Butch and Sundance

Sundance Kid: Well, I think I'll get saddled up and go looking for a woman.
Butch Cassidy: Good hunting.
Sundance Kid: Shouldn't take more than a couple of days. I'm not picky. As long as she's smart, pretty, and sweet, and gentle, and tender, and refined, and lovely, and carefree...


Today is September 03, also known as International Lick Your Elbow Day. Go figure.



As I mentioned a few days ago, I have a Great Movie Shame List, films I should have seen (as an SMF, a serious Movie Fan), but for some reason haven’t. I’ve been working my way steadily through the List, lately spending a lot of time in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s.

There are some fantastic films of the era, as I’ve re-discovered with MEAN STREETS, CHINATOWN and especially NETWORK. Anyway, the other day I finally got to BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID.

As a student of history I know a bit about Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch, both the history and the legend. I was suspicious the movie would bear little semblance to reality, but pledged to treat the film like any Western and not judge it by history.

To show you how much I didn’t know about the film, a few minutes in you find out that Robert Redford is “Sundance,” and instantly a light went off in my head. “Oh. That’s where his film festival gets its name!” I know, I know: I’m an idiot. But I knew so little about this movie, I didn’t even know who played what. I suppose if I’d ever thought about it I might have connected this movie to Redford’s festival, but I never did.

While I’m on the subject of Redford, I have to admit that straight out of the gate I didn’t buy him as a stone-cold killer. For one thing—and this isn’t the movie’s fault—but his blond hair coupled with the dark mustache—actually, quite attractive—made him look so much like Jason lee that I kept expecting Redford to say in voice-over, “I’m just trying to be a better person. My name is Sundance.”

(No sign of Crab Man yet)

Second was the Macho factor. When a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood walked on screen, you never had a doubt in your mind they’d kill everyone without thinking twice about it. But Redford…I’m not saying he’s a pansy or anything, but he’s always been known for being so pretty, and caring, and understanding; you know? I’m not going to say Metrosexual, but maybe the next step up. I wondered if Redford had been known for tough guy parts. Was he playing on his image, or against it?

For that matter, was Redford even a star before this? I IMDB’d him later on, and found out that A) most of his parts before Sundance appeared to be Westerns (so maybe he was a stud) and B) none of the entries were recognizable. Maybe he was an up-and-comer?

Why is this important? Well, the movie rises of falls on the chemistry between Cassidy (Paul Newman) and Redford (Sundance). When you watch them they come across like George Clooney and Brad Pitt: two guys at the very top of their game who know full well they are not only movie-stars of the highest caliber, but so very very good looking. I was pretty sure Paul Newman was already The Man, but was Redford? These things matter.

(If nothing else, it makes the acting more impressive if Redford was able to project that superstar image when he wasn’t one yet. Then again, nobody ever said Robert Redford wasn’t as talented as they came. And just to finish up the subject: whatever doubts I had about the mustache and believability were erased by Redford’s performance. Tough without being evil; caring without a shred of schmaltz. His performance here replaces THE NATURAL as the best I’ve ever seen him, and also explains why his Film Festival is not called Roy Hobbs.)

My next problem was how unserious it all seemed. Only a few minutes in and Paul Newman has Katherine Harris on the handlebars of his bicycle while he clowns around doing tricks, all while B.J. Thomas’s “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” plays in full. You can almost imagine John Ford and John Wayne simultaneously throwing up in their own mouths.

(The 1899 version of a souped up Chevy Ragtop)

Not only is the scene beyond silly, but Harris’s Etta just had been in bed with Sundance, her boyfriend. Did this mean there was a Love Triangle thing going on? It’s hard to say. Etta was clearly Sundance’s girl to the bitter end, but seemed to get along much better with the more affable Butch Cassidy. I would have been interested in what a movie might look like with that angle played out. Sadly, it never went anywhere, if it was there in the first place.

The Raindrops song is one of three extended musical sequences, and virtually the only music in the film. The other two are also modern (1969 as opposed to 1900), and composed by Burt Bacharach. I can’t pretend I would have chosen that way to go, but it got more effective the more I got into it (and I’m willing to bet that in future viewings I’ll come to love it.) One sequence is a series of sepia-toned pictures with Butch Cassidy, Sundance and Etta going from the West to New York on their way to Bolivia. I found out later the director wanted to do still shots on the set of HELLO DOLLY, but since HELLO DOLLY came out after CASSIDY, the studio wouldn’t let them use the sets, and they had to cut and paste the three actors into turn-of-the-century photographs. It’s actually pretty cool.

The third musical sequence takes place in Bolivia, when Etta has joined the two Outlaws in their thievery. It’s a fantastic sequence, one I’ve seen duplicated countless times, but nothing that came after ever matched this.

Let’s get back to our two leads. This movie is famous—won 4 Oscars, made the AFI’s top 100 movies of all time, and makes every list of Great Westerns ever—not for the impressive locations or tricky camera work, or for the innovative musical numbers, but for one simple reason: the outstanding, fantastic—arguably top five of all time—chemistry between Newman and Redford.

Without lengthy exposition or back-story or anything these two slip into a rhythm is totally believable. They come across like BFF (Best Friends Forever), but more than that. Think of Bones and Spock, Frodo and Sam, Han and Chewie, Vincent and Jules, Trapper and Hawkeye, Merton and Riggs, Reggie and Jack, Cheech and Chong, Statler and Waldorf, Jay and Silent Bob, Chuck Nolan and Wilson and the entire A-Team all rolled into one.

