Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at 50: their charm lives on

The 1969 western paired Paul Newman and Robert Redford to magical effect and remains one of the most undeniably entertaining westerns to date

The horse is dead.

Its the middle of a tense scene in the 1969 smash Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The town sheriff is attempting to round up a posse to track down Butch and Sundance, leaders of the Hole-In-The-Wall Gang, which has been robbing banks and trains with such impunity that theyve become an embarrassment for lawman across the frontier. Unbeknown to everyone, these celebrity outlaws are watching the scene unfold from a perch across the street, where theyre blowing their loot on liquor and whores, but the sheriffs recruitment efforts were doomed to run aground regardless. There just isnt much appetite for going after an elusive and dangerous pair that seem to be generous in spreading their stolen loot around.

There is, however, time for a brazen salesman to make a pitch: The horse is dead, he says. The future is bicycles.

The sequence everyone remembers from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid follows shortly afterwards, when Paul Newman, as Butch, pedals Katherine Rosss Etta Place around on the handlebars of a new bike, with the jaunty Oscar-winning song Raindrops Keep Fallin on My Head playing in the background. It may not be accurate to called the film a revisionist western a term reserved for less commercial visions like Monte Hellmans The Shooting, Robert Altmans McCabe & Mrs Miller, and Sam Peckinpahs The Wild Bunch, released the same year but even before our heroes meet a hail of bullets in the final freeze-frame, the end of an era is nigh. Its no wonder Butch winds up chucking the bike into the woods later on.

Butch Cassidy was a box-office sensation when it premiered 50 years ago, more than doubling Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, which grossed $44.8m and $41.7m, respectively, against its colossal $102.3m. For perspective, only six films since have doubled up the competition since three of them Star Wars movies (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi); two of them Steven Spielberg movies (Jaws and ET); and the other Titanic. Its important to understand the film as a commercial juggernaut, first and foremost, because its so plainly eager to turn a horse into a bicycle, reconfiguring the hidebound traditions of the western for a hipper, more self-aware audience.

In a William Goldman script peppered with memorable lines, the first exchange sets the tone. Butch looks around a bank at closing time, chatting with the security guard as he perhaps sizes up his next job.

What happened to the old bank? It was beautiful.

People kept robbing it.

Thats a small price to pay for beauty.

Photograph: Sportsphoto/Allstar

Right away, Goldman establishes Butch as a charismatic mouthpiece for the quip-ready screenwriter, contrasting nicely with the Sundance Kid, Robert Redfords taciturn sharpshooter. But hes also created two heroes who break the western mold, neither justice-seeking white-hats nor grizzