Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
“They’re taking trains… They’re taking banks and they’re taking one piece of baggage!”
Director: George Roy Hill
Cast: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross
Synopsis: Two Western bank/train robbers flee to Bolivia when the law gets too close.
WARNING! This review contains SPOILERS!
Wyoming in the early 1900s and the dying days of the wild west sees the affable Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the taciturn Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) plying their dubious trade with a certain measure of style. So agreeable is the experience of being robbed by them that one victim, the representative of the railway line whose trains they keep robbing, frankly admits that if it were his money, there would be nobody he would rather have steal it. Unfortunately for the boys, E. H. Harriman, this chap’s employer, doesn’t feel quite the same way, and employs a crack posse comprised of the finest trackers and bounty hunters in the West to hunt them down.
We never see the faces of this sinister posse as it relentlessly chases Butch and Sundance across country. They represent a past of which the two will never be free, and the wilderness into which the outlaws flee is a bleak illustration of the future that awaits. The strategically placed sepia sequences position them both in a past which is detached not only from the future, but also the present. Eventually, they shake off their pursuers by jumping from a suicidal height into a rapidly flowing river that carries them away, but they soon realise that this respite is only a temporary one. Hiding out at the home of Sundance’s lover, the schoolteacher Etta Place (Katherine Ross), they decide to travel to Bolivia, hoping it will be far enough away to encourage Harriman to disband the posse which has been gathered for the sole purpose of ending their lives. As they leave, Butch throws the bicycle on which he had earlier playfully entertained Etta — and which represents the future — into a brook.
Bolivia initially proves a difficult territory for them, with language in particular proving a barrier when they attempt to hold up the local banks, but they persevere and eventually make a success of it. Unfortunately, this success alerts Harriman and his posse to their whereabouts, and it’s not long before the boys and Etta are on the move again…
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a landmark movie in the history of Hollywood, not because it admires the bad guys — gangster movies of the ‘30s did that all the time — but because it heralded the beginning of the buddy movie, a sub-genre which has since mutated into the ‘bromance’ tag. Before Butch and Sundance, movies had never before depicted the deep bond of friendship two men can enjoy, and, never slow to exploit a successful formula, Hollywood proceeded to churn out a seemingly endless stream of similar movies. Of course, with Butch and Sundance, director George Roy Hill and writer William Goldman — one of Hollywood’s more intelligent scribes — had to not so much alter the facts so much as completely re-invent them.
Goldman’s script goes out of its way to ensure that the movie’s audience is firmly on the side of its two anti-heroes, not only by making the most of the undeniable chemistry shared by Newman and Redford, but by allowing Newman’s performance to often overshadow that of Redford, who has never been comfortable with comedy even when its disguised as a feel-good vein in an ultimately downbeat movie (two men, out of their time and place, are hounded to their deaths) despite the way it has been heavily romanticised. The script ensures we never see Butch or Sundance kill anyone other than a bunch of greedy bandits and the faceless police and militia who are trying to gun them down. And they slaughter the bandits while working on the side of the law…
So while Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a hugely enjoyable movie-going experience, there’s a certain cynicism in Goldman’s writing that becomes increasingly apparent the more times you watch the film, and which casts him as a kind of puppet-master pulling our strings. Nevertheless, if you can look beyond this aspect of the writing, you’ll be rewarded with a consistently entertaining tale featuring a couple of Hollywood legends at the top of their game.
(Reviewed 26th March 2013)