Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969): Cool, Charming, but Fake Western Starring aul Newman and Robert Redford

Western Chic

Loosely based on the legend of the two famed Western outlaws of 1905, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as written by William Goldman and directed by George Roy Hill, was for some film critics a cool Western with humor and modern point of view, while for others a downright spoof of the genre, fake, shallow and full of clichés.

Butch runs a Wyoming gang known as the Wild Bunch and the Hole in the Wall Gang. Presenting Butch and the Sundance Kid in human and humorous terms, the narrative unfolds as a study of eccentric outlaws who had simply outlived their day. No matter how you look at it, the film was a triumph for both of its stars, Paul Newman, then in decline, and Robert Redford, then rising to his peak.

This amusingly cool film reinvented the Western genre for a new generation of filmgoers in the late 1960s in a way that Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece, “The Wild Bunch,” which was also released in 1969, did not.

Newman and Redford reimagine the two famous train robbers as a pair or urbane businessmen who go about their work with cool attitude and easy nonchalance. In the course of the plotless film, they are threatened by the determined Pinkerton men as well as advanced technology, which forces a mid-life crisis and a serious reevaluation of their careers.

The couple returns to the Kid’s native New York City for a brief vacation (a weak scene). However, failing to resist what they like and do best, they go to South America and start all over again. At first, they are successful even though they don’t speak any Spanish, but they soon realize that the Bolivian government is less tolerant and more aggressive than Pinkerton’s brutes. They die in a blaze of glory in a gunfight, unaware how outnumbered they are.

The film’s self-reflexive, playful nature reveals that the filmmakers are aware of their Western’s fake, movieish existence, evident in the opening “silent movie” train robbery and in the now-legendary closing freeze-frame. The film preserves the Western notion of Eden by the freeze frame, as if suggesting that the outlaws have nowhere to go. The last shot of Ridley Scott’s 1991 “Thelma and Louise,” a freeze-frame as Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis opt to go over the Grand Canyon with their car (rather than be arrested and go to jail), borrows from “Butch Cassidy” and bears similar mythological meaning.

The intermittently witty banter gives the duo some charm and exuberance, if not authenticity. This is clearly a movie more reflective of the times in which it was made than of the socio-political context in which the story takes place. Indeed, the movie is trapped in its own late 1960s context, most notably in Burt Bacharach’s melodic score and Oscar-winning song (see below).

Not to neglect the female viewers, there is Katharine Ross (of “The Graduate” fame), who renders a stiff performance as the Kid’s love interest, the teacher Etta Place (which later spawned a pale sequel). But Newman and Redford are so charming and self-sufficient that they offset Etta; they don’t need women in their lives.

Though representing different acting styles, Newman and Redford show strong chemistry on screen, one that would lead to another pairing in the 1973 Oscar-winning comedy “The Sting,” also an anachronistic period piece.

As noted, this film revived Newman’s flagging career and catapulted Redford to major stardom, giving him the power to make more personal and ambitious films like “Downhill Racer,” “The Candidate,” and “Jeremiah Johnson,” as well as fluffy commercial fare like “The Way We Were,” with Barbra Streisand.

Pauline Kael has noted that this facetious Western offers cool, glamorous attitudes instead of real characters, and that everybody in it talks comical. The dialogue is all banter, all throwaways, with lines coming out of nowhere, coyly. What Kael didn’t understand was that George Roy Hill’s approach was the only way to revive an almost-dead genre among youths.

In approach, mood, and style, “Butch Cassidy” borrows from and owes its exists to Arthur Penn’s seminal “Bonnie and Clyde.” Like that 1967 picture, there’s moodiness of the new aesthetics and self-conscious revisionism of history into myth and legend. The movie’s glib, playful fatalism also recalls the nihilism in Penn’s picture.

Stylistically, as the scholar Robert Ray pointed out, “Butch Cassidy” utilizes some innovative devices from the French New Wave, such as the freeze frame (owing to Truffaut’s “400 Blows”) and the lyrical bicycling of Newman and Ross borrowed from a similar passage in Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim.” Other innovations include the music, which encourages a fairy tale quality of memory, the syncopated editing, filters, and slow motion

Leo Braudy has suggested that “Butch Cassidy,” like “Wild Bunch,” but deal with loss, albeit without Peckinpah’s tragic and elegiac tone. For some, the movie is above all a statement on men of the mythic American West who outlived their times.

One of the decade’ greatest commercial successes, the movie benefited from its popular song, grossing over $50 million domestically.

Cast

Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman)
Sundance Kid (Robert Redford)
Etta Place (Katharine Ross)
Percy Garris (Strother Martin)
Bike Salesman (Henry Jones)
Sheriff Bledsoe (Jeff Corey)
Woodcock (George Furh)
Agnes (Cloris Leachman)
Harvey Logan (Ted Cassidy)
Marshal (Kenneth Mars)

Oscar Nominations: 7

Picture, produced by John Foreman
Director: George Roy Hill
Story and Screenplay (Original): William Goldman Cinematography: Conrad Hall
Original Score: Burt Bacharach
Song: “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” music by Burt Bacharach, lyrics by Hal David
Sound: William Edmundson and David Dockendorf

Oscar Awards: 4

Story and Screenplay
Cinematography
Original Score
Song

 

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