Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid(1969), starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford and, Directed by George Roy Hill, is one of the most popular Westerns ever made. The film made a star out of Redford and revitalized the Western genre,but, it is writer William Goldman who leaves the strongest imprint on the film, with his quirky, revisionist take on the mythology of the legendary western outlaws
“Boy, y’know, every time I see ‘Hole in the Wall’ again, it’s like seeing it fresh for the first time”
We, the fans, of Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid feel the same way about this 1969 film as Paul Newman’s Butch Cassidy feel about ‘Hole in the Wall’; every time we watch it, it radiates a freshness that make it appear brand new. Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid is a very different kind of western and came at a time when American cinema was undergoing radical changes. The ‘Western’ was the pre-eminent American film genre in the first part of the twentieth century.. The first American film, The Great train Robbery, made in 1903 was a western. The forties and fifties are considered the golden age of Westerns, with every movie star in town, even modern, ‘method’ actors like Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando (who also directed a western), saddling up as western heroes. But by the end of 1960’s, the ‘Western’ was dying and there were several reasons for this:
- There was a glut of westerns on television that ate up the market for movie westerns.
- The emergence of a new Hollywood with an emphasis on ‘modern’ , contemporary stories with complex characters that was in direct contrast to the more simplistic Western films with their traditional heroes and resolutions.
- Most of the major Western stars like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Randolph Scott, …were either too old, retired or dead now; I think it was Pauline Kael who commented around that time that the audience went for westerns these days to see whether the aging stars can still get on the horse.
- People started making more westerns outside America and the Euro-westerns (popularly referred to as the spaghetti westerns), especially the ones made by Sergio Leone – that subverted the traditional American western – became extremely popular all around the world, including America.
- And above all, the times changed and the traditional western just wouldn’t connect with an America rattled by Vietnam, civil unrest and political strife.
But in 1969, two very different westerns were released that infused fresh blood into this dying genre: The Wild Bunch by Sam Peckinpah and Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid by George Roy Hill; these two films twisted, turned and expanded the genre and took it to a very different place than before, albeit in very different ways. The Wild Bunch amplified the blood, bullets, violence and machismo associated with the Western and showed how gruesome (and pointless) the gunfights and the killings really are. It was a cynical, nihilistic western that portrayed its heroes as immoral , debauched anti-heroes. Butch Cassidy also portrayed the protagonists as anti heroes, but, it cut down on the blood and guts and concentrated on de-mythologizing its heroes by portraying them as goofy, bickering, bumbling cowards: who chose to runaway rather than fight their opponents; a far cry from the John Wayne style square-jawed, manly heroes of classic Westerns. The film brought humor ,irony , pathos and irreverence to the genre. Though generally considered a western, it’s a unique hybrid of a lot of genres: It’s a buddy comedy; It’s a Jules and Jim style avant-garde Euro-romance (with the character of school teacher Etta Place (Katherine Ross), in the middle of the titular duo, rounding out the threesome); It’s a road movie in the style of the old Hope-Crosby movies; It’s a ‘Robin-hood’ style exploration of two lovable, charming outlaws; It’s a chase movie, where two thirds of the film is about the outlaws on the run with the law close behind; Hell!, it even has songs. In spite of all this, the film is still a western or rather a meta-western: the film contains (or intentionally includes) every element of a classic western; Gunfights, long rides through the wild country side, Train hold ups, bank robberies, a super posse to chase down the bandits and two drop dead gorgeous leading men (and a lady), yet, the film is constantly ‘sending up’ on the tropes of the traditional western, though it remains more or less ‘straight’ and doesn’t exactly parody the genre as Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles(1974)
The film Begins with the scroll: Most Of What Follows is True
The tongue in cheek quality of the opening scroll is maintained in every scene and character in the movie; Characters (and events) are taken from real life and exaggerated to the point of being ridiculous and surreal. The film begins with a quirky title sequence: sepia-toned, pseudo newsreel footage of bandit action in the old west (very reminiscent of The Great Train Robbery); a movie within a movie setup that emphasizes the film’s meta nature. The scene and the spare, melancholic score, sets a perfect mood for the film to follow. Butch Cassidy is, what can be refereed to as, an ‘End of the West‘ western; the film being mainly about the death of the ‘Old West’ and with it a certain way of life. Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Longabaugh, a.k.a. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, played respectively by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, are bank (and train) robbers who, with their ‘Hole in the wall ‘ gang, operated during the turn of the 20th century. As we know, the turn of the century proved to be a period of rapid transformations in the American West; the advent of modern technology brought with it superior modes of transportation and communication that enabled the law to catch up with the outlaws easily. Obviously, Butch and Sundance find themselves out of place in this new West and they do their best to adapt to the changing times. Ironically, this was what the Western genre was also trying to do in the late 1960’s; In this regard, the movie is trying to do in its time, what the characters within the film are trying to do in their time: Adapting to survive; but while the lead characters in the film chose to runaway to a more primitive Bolivia ,where they would meet their end, the film(and the filmmakers) chose to embrace the ‘New Hollywood’ aesthetic of the counterculture age (which was predominantly inspired from then contemporary European art cinema, which itself was a postmodern take on golden age Hollywood cinema ) and created the first ‘modern’ western, for which they would be handsomely rewarded.
