Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

[25 July 2006]

By Glenn McDonald

Who Are Those Guys?

The story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, based on true events, is so familiar now it’s hard to fathom that at the time of the film’s release, Butch and Sundance were merely peripheral legends of the American Wild West. Historians and pulp comic fans knew their story, but most didn’t. The enduring image of the affable outlaws was born in this classic 1969 film. That the story is fairly true to life is even more remarkable.

It goes like this: In the waning days of the American Wild West, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are leaders of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, which specializes in robbing banks and trains. Butch is the idea man, Redford the stoic hired gun. Also in the gang, a handful of colorful crooks (Flatnose Curry, Big Harvey Logan) and schoolteacher Etta Place (Katherine Ross), who shelters the boys when the heat is on. The West is fast becoming civilized, and when Butch and Sundance rob one train too many, they’re relentlessly hunted by a “superposse” of lawmen hired by the ruthless railroad baron E.H. Herriman.

The film is often hailed as the first modern “buddy picture,” with stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford cooking up the cinematic DNA that would abide, and occasionally thrive, for three decades and counting. Fox’s new two-disc DVD incarnation of the film helps us to appreciate just how true that is—and how much more there is to treasure about this classic of Big Hollywood cinema.

Believe it or not, there really was no such thing as the buddy picture previous to Butch and Sundance. In action pictures and dramas, there was always a pecking order—the hero, and the sidekick. But watch how deliberately director George Roy Hill introduces Newman and Redford in the opening scenes. Both get extended and beautifully lit close ups; little scenes in and of themselves. Bear in mind that Newman, in 1969, was the established star and Redford a relative newcomer. Hill is telling us right off the bat that these two are equals, partners. Redford is no sidekick here, and Butch doesn’t even get the girl.

If this is the first modern buddy picture, it also marked the end of an era. The film gleefully breaks several rules of the pure Hollywood Western. Our heroes are, unapologetically, the bad guys. They rob and steal for a living, and Sundance has a rep as a stone cold killer. Even worse, they’re not even particularly successful. They’re always broke and on the run, and they never quite stand and fight—choosing instead to run away to South America when the chips are down. The structure of the film is weird in a lot of ways. Hill has a near-30-minute chase scene with no resolving confrontation, and a musical interlude with a Burt Bacharach number—the famous “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” scene. This is the anti-John Wayne Western, emblematic of the turbulent 1960s, with counterculture heroes fighting a losing battle against nameless, faceless authority.

The new DVD collection repackages the 2000 “Special Edition,” with significantly expanded extras. The new commentary tracks feature director Hill, screenwriter William Goldman, and cinematographer Conrad Hall. The collection gathers together three new documentaries: “All of What Follows is True: The Making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (2005), “The Wild Bunch: The True Tale of Butch & Sundance” (2005) and “History Through the Lens: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Outlaws Out of Time” (2002). In addition, the extras disc recycles 1994 interviews with Newman, Redford, Ross, Goldman, and composer Burt Bacharach.

It’s a big package, and a worthwhile upgrade. The “Making Of” featurette spills intriguing behind-the-scene details that help you appreciate the scope of the endeavor. Some nuggets: Goldman’s screenplay was bought for a then-record $400,000, and Newman was originally slated to play Sundance, with Jack Lemmon as Butch. Later, when Newman switched to the Butch role, notables such as Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty were considered for Sundance. It was only at the insistence of director Hill, screenwriter Goldman and star Newman that the studio took a chance on the relative newcomer Redford.

It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role now, of course. Newman and Redford’s chemistry are the heart of the film - the easy banter, the casual intimacy. The two actors had never worked together before, but as Butch and Sundance, they’ve clearly been riding together forever. Watch, too, how Redford’s naturalistic acting style, pointing toward the freewheeling 1970s, bounces off Newman’s occasionally mannered approach of the old school. 

The historical documentaries provide another angle into the film. I was very surprised to learn just how much of the story really is historically accurate. Because the script works so well, I’d always assumed considerable license was taken to make the story fit. But no, the disclaimer at the beginning is accurate: Most of what follows is true. Butch really was a gentlemanly bandit, Sundance a lethal gunman. Etta Place really was Sundance’s girl, and really did flee with them to South America. The railroad barons actually assembled a superposse to chase down the gang, and—incredibly—the character of Woodcock really did get robbed by the gang, twice, on the same train.

Taken together, the extras here greatly inform the experience of rewatching the film. If you’ve already seen the movie, and most people have, I’d recommend watching all the extras first, then the film itself. If you’re still hungry for more, go back and watch it again with the commentary track for even more excruciatingly fun minutia. 

Breaking rules and taking chances, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would go on to earn seven Oscar nominations, winning for screenplay, cinematography, score and song. It’s now recognized as one of our great mainstream Hollywood pictures. For once, it all came together properly—brilliant script, inspired direction, beautiful cinematography, and classic performances from its three leads.  With Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Hollywood machine worked the way it’s supposed to work.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - Trailer

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/butch-cassidy-and-the-sundance-kid-1969/