Sundance Cassidy and Butch the Kid is proof that the athlete-to-actor transition is no natural one, but it's worth seeing if your expectations aren't too high going into it.
Sundance Cassidy and Butch the Kid (1969), also known as Alive or Preferably Dead, was supposed to do for Nino Benvenuti, Italy’s greatest boxer, what Conan the Barbarian (1982) did for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the world’s greatest bodybuilder: it was supposed to launch his movie career. But neither Benvenuti nor the spaghetti western he starred in had the power of Schwarzenegger and his sword and sorcery epic. The world champion boxer’s acting career ended before it even began.
When Benvenuti won the welterweight Gold Medal in the Rome-hosted 1960 Olympics, he became Italy’s national hero. When as a professional he unified the light middleweight division before going on to win the middleweight title by getting the better of Emile Griffith in a trilogy for the ages, he secured his place as the greatest boxer in Italy’s history. Sundance Cassidy and Butch the Kid was filmed at the height of the boxer’s career and its producer, Ennio Flaiano, hoped his fame would carry over to the spaghetti western genre.
Flaiano hired Duccio Tessari to direct the film and Giuliano Gemma to star alongside Benvenuti. In 1965, Tessari and Gemma collaborated on the first two ‘Ringo’ films— A Pistol for Ringo and The Return of Ringo—which found financial success at the time and have since become classics of the genre. With Sundance Cassidy and Butch the Kid, however, they had to work with an inexperienced actor in Benvenuti and an undeveloped story credited to the producer.
The story starts when two estranged brothers, an indebted gambler from the city named Monty Mulligan (Gemma) and a wholesome hillbilly of a farmer named Ted Mulligan (Benvenuti), receive an inheritance from their uncle on the condition that they live together for six months. When Monty leaves the city and shows up at Ted’s farm, it doesn’t take long for him to get into it with a local bully named Bad Jim (Chris Huerta). A shootout takes place that ends with Ted’s farm burning down, and the rest of the film follows the two brothers, who have nowhere to live and no source of income, wandering around the west trying to make some money.
Their moneymaking attempts are organized into a couple of interwinding episodes, the best of which features a wide-eyed, chatterbox of a blonde named Scarlett Scott (Sydne Rome). They hold up the carriage she is driving in and go through all of her luggage (about a dozen different suitcases) in search of some money, but all they find is fancy underwear upon fancy underwear. She, meanwhile, is incredibly excited to be held up. “My friends will be so jealous,” she squeals with glee. When they learn that she is the daughter of the local banker (George Rigaud), they take her hostage.
At first, the brothers only want to demand $1,000, but she is insulted at the low price and talks them into demanding $10,000 dollars. They then send a messenger (Antonio Casas) to her father with the demand. Her father, however, refuses to give them $10,000 for her release, even refusing to negotiate. He doesn’t want his daughter back and is actually willing to pay them $10,000 to keep her. We then see why he doesn’t want her back: she takes over the hostage situation, and, through manipulation, puts the brothers to work preparing meals, cleaning house, doing yard work, and washing her many pairs of underwear.
All of this, like the film as a whole, is supposed to be funny. I didn’t laugh once, and rarely let out a chuckle, but I did have fun watching the light-hearted slapstick antics of Monty and Ted. The bathing scene, in which Bad Jim and his crew ambush the brothers, was a particularly good time. Monty sits in the bath scrubbing himself with a brush while simultaneously using it to beat the ambushers, and Ted shows off Benvenuti’s world renowned boxing skills as the soapy bath water fills the room and his opponents slip and slide amongst the bubbles.
The stunt work of both Benvenuti and Gemma is impressive throughout the film. They get into some solid brawls, there is a good stagecoach chase, and an excellent moving train sequence that concludes the film. While the violence that we expect to see in spaghetti westerns is almost non-existent and the poor acting ability of Benvenuti is sometimes distracting, Sundance Cassidy and Butch the Kid is worth seeing if your expectations aren’t too high going into it.