Double Take: ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ (1969)

The two Steves at Double Take are often mistaken for Paul Newman and Robert Redford; so it's appropriate that they shoot it out over Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Steve Leftridge: Okay, I have a lot of questions about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. First of all, why are you rooting for Butch and Sundance since they are criminals who hurt or kill, and steal from people? Specifically, would you be rooting for them if Paul Newman and Robert Redford weren’t such handsome sumbitches?

Steve Pick: I don’t know if I was rooting for them exactly, but I was enjoying their company. I guess that counts for something. I assume the real Butch and Sundance were nasty pieces of work, and nowhere near as pretty as early ’70s male gods: Newman and Redford. But, despite being based on real people who actually robbed trains and moved to Bolivia, the film is a work of fiction, not fact.

Within the film, we don’t actually see Butch and Sundance kill anybody. Butch actually admits to never having shot a man before their showdown with Bolivian forces at the end. If anything, he’s sympathetic to the people he’s hurt, such as the stubborn guard on the train who would rather be blown up than desert his post.

I don’t think I ever expected these two to get away with their crimes in the end. This was made not too long after Bonnie and Clyde, after all, so there was a precedent for congenial outlaws robbing and shooting until they eventually meet a grim outcome. For me, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is about the journey, about the way director George Roy Hill tells the story, and about the pleasure of watching two actors light up the screen with the sheer force of their charisma. So, what questions do you have on your mind?

Leftridge: I think the tendency to avoid bloodshed comes from the stories of the real Butch and Sundance, who had a reputation for non-violent robberies, which makes it a lot easier to side with them. We do see them kill men, but not until they lay waste to a group of Bolivian bandits who robbed and killed Percy, the mining company boss (and the worst tobacco juice spitter in the West), who had hired Butch and Sundance to protect his payroll.

Ironically, the first time Butch ever shoots anyone is when he attempts to go straight and hold a legitimate job. In his many years of robbing banks and trains, he kills no one, so the lines of justice between the legitimate and criminal worlds, as in most of the great westerns, are blurry.

Sundance, for his part, seems like a slightly more hardened dude. He gives Butch a look of surprise when Butch admits that he’s never killed anyone, and I don’t think the Sundance Kid got his reputation as someone to be scared shitless of (such as in the opening card-playing scene) due to his prowess at shooting non-living targets.

Here’s a question about one of the film’s most famous scenes. What do you think of B. J. Thomas’s “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and its appearance in the scene with Newman, Katharine Ross, and the bicycle? What gets accomplished there, and how does the song contribute?

Pick: The character of Etta Place, played by Ross, is not allowed much development in the film, but I did find the bicycle ride to be a sweet interlude. There are two other such breaks in the film: one reducing the move to Bolivia to a series of still photographs, and the other shorter one when they attempt to go straight in that country. Each represents a tonal shift in the way the story is going.

Before the bike ride, Butch and Sundance are completely successful, powerful, in charge, and with nothing to stop them from taking whatever they want. Butch wants sex with the prostitutes in the city, Sundance wants it from his long-time paramour Etta. The bicycle scene is the first evidence of real tenderness in Butch’s character, and the first indication that Etta could be a love the two partners shared.

For Butch, however, it’s a love he has to deny. The song itself is so iconic by this time that I can’t put myself in the place of a contemporary viewer, who may have suddenly been jarred out of their seat by the placement of a modern pop song in the middle of what seemed like a classic Western up to that point.

However, the montage of stills showing the move across country and the trio’s time in New York did make me sit up in the middle of watching this film for the first time. That was something I hadn’t been expecting, and it was such a perfect dividing line between the time spent in the US and the time spent in Bolivia. Even when they were running from the virtually unknowable posse of lawful pursuers, Butch and Sundance were in their own element: covering terrain they understood, and capable of regaining control at any time.

In a foreign land, however, they were never presiding over their own fate. What did you think about that montage, and the general way Hill structured the film?

Leftridge: Love it. It’s a story in three acts. Act One, introduced with an old sepia-toned, Edwin S. Porter-style film reel about Butch and Sundance, introduces the two men as we see them robbing banks, leading the Hole in the Wall gang (Harvey, Flatnose, News, etc.), twice holding up the Union Pacific Flyer and its haplessly loyal employee Woodcock, and Sundance having Etta strip at gunpoint. The “Raindrops” montage (B.J. Thomas is still touring today at 72) serves as a segue to the mesmerizing Act Two.

In Act two, our boys are being chased by a posse, apparently led by master tracker Lord Baltimore and white-hat-wearing Sheriff Jeff Lefore: the “toughest lawman in the West”.