These two could argue for an hour and then roll into a gun fight without blinking. They—and this is a stretch, but perhaps this is the point—could coexist with a beautiful woman without tearing themselves apart. I have a friend whom I might—might—someday get to this level with, and there’s nothing greater.

[I know this is going to get me into all sorts of trouble, but I feel compelled to admit that the reason female duos are conspicuously left off my pairings isn’t just because Hollywood generally doesn’t write one good female part per movie, let alone two. (And who would it be? Maybe Thelma & Louise? Cagney & Lacey? The Ya-Ya sisterhood?) It has been my experience that women—while definitely capable of same-sex friendships that can be closer than anything men can achieve—don’t have that camaraderie of men. Or chemistry. At least on screen. All the best chemistry involving women is usually a woman and a man. Is this just because of the writing? Maybe. But I doubt it.]

Anyway, to recap the last few paragraphs: movie worth seeing for the two leads.

But there’s another reason to see BUTCH CASSIDY, and here my Film School Psychobabble rears its ugly head. (Actually, I didn’t go to film school, but if I had, I might have learned this.)

BUTCH CASSIDY is a Western, but a very different type. Set at the end of the West, this isn’t Wyatt Earp or Rooster Cogburn in all his glory. While we love and believe these two characters, the film isn’t filled with their incredible exploits. Initially they pull off a smooth robbery, but robbing that same train on the way back the trouble starts. A “Super Posse” made up of legendary Law-man Joe le Fors and a famous Indian tracker (improbably named Lord Baltimore) have been brought together with the sole purpose of catching the Wild Bunch.

The initial encounter eviscerates the gang, leaving only Cassidy and Sundance. From then on the two are on the run. Never is the idea of standing and fighting voiced. These two may be legends, but they aren’t endowed with super powers. They know their only chance is to run, run, and run some more.

"I'll be honest, I'm only in this business for the Health Benefits."

We never actually see the Super Posse except at a distance. They are relentless, always coming, always right behind, but are never given personality or form other than a menacing presence. I like this choice by the screenwriter and filmmaker. I also like the courage to portray Butch and Sundance realistically. (This continues to the point where we actually see them reload their weapons time and time again in the big shoot out at the end rather than the normal cinematic experience of FPS-like never-ending bullets.)

I’m not sure if the people involved meant to make this statement, but to me the deeper meaning is that Butch and Sundance represent the dying West. America has a lot of mythos about the Old West—most of it apocryphal even back then. Men like Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill, Doc Holiday and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were living legends. To look at them was to look at the gods of Olympus walking among us. I’m not sure if there’s anything equivalent today. We might be overawed if Michael Jordan walked into our neighborhood gym, but I’m not sure the fear would be quite the same.

That whole era was dying by 1900. The West was getting civilized. Train tracks, settlers, towns cropping up everywhere. There was no more room for crazy gunslingers and wild men. Folks might admire the daring of the brave outlaw, but that wasn’t going to stand in the New West.

Watching the Super Posse track Butch Cassidy and Sundance down, watch them slowly implode as the stress gets to them, I saw the metaphor for the entire way of life. It was sad in a way. Inevitable, perhaps, but sad.

One other moment I simply have to mention: In Bolivia Butch and Sundance find themselves obliged to go straight. It is only then that Butch—for the very first time in his life—is forced to kill a man. The impact of this moment—somehow he can’t win for losing, and might as well not even try—is poignant and incredibly sad.

All that’s left is the big ending, and thought it may seem overdrawn, from my own knowledge of history I can tell you they really did bring in that many hundreds of soldiers to hunt these two down. We’re left with our two ant-heroes, surrounded, without a chance, but still wise-cracking and flippant to the bitter end.

Both wounded badly—perhaps mortally—and preparing to go out in a hail of bullets—Butch suddenly asks Sundance in alarm, “Did you see Le Fors (of the Super Posse) out there?”

“No.” replies Sundance. “I didn’t see him.”

“Good.” Butch smiles, relieved. “For a moment, I thought we were in real trouble.”

And with that, they two rush out of the building, guns blazing. That’s all we see, as the picture freezes and morphs into one of those pictures from the Old West.

(It doesn't look good, but I'm still holding out hope for a sequel)

It’s fitting, in a way. Every time I see these pictures I’m enraptured by their charm, their simplicity, their evocation of a simpler time and place. In a way the pictures are a simulacrum: the world was never sepia-colored, and the West was never quite like the stories.

But I still am fascinated by those old pictures. They tell such a great story. They seem to bleed with life. And yet, we don’t take pictures like that anymore. We’ve moved on. And we don’t make movies like BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID anymore too.

Maybe it’s inevitable, but it’s still sad.

Note #1: There’s a documentary on the DVD where director George Roy Hill goes through the film in about twenty minutes, explaining his motivations and how/why they shot it that way. He’s extraordinarily candid, and at the end mentions how he’s unsure how the film will be received. That’s right: the documentary was made before the film was released, before it became legend. A definite must-see after watching the movie.

Note #2: 1969 brought us not only BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, but TRUE GRIT and THE WILD BUNCH, all inarguably on any sane person’s list of Top 15 Westerns ever, making 1969 one hellava year for Westerns.

[If you like this review (and why the hell wouldn't you?), you can find others of similarly high quality over on Movie-Hype]

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