The story starts in Wyoming where the goofy, talkative Butch Cassidy and the tightly coiled, laconic (but dim-witted) Sundance Kid are seen robbing the trains of the Union Pacific. The first of the post-credits scenes gives a good indication as to the kind of the film its going to be: The color palette is still sepia-toned monochrome. We open with a tight closeup of Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy inspecting a bank and the camera remains on his face throughout this scene, before it cuts to a tight closeup of Redford as Sundance playing poker. The camera spends as much time on Redford’s face as it does on Newman’s – making it clear that he is as much the hero of the piece as Newman, even though Newman was the biggest star in the world at the time and Redford was just a familiar face who had yet to attain stardom. The camera stays tight on these two heroes for a full 7 minutes, before it opens out into the western wilderness; Monochrome gives way to color and we see the two heroes riding horses through the rugged terrain. These scenes make it clear that this is a character driven film without much of a plot; the film is going to simply follow these characters in the final chapter of their life: a sequence of events triggered by a threat to the survival of the protagonists and its resolution. Their actions to survive in a rapidly changing world will constitute the plot, making this a one of a kind existential Western tragicomedy. Though very much a counter-cultural western, the film is devoid of angst or moodiness, with the narrative being primarily driven by dry humor. It’s also devoid of ‘method’ realism and grittiness; it survives on its leading men’s star personalities – very much like the classic Westerns of yore which is driven by the star performances of a John Wayne or Gary Cooper – and, not on their ‘character’ acting, as was the case with ‘New Hollywood’ cinema. The characters are modern and the dialogues have a very contemporary (1960’s) feel to it, albeit very stylized. This makes it a very unique combination of the modern and the traditional; its a very topical film for the late 1960’s, which somehow also turned out to be quite timeless; it is also a very kinetic film – especially in the action sequences – but within a very elegiac mood piece. And like the Euro-art films it has been inspired from, the film is very much a postmodern work, though not very overt and in your face as a Sergio Leone Western; the film mainly references John Ford’s western The Man who shot Liberty Valance in its ‘End of the West’ tone and socio-politics.
The film came at a time when the debate over the auteur theory was at it’s peak; the New Hollywood cinema considered the Director to be the ultimate author of the film and was granting him unlimited freedom in shaping the movies. Butch Cassidy has such a unique vision that it comes across as a sustained duel between Screenwriter William Goldman and director George Roy Hill to outdo each other in putting their imprint on the film; Goldman loves his lead characters, Hill loves his lead actors; Goldman loves his quirky dialogue and character behavior; Hill loves the lively interplay between his charismatic stars who are born to light up the screen. Newman and Redford has the kind of bromantic chemistry that would triumph the romantic chemistry of Tracy & Hepburn and Bogart & Bacall. Goldman tries to create the most ‘out of the box’ scenes and dialogues from familiar western tropes, Hill takes it to the next level with his visualization in which he is helped immensely by eminent cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, who won an Oscar for his groundbreaking photography. Butch Cassidy is one of those films like Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese- Paul Schrader – Robert De Niro) where the director and the actors are in perfect sync with the unique vision of the writer, who imagines a totally original piece from a familiar genre. Goldman achieves this by mixing a lot of different tones, emotions and aesthetics, which on paper might appear contradictory, but it works like pure magic on screen, thanks mainly to Newman and Redford as well as the visual chutzpah of Director George Roy Hill, who is a master at making lively entertainment even within the framework of a tragic story. I would say the script would not have reached its full potential on screen (or even transcended it many times) if the lead characters were played by somebody else. Just take the second train robbery sequence, which would become a major turning point in the film: The scene begins with Butch and Kid stopping the train and encountering the Union Pacific employee Woodcock(George Furth), the stubborn, ‘patriotic’, and loyal agent for E. H. Harriman, the President of the Railroad, who protects the safe . The outlaws had an encounter with Woodcock in the earlier train hold up, in which he was badly wounded. Butch ask him to open the door so that he can take a look at him, Woodcock doesn’t comply. Meanwhile, an elderly lady steps out of the train and starts berating the outlaws.
