Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Glenn McDonald

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.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Director: George Roy Hill
Cast: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katherine Ross
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: 20th Century Fox
First date: 1969
US DVD Release Date: 2006-06-06
Amazon affiliate

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






'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.