Act Three, chronicling Butch, Sundance, and Etta’s exploits in South America, is introduced by the photo montage you described, and I felt happy for the trio as I watched that photo sequence (living it up in Manhattan, riding the old twister ride on Coney Island, etc.), a mighty long way from that “Oh, shit” moment when they jumped off the cliff.

All right, it’s time to play interpret that quote. Here’s one from Sheriff Ray Bledsoe, whom Butch and Sundance asked to help them go straight by enlisting in the Army to go fight in the Spanish-American War: “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 nothin’ 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.” Butch just stares at him as though he knows it’s true.

What do you make of this, Steve? How does Bledsoe know the truth? What does it all mean with respect to the broader themes of the film?

Pick: Broader themes, you ask? Heck, isn’t that the broadest theme we’ve got here: time marches on, and all of us can either change with them or face obsolescence? Butch and Sundance were very good at what they did until trains stopped being so easy to rob. Horses weren’t actually replaced by bicycles, but they would soon be replaced by automobiles. Outlaws could make a decent living for themselves until they got caught by the forces of justice.

Of course, Hill complicates these ideas by having Butch and Sundance realize they can’t continue on their chosen career path, trying to turn over not one, but multiple new leaves. First, they leave their country to try robbery in Bolivia, then they try to simply work for a living, then they decide to go out in a blaze of outlaw glory by returning to what they thought they knew best.

It’s not as though these two characters are all that self-aware. Butch realizes more than Sundance that things are changing, but he doesn’t realize that Bledsoe is forecasting his doom. How does Bledsoe know the truth? Well, obviously, because George Roy Hill wanted a blatant foreshadowing of the last part of the film, but also because Bledsoe doesn’t have a stake in the game staying the same. He’s a sheriff, and he has to be aware that the type of robberies which had made the West so Wild were fading fast. He also has probably met enough outlaws to realize they aren’t, in general, a particularly adaptable bunch when it comes to changing their stripes.

What he doesn’t know, however, is the role outside forces will come to play in the lives of Butch and Sundance, who spend the last two-thirds of the film running from posses, fighting bandits, and being cornered by police. How do you think that relates to the idea that people have any control over their lives at all?

Leftridge: You and your damned fatalism. Well, I think your aim is true on Bledsoe’s quote in that it was too late for Butch-Dance to change their ways and would, therefore, “die bloody”. The film doesn’t give us enough backstory to determine the naturalistic factors that caused these two men to take, and then stay on, the reckless path they “chose”, but, yeah, there are powerful forces at work on them, and the film posits that they’re married to a life of two-bit crime until death does them part.

There can be no real turnaround for these guys: not in the army, not in the arms of a loyal woman, not in Bolivia. They’re like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, forced to wander between the winds, never quite able to enter society properly even if they wanted to. Etta also knows how this story will end, and she, for one, does exercise some free will by returning to the States and leaving the men to fend for themselves in Bolivia: “I’ll do anything you ask of me, except one thing: I won’t watch you die”.

Death is hunting them down all right, personified by the posse that tracks them with seemingly supernatural skill. Like mortality itself, the posse is faceless, unflinching, and relentless. Perhaps this is why we never get a clear look at their pursuers, only very distant views. “Don’t they get tired? Don’t they get hungry?” Butch asks. Apparently not, and they can track anybody anywhere: over rock, in day or night, etc. So Butch and Sundance must choose between being taken forcefully into death by their pursuers, like, say, getting into a can’t win shootout against superior numbers, or taking themselves into death by their own volition, like jumping off a cliff into a raging river 100 feet below them — even though Sundance can’t swim.

They miraculously survive that one, but in the end … well, how about that end? Why did they go out like that? They totally fucked up the chance for megahit sequels.

Pick: Ah, the good old days, when the best and biggest movies weren’t always automatic candidates for sequels. Although, since Butch and Sundance survived that leap off the cliff, they may have been able to walk through a hail of gunfire with only a couple of flesh wounds, right? It’s all about believing in one’s own legend, or at least the legend created by the director.

The ending is inevitable, and I actually like that we weren’t explicitly shown the bullet-riddled bodies à la the earlier referencedBonnie and Clyde. Because Butch Newman and Sundance Redford are larger than life, throughout this film their charisma carries them across obstacles great and small, in explicit action or through the art of montage.

We’ve seen way too many bromance movies in the decades since George Roy Hill told this tale, but their relationship to each other is at the center of it all. Maybe they never got closer to each other than the shared love for Etta Place (one of the great character names of cinema), but neither did they even let death separate them at the end. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid exists as a film to connect these two actors in these two roles, and that’s reason enough to love it.