BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969)

  • Director: George Roy Hill
  • Writer: William Goldman
  • Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katherine Ross, Strother Martin, George Furth, Cloris Leachman, and Ted Cassidy
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#73), 4 Oscars (Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Original Song – “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” Best Cinematography), 3 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – George Roy Hill, Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Hulu, buy or rent on Amazon Video,  YouTube, or Apple TV

1969 was the year of The Wild Bunch, Easy Rider, and Midnight Cowboy, all of which came two years after Bonnie and Clyde (aka just long enough for people to have watched Bonnie and Clyde and then decided to make a movie). All of these are (at least sort of) deeply cynical, sometimes violent westerns where (spoilers) we watch the heroes die at the end. Also coming out that year was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which is also a western about outlaws where (spoilers) the heroes die at the end. But it could hardly be called “cynical,” and unlike all those other movies, it freeze frames at the end before anyone actually gets shot. Even as they’re wounded and probably dying, Butch and Sundance are still busy wisecracking with each other. It feels more like the ancestor to the modern blockbuster than any of the rest of those movies.

Paul Newman and Robert Redford star somewhat effortlessly as the title characters, Butch Cassidy and “The Sundance Kid,” respectively, who run “The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang” until their train robberies catch the wrong kind of attention. Relentlessly pursued through some spectacular western landscapes by a “superposse” hired by a railroad magnate, they eventually split for South America with Sundance’s nominal girlfriend Etta Place (Katherine Ross). In Bolivia, they attempt to keep robbing things and also briefly attempt to “go straight” (where they actually end up killing people, something they pointedly never did as criminals). They end up attempting to fight the entire Bolivian army before they burst out of a door for the iconic final freeze frame.

The tone, in the meantime, is more genial than anything. At no point do either Butch or Sundance actually seem like “bad guys,” despite their blowing up the occasional train car. They just want to live outside society and take stuff from the guy who runs the trains. Then they go to South America, have trouble learning Spanish, and yell at each other while getting shot at. It feels very much like the 1969 ancestor of a Marvel movie. Which honestly is basically what I want a non-significant percentage of the time.

Anyway, the whole thing is apparently fairly true to the actual history, in the sense that Butch and Sundance were in fact affable, as outlaws go, and refused to shoot anyone or actually rob anyone personally (Jesse James, by contrast, used to go through the trains and rob all the passengers of their valuables, Butch and Sundance were not into that). They were also known as “the last outlaws,” because they were smarter about planning getaways and things until they eventually fled to South America and fought the Bolivian Army. In the meantime, they lived into the 20th Century to a time where organized law enforcement mostly caught up with the guys outside society who previously would just disappear into the wide open spaces. It seems crazy that they were modern enough that Butch’s sister actually hung out on the site and consulted on the movie, but that happened.

Meanwhile, director George Roy Hill seemed congenitally incapable of making a cynical anything. He cut a bunch of the jokes from the original movie, because he left a test screening horrified that people were “laughing at my tragedy.” Somehow he thought it made perfect sense to score his “tragedy” with Burt Bacharach tunes, including “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” which I doubt many people today realize came from this movie. Anyway, it all added up to the biggest hit of the year, which was clearly very influential on a bunch of later movies, because shockingly it was the kind of movie that regular people actually wanted to watch over and over. The movie lost out on the big Oscars, primarily to Midnight Cowboy (far less likable but seen as “more important”). Hill, however, would win a few years later for The Sting, which also re-teamed Newman and Redford.

Paul Newman was already a big star, while Robert Redford was a known actor who became a superstar on the basis of this movie. Neither is ever anything but incredibly likable here. Both, to their credit, used their fame as a springboard for a wide variety of charitable endeavors. Newman would found a still-running food company, “Newman’s Own,” that gives all of its profits to charity, as well as the “Hole in the Wall Ranch,” named after the gang from this movie, for the purpose of helping families suffering from childhood cancer. Among other work Redford went on to found the wildly successful annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, which was for a long time, and still might be, the primary showcase for new independent films looking for buyers. 

As for the movie itself, its success also spawned a more commercial series of off-shoots. There would be a nominal prequel (Butch and Sundance: The Early Years), starring Tom Berenger as Butch and William Katt (best known today as the lead in The Greatest American Hero) as Sundance, a semi-successful TV series called Alias Smith and Jones (about two outlaws on the run trying to earn redemption), and even an otherwise unrelated cartoon series titled Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids, about a rock star and his band of kids who go on tour around the world while also solving mysteries with their talking dog Elvis. It was also clearly highly influential, on all sorts of later blockbusters

As I saw one critic remark on Twitter this week about an unrelated thing, “Old movies are great if you’re a director because you can crib from them directly and most of your audience will never know because they never watch old movies.” I kept seeing things in this movie that I felt like I’d seen directly quoted in other movies. One example: there are a long series of shots where our heroes see a group of people pursuing them from far away, framed against an enormous open landscape dotted with rocks. Almost this precise shot gets used over and over again the first half-hour or so of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. I was left feeling like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid felt deeply familiar, even though I’d never seen it before. And honestly, yes, of all those movies I listed at the beginning, it’s by far the one I’m likely to want to watch again, just for fun.

3 thoughts on “BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969)

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