“I’m a grandmother and a female and I’ve got my rights!…You can bull all the others but you can’t bull me. I’ve fought whiskey and I’ve fought gambling, and I can certainly fight you”.
Sundance says ‘we have no time for this‘ as he moves menacingly towards the lady. The scene then cuts to Woodcock inside the train, who hears the cries of help from the lady and threats of violence by the outlaws. Woodcock has no other option but to open the door, and when he does, he realizes that he has been duped; the Lady’s cries of help where actually made by Butch, while Sundance is holding the Lady’s mouth shut. So what started out as a ‘real’ scene has now become humorous and farcical. Then Sundance uses dynamite to blast open the money safe, but he uses too much dynamite and it completely wrecks the train car. The explosion would have easily killed Butch and Sundance who were standing right in front of the train. But we see both of them getting up from underneath the rubble and the money is flying all around. They just laugh and start gathering all the money; the scene that was farcical has now become surreal. Next, they see another train arrive and stop at some distance from them. This is the train carrying the super posse, led by lawman Laefors, hired by The Union Pacific to hunt down Butch and Sundance; so now, the film gets back to being ‘real’. But its again a very stylized form of realism, where we see all six members of the posse jumping out of the train exactly at the same moment (achieved through some brilliant editing and sound design). This is a pivotal point in the film: from this point on to the end, the film is going to be one long chase. It will take the titular duo (accompanied by Etta Place) to New York and then all the way to Bolivia, with the Posse close behind them. In actuality, though the Super Posse was hired by the Union Pacific to hunt down Butch and Sundance, they never did any active pursuit of the duo. The moment Butch and Sundance heard that the super posse is on their trail, they fled the country.
This mixture of real and surreal, serious and farcical, mythical and whimsical is almost impossible to pull off. But that’s exactly what Director George Roy Hill and writer William Goldman manages to pull off here in collaboration with Newman and Redford. The super posse are presented as a sort of mythic, supernatural force that’s going to keep coming at the outlaws; they are representative of the modernism that is encroaching in to the old west. A force that the two outlaws find impossible to understand or evade, no matter what they try (and we do see them hatching a lot of clever plans to hoodwink their pursuers, but all in vain). For the duration of the chase, the film places the audience in Butch and Kid’s shoes. We see what they see and like them we too keep asking the same question: ‘who are those guys?‘. There are other motifs, like the bicycle, which is used to represent the modern age. There is a scene early on in the film, where the town Marshal is trying to organize a posse to go after Butch and his gang, but the townsfolk are much more interested in the demonstration of a bicycle; When Newman takes Katherine Ross’ Etta for a ride on a bicycle, we hear a 1960’s style song playing in the background; and finally, when the trio decides to leave the west for Bolivia, Newman throws the bicycle away, saying that ‘the future is all yours you lousy bicycle‘. Its an acceptance that their worst fears has come true. From now on, it’s the machine that will run the west, not the men riding horses. Goldman’s script for the film was sold for then record sum of four hundred thousand dollars to Twentieth century-Fox studios. The sale almost cost Fox chief Richard Zanuck his job, because no one has ever paid that kind of money for a script. But his faith in the script was vindicated in the end when the film became a blockbuster. Apart from juggling the contrasting tones and moods of the piece brilliantly, Goldman scores with his dialogues; even the most serious stuff are conveyed humorously, with Goldman packing the film with great one liners. Butch being the goofy, affable one gets the best lines in the film. At one moment in the chase, he blurts out
If he’d just pay me what he’s spending to make me stop robbing him, I’d stop robbing him.
Butch: You know, when I was a kid, I always thought I was gonna grow up to be a hero.
Sundance: Well, it’s too late now.
Butch: What’d you say something like that for? You didn’t have to say something like that.
Or the scene on the cliff , when they are surrounded by the super posse. Butch wants to jump into the river below and escape, while Sundance want to fight it out. The conversation goes something like this
- Butch: Would you jump if you didn’t have to?
- Sundance: I have to and I’m not gonna.
- Butch: I’ll jump first.
- Sundance: Nope.
- Butch: Then you jump first.
- Sundance: No, I said!
- Butch: What’s the matter with you?!
- Sundance: I can’t swim!
- Butch: [laughing] Why, you crazy — the fall’ll probably kill ya!
Then the famous cliff-jumping scene happens. The steep fall into the river would have killed lesser mortals, but, keeping with the tone of the film, they both survive; even when they are being swept away by the river, they are still arguing and fighting.
It’s hard to imagine this film without Newman and Redford. But before them, actors like Jack Lemmon, Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando were considered for the roles. Redford was not a star when he started making this film; he became one after its release. There was a huge Imbalance between Redford and Newman (who was then the King of Box office) in both box office clout and age (Newman was 44, Redford was 32), but they play off each other brilliantly. Redford, the straight man with a dry sense of humor to Newman’s talkative goofball. There is another angle to their casting which is in tune with the nature of the film. Newman is a product of the old Hollywood studio system, but he is a modern actor, being an alumni of the Actor’s studio. Redford is exactly the opposite. He is an old fashioned star-actor (in the vein of the great studio era stars like Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant) but he became a superstar in the age of ‘New Hollywood’, amidst (modern actors turned) stars like Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson. This contrast works very well for this film, which is grappling with the conflict between the traditional and modern both within and without. Both the actors are present in almost every scene of the film and their contrasting styles and character tics – Newman plays Butch as a sort of effeminate, cowardly goofball who has never fired the gun in his life, while Redford is the macho, mustachioed dead shot – keeps the proceedings alive even when the movie runs out of steam (which does happen a lot in the second half). Though the film is chock-full of great acting moments, i think the best acting they do is in the final sequence: where they have to transcend the written material and show their pain and anguish – of being shot, wounded and being near-death. After his Bolivian adventure has flopped, Butch, the visionary and eternal dreamer had now set his sights on Australia as his next destination. But they have to first get out of the tricky situation they find themselves in. They are holed up in an empty stucco building and surrounded by, what looks like, the entire Bolivian army, who are waiting to gun them down . but the duo continue with their bantering.
Butch: I got a great idea where we should go next.
Sundance: I don’t want to hear it.
Butch: You’ll change your mind when I tell ya.
Sundance: Shut up.
Butch: OK, OK.
Sundance: It’s your great ideas that got us here.
Butch: Forget about it.
Sundance: I don’t ever want to hear another one of your ideas. All right?
Butch: All right.
Butch: Australia – I figured secretly you wanted to know, so I told ya. Australia.
Sundance: That’s your great idea?
Butch: Oh, the greatest in a long line.
Sundance: Australia’s no better than here.
Butch: That’s all you know.
Sundance: Name me one thing better.
Butch: They speak English in Australia.
Sundance: They do?
Butch: That’s right, smart guy, so we wouldn’t be foreigners. They got horses in Australia. And they got thousands of mountains you can hide out in. And good climate. Nice beaches. You could learn to swim.
Sundance: No swimming! It isn’t important. What about the banks?
Butch: They’re easy. Easy, ripe, and luscious.
Sundance: The banks or the women?
Butch: Once you’ve got one, you’ve got the other.
Sundance: It’s a long way, isn’t it?
Butch: Ah, everything’s got to be perfect with you.
Sundance: I just don’t want to get there and find out it stinks – that’s all.
Butch: At least think about it.
Sundance: All right, I’ll think about it.
Butch: Now after we…. wait a minute…
Butch: You didn’t see Lefors out there?
Sundance: Lefors ? No.
Butch: Good. For a minute there I thought we were in trouble.”
All this right before the moment they get gunned down. of course we don’t see them killed. The camera freezes on Butch and Kid as they come charging out with their guns blazing; we only hear the orders of the captain to fire at them and we hear the sound of gunshots; the freeze frame fades to sepia – transforming them into legends (as The Man who shot Liberty Valance famously stated). So the characters who walked out of sepia images in the beginning of the film, now returns to the same in the end; they are now part of history or rather the western Mythology. It’s also a great irony that these two outlaws of the old west, who were destroyed by the arrival of the modern era was finally immortalized , not in a traditional western, but in a modern one.
At the time of it’s release, the film was panned by the critics, mainly for making fun of of the classical western tropes . Goldman blamed the poor reviews on his record setting salary that infuriated a lot of people. But i feel it was mainly due to the mixture of tones and tropes that the filmmakers were going for. It was very much a a first of it kind and, as it is the norm, people failed to fully grasp it. It was not a traditional John Ford western. it was not a full blown postmodern Sergio Leone western like Once upon a time in the West. Both Goldman and Hill were going for a ‘revisionist’ western in their own crazy way. It was a very personal film, as was the case with ‘New Hollywood’ cinema. The reaction of the audience was totally opposite to that of the critics; they simply lapped up the film. It became the biggest blockbuster of 1969 and, it is still one of the biggest money makers of all time. The film’s critical reputation has continued to grow over the years and, today, its considered a genuine classic. An interesting (and perhaps ironic) offshoot of the film is that both Paul Newman and Robert Redford would go on to create non profit organizations for serving the society based on their characters in the film. Newman founded Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for serving children and their families coping with cancer and other serious illnesses . Redford created the Sundance Institute committed to the growth of independent artists.