Review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

**First things first, I would like to say that it is in extreme oversight that I left Mr. Paul Newman off of my list of individuals who “Used to be hot, [but are] sadly no longer with us.” My sincere apologies.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is #50 on the 1998 AFI 100 Movies list. It looked fun, and stars Newman and Redford are such icons now that we have been looking forward to it. It skipped my mind at the time, too, but the screenplay was written by William Goldman, who is perhaps these days best known for writing The Princess Bride, so that’s another point in the movie’s favor. And for the most part, I would say that it does not disappoint; rather, I don’t think it’s quite what is expected, but that’s not really a bad thing, now, is it?

Butch Cassidy (Newman, utterly charming) is the leader of a moderately successful group of bandits called the Hole in the Wall Gang. He is backed ably by The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford, silent), a gunslinger of renown. After a cleverly executed double-robbery of a train, Butch and Sundance find themselves inexorably tracked by a group of lawmen, and eventually go on the run to Bolivia, along with Sundance’s lady-love, Etta (Katharine Ross, stoic). While in Bolivia, they make a new name for themselves as the Bandidos Yanquis, but they seem to know that their time-and the time of the outlaw-is running out.

The theme of this Western is very similar to the of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (also 1969, #80 on the AFI list), that of progress in the West and the end of the age of the outlaw, but the treatment is markedly different. Peckinpah’s ensemble piece is gritty and graphic, whereas BC&TSK is most often light-hearted, humorous, and surprisingly picturesque. It feels a little dated, honestly, what with the Burt Bacharach score and one or two scenes (most notably a lovely montage of Butch and Etta on a bicycle, the “vehicle of the future”), but the point is still made and the result is largely the same as that of most Westerns…by which I mean that it doesn’t have a happy ending.

The marked difference for us between this film and most of the previous Westerns was the fact that we actually grew to care about the main characters, thus making their eventual end all the more depressing. It’s not hard. Newman is at his boyish best as the irrepressible Cassidy, a “thinker” who, despite having been a robber for many years, never seems to have any money. He’s the most charismatic and likable outlaw you’ve ever seen. Redford is the straight man to Newman’s gentle jokester, but is no less charming, if a bit more ambiguous, a la a “true” outlaw. The dialogue is fantastically quick and witty, with zingy one-liners waiting around every corner. Katharine Ross’s Etta is subtly understated, but she provides the heart of the piece, reminding us of the realities of an outlaw’s existence, that of an inescapably bloody end. The three have an easy camaraderie, which also serves to make the realities more poignant.

The film becomes slightly more serious as it moves along, even as the wit becomes broader. Both Butch and Sundance use humor and sarcasm to cover up their understanding of their positions. They’re getting older, the world is moving on without them, and they seem to know that they’re going to eventually have to decide whether or not to go out in a blaze of glory. It makes them surprisingly vulnerable, and it makes the movie much more resonant. Our complaint with most of the Westerns (notably: Unforgiven, The Searchers, and The Wild Bunch) is the characters are so seldom likable. Perhaps, though, that’s the right idea, because that way, when the movie reaches its inevitable end, you’re not left feeling as though you’ve lost friends. Butch and Sundance are really great characters who, despite their transgressions, would seem to deserve better, but I suppose it you live like an outlaw, you’ve got to go out like one, too, guns blazing.

All in all, an enjoyable film, that I would definitely recommend to anyone, unless you’re not big on lots of shooting. Onward to Snow White & the Seven Dwarves! How’s that for a 180??

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