Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Director: George Roy Hill
Screenplay: William Goldman
Stars: Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy), Robert Redford (The Sundance Kid), Katharine Ross (Etta Place), Strother Martin (Percy Garris), Henry Jones (Bike Salesman), Jeff Corey (Sheriff Bledsoe), George Furth (Woodcock), Cloris Leachman (Agnes), Ted Cassidy (Harvey Logan), Kenneth Mars (Marshal)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1969
Country: USA
Butch Casidy and the Sundance Kid Poster

Nineteen-sixty-nine was a strange year for the Western genre in Hollywood. It was both a year of great success and the end of an era.

On the plus side, Westerns dominated the box office and the Academy Awards: John Wayne won his first and last Oscar for his performance as the drunken Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit"; the neo-Western "Midnight Cowboy" took home Best Picture and Best Director; and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," which was widely expected to win all the Oscars that were awarded to "Midnight Cowboy," still went home with Best Original Screenplay, Best Song, Best Musical Score, and Best Cinematography.

Yet, 1969 was also the end of the Western genre as it had been known. It was the year of "The Wild Bunch," Sam Peckinpah's bloody ode to the death of Western mythology, a film in which William Holden's Pike Bishop declares, "We're finished, all of us." "Midnight Cowboy," with its appropriation of Western motifs as a means to explore modern alienation in the big city, was another signifier than an era was at an end. And, even "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," which would seem on its surface to be the most conventional and unproblematic of the '69 Westerns, was also a harbringer of the Western's demise. As a friendly sherriff tells the film's outlaw heroes, Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford), "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. "

In this way, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" has a great deal in common with "The Wild Bunch" thematically. Both take place at the beginning of the 20th century, thus marking the end of the Old West; both feature traditional outlaws who are becoming anachronisms in the new world order; and both feature climaxes in which those outlaws are gunned down by swarms of modern soldiers.

However, the difference between the two films can be summed up in their final images: While "The Wild Bunch" concludes with the honorable Pike as nothing more than a dead body slung over a horse, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" concludes with a freeze-frame in which Butch and Sundance rush out from their protective hiding place, guns blazing, into a hailstorm of bullets that surely kill them. Yet, it is the final image of Butch and Sundance alive and well, fighting to the end, that stays with us, not the image of their bullet ridden bodies.

This is key because "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" is a romanticized Western comedy. The film opens with the phrase "Most of what follows is true," but writer Williams Goldman ("The Princess Bride") has done little to stick to the historical facts. Factually, Butch and Sundance were outlaws in the late 1800s, but Goldman simply appropriated their names and fit them into an experimental Western where the traditions of the genre are violated in a way that better reflected the uneasy sensibilities in America at the end of the 1960s.

This is a difficult film to get a handle on, and the fact that it has been lionized as an undisputed classic makes that task even more difficult. The film did receive some negative criticism when it was first released (most notably by Pauline Kael, who said the whole film "rings false"), but for the most part it was greatly loved and admired. Granted, there are many reasons that it would meet with such acclaim. Paul Newman and Robert Redford are the epitome of what it means to be a movie star, and their combined charisma and screen presence is almost overwhelming. The cinematography by Conrad L. Hall (who recently won his second Oscar for "American Beauty") is dark and often washed out, yet oddly beautiful and richly evocative. And William Goldman's script contains a handful of truly great lines; it's a minimalist screenplay in which not a whole lot happens, yet the characters are given life and vitality.

But, on the other hand, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" is a troublesome piece of work. It is, after all, much lighter and thinner than most of its admirers want to admit. Like "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), it is an almost shameless celebration of the criminal, yet it doesn't have the same subversive undercurrents and exhilarating rhythms that gave "Bonnie and Clyde" its edge. In fact, the rhythm of "Butch Cassidy" is really quite bizarre : Only this film could mix a goofy, pratfall-ridden bicycle-riding sequence scored to Burt Bacharach's "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" with a shoot-out in Bolivia in which half a dozen Bolivian bandits are killed in Peckinpah-like slow motion.

Director George Roy Hill, who would later team up with Newman and Redford again for "The Sting" (1973), keeps the comedy at the forefront for most of the film. The best scenes are the early moments, especially when Butch and Sundance and their "Hole in the Wall" gang rob a payroll train and find themselves faced with a sincerely dedicated young man named Woodcock (George Furth), who repeated asserts that he works "for Mr. E.H. Harriman of the Pacific Union Railroad." While these initial scenes are funny and whimsical, they are also foreshadowing of a darker future in which Mr. E.H. Harriman ceases to be a joke and becomes Butch and Sundance's worst nightmare when he hires a band of almost supernatural bounty hunters who track them over every conceivable land surface. "Who are those guys?" Butch and Sundance keep asking each other in the film's most famous and prophetic line.

Although "those guys" are eventually given human names and understood as a carefully selected posse sent out with one order--kill Butch and Sundance--it is not hard to see them in a more symbolic light. If Butch and Sundance are the last link to the mythology of the Old West, "those guys" are the encroaching urbanization, modernization, and capitalist greed that would eventual wipe them out. The film argues that there's no room in the 20th century for likable train-robbing bandits.

This is one of the strongest aspects of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid": Like many films in the late '60s and early '70s (especially anything made by Robert Altman), it can be read on multiple levels, both conservative and subversive, and sustain those readings. While some see the film as an enjoyably humorous popcorn flick, it is also a window into the time and place in which it was made. It is a Western by convention, but there is much more to it. And, while the film is not as good as its many admirers claim, it is still an enjoyable parody and an important cinematic milestone.


Widescreen: 2.35:1
16x9 Enhanced: Yes
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Languages: English, French
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: Audio commentary by George Roy Hill, Hal David, Robert Crawford, and Conrad Hall; three theatrical trailers; 45-minute documentary "The Making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"; 1994 interviews with cast and crew; production notes
Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Video: The new THX-certified anamorphic transfer is wonderful. Conrad L. Hall's dusty, oversaturated photography is given new life. Color, while intentionally faded, still looks good, and detail is sharp. The transfer was made from a good source because there are no scratches or dust to be found. This is not the case of the additional documentary, which shows quite a bit of wear and tear. It is instructive to compare the scenes from the movie included on the documentary to the actual scenes and observe the astounding difference between the two in terms of color, clarity, and cleanliness.

Audio: The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack is adequate, but not particularly impressive. Dialogue is easy to hear and there is no audible hiss, but everything sounds just a little flat and dull.

Extras: This disc is equipped with a solid set of extras, all of which were lifted directly from the 1994 25th-anniversary laser disc edition. The running audio commentary with director George Roy Hill, lyricist Hal David, associate producer Robert Crawford, and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall is enjoyable and informative, as are the separate on-camera interviews with Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross, William Goldman, and Burt Bacharach. By combining the commentary and the interviews, you get information from every major creative force involved in the film, which is a rarity. The disc also includes a 45-minute documentary made in 1968 on 16-mm film by associate producer Robert Crawford. The documentary is interesting for two reasons: First, because it was made during the actual production of the film by someone closely associated with it, and secondly because it incorporates a great deal of actual production footage that shows how the film was made (especially interesting is the behind-the-scenes look at how the famous cliff jumping sequence was done--it was much more complicated than just a simple stunt). Overall, this disc includes a very nice set of supplementary materials that truly enlightens the viewing experience.

Copyright ©2000 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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