild Bunch, which is in my Top Favourite Films of all-time list. The only aspect that separates the two films and makes them different from each other is the level of bloody violence. That aspect of The Wild Bunch is something that Peckinpah throws into his films. 

Revisionist Westerns subverted audience’s expectations of Westerns. Westerns, for instance, where John Wayne was the hero were about good versus evil. White hats against the black hats. Revisionist Westerns were the opposite and had anti-heroes as protagonists and most of them were criminals. The main people we follow in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch are hardened and violent criminals. Everything was not so black and white in those films and everything was in a morally grey area. Right and wrong, good and bad got a little blurred together and everything got a little ambiguous. Filmmakers were using their films to criticise American cultures and values of the time. In the 1960s, things were coming to a head socially and politically in America and in some ways that still is prevalent today. In these movies, there was a commentary on the nature of violence and showed how violent and dirty the west was. It wasn’t so romantic as it was back in the 1940s and 1950s. John Ford may have started this movement in 1956 with The Searchers, my number 1 favourite film. In that film, John Wayne is playing an anti-John Wayne character. He’s much more murderous and unforgiving than he was in a film like Rio Bravo. All the characters and the settings in these films were presented in a much more realistic fashion. Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid very much is in the middle. It wants to be this romanticised film about these two outlaws who robbed banks and trains but at the same it is aware that the west was changing and the days of outlaws and folk heroes and worshipping these guys was almost done. But Butch and Sundance are not aware of this and carry on as usual. When watching the two train robbery sequences, it is noticeable and fair to say their glory days are behind them. They look for much greener pastures in some place like Bolivia. They are like sharks that have to keep moving ahead of a changing world that does not need them anymore. In the beginning of the film, Butch and Sundance watch a Lawman trying to get a posse together to go after them while they sit and watch everything on a balcony at a brothel. The Lawman is unsuccessful, and his speech is interrupted and taken over by a salesman who is selling a bicycle, which is something he refers to as the future. Paul Newman’s Butch is later seen riding it and he takes Katharine Ross’s Etta Place on a fun bike ride. During this whole montage, Raindrops are Fallin’ On My Head is playing on the soundtrack. It is one of the film’s most memorable sequences and it is something you would not have seen in a John Wayne western directed by John Ford or even Howard Hawks. Later when Etta accompanies Butch and Sundance to Bolivia, Butch grabs the bicycle and throws it away and says: “The future’s all yours, you lousy bicycle.” This act is Butch’s failure to acknowledge that the future is fast approaching and that his and Sundance’s days are numbered. 

Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid is this fun buddy Western with three actors working at the top of their game and it has a talented director behind the camera using a screenplay written by one of the best screenwriters of all time William Goldman. It has some fantastic comedic moments like when Butch & Sundance are being chased by the posse hired by E.H. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad. The dialogue is wonderful, and you will be easily quoting all the lines once you finish the film. This is a film that is the definition of fun and one of the reasons why this film will be timeless for future audiences and movie lovers. But at the same time, there is this underlining sadness and feeling of pathos throughout the film. The first half of the film is them getting back into the game until the unstoppable posse comes after them. This forces them to go to someplace like Bolivia. With the help of Etta, they learn the Spanish they need to rob banks. They become well known and find themselves back in business. It isn’t until Butch notices a man wearing a white skimmer that he fears that lawman Joe Lefors is in Bolivia. The Los Bandidos Yanquis decide to mess with them and go straight. They find honest work for the first time working as guards for a mining company. Strother Martin plays their boss and he is a wonderful Western character actor who would also show up in the comedy Slap Shot with Paul Newman, also directed by George Roy Hill. Their first day going straight does not go as planned and they end up realising that they can’t do any kind of honest work. They are bandits thru and thru. Etta does all that she can to convince them to do some different like ranching and they shoot that idea down. In this scene where they sit around a campfire with Etta pouring coffee, Conrad Hall’s brilliant cinematography pans up to a close up on Etta’s face. I never noticed the effectiveness of this shot before. It shows the sadness and the fear for Butch and Sundance’s lives in Etta’s eyes. She knows that these men will never change from who they are. In the next scene, Etta bids them farewell and says she will go home ahead of them. It is a bittersweet moment and Burt Bacharach’s score elevates the sad mood of the scene. There are no hugs or kisses goodbye, Butch and Sundance accept her decision and they let her go. Etta had made them an ultimatum with them pre-Bolivia that she would not watch them die. Seeing them reject her idea of working on a ranch made her realise that there is no escaping from the life they now lead. Once they arrive in a new town, they are identified as bandits due to a branded horse from the mining company. Butch and Sundance fight off the Bolivian Lawmen the best they can and are wounded during the shootout, a shootout Adam and I really enjoy and like very much and we added it to our list on our Top 10 Shootout from Films podcast episode. Despite being heavily wounded and running low on ammo as well as being completely unaware of the army lining up outside, they feel confident about their situation. Butch suggests the idea about Australia as the next place they will go to. They run outside guns blazing and it ends on a freeze frame on them both where we hear the army Captain yelling “Fuego!” followed by a volley of gunfire. The film was nominated for Best Sound. David Dockendorf and William Edmondson shared that nomination. The movie looks and sounds great.

Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch end in similar fashion and were released around the same time in 1969. The themes and style of both films is what makes them so striking and memorable and they are some of the best Westerns of all time and they are both directed brilliantly. They would make for a great double bill. But getting back to the film featuring Butch and Sundance, this film is supported by a mighty screenplay that is fun, tragic and nuanced. It very much deserved the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. This movie gets better every time I see it and you notice something new each time. That is owed to William Goldman’s screenplay, Conrad Hall’s sublime cinematography, Burt Bacharach’s emotional score, George Roy Hill’s masterful direction and the performances of its cast. There is a scene in the 2nd act of the film where Butch and Sundance are being chased by the posse hired by E.H. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad that perfectly sums up the whole movie. It’s a very small scene and also one of those scenes that would maybe have been cut out if the film was made today. It is one of the most significant and well written scenes from the film. They go to Sheriff Ray Bledsoe to get amnesty which they don’t get and Bledsoe stresses the point that they won’t be able to get it. Jeff Corey starred briefly in the film as Sheriff Bledsoe and he was an actor familiar with the Western genre. He starred as Tom Chaney in True Grit (also released in 1969 but was more of a romanticised Western directed by Henry Hathaway). True Grit was the film where John Wayne won an Oscar for playing Rooster Cogburn. Jeff Corey also starred in Little Big Man as legendary gunman Wild Bill Hickcock, another classic revisionist Western directed by Arthur Penn. His scene with Butch and Sundance in my opinion perfectly sums up the film. Before Butch and Sundance leave him tied up, he says to them: “You should have let yourself get killed a long time ago when you had the chance. See, you may be the biggest thing that ever hit this area, but you’re still two-bit outlaws. I never met a soul more affable than you, Butch, or faster than the Kid, but you’re still nothing but two-bit outlaws on the dodge. It’s over, don’t you get that? Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody, and all you can do is choose where.” The real Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid died in Bolivia in the year 1908. They certainly and most likely died bloody and they certainly chose where. 

  • Anders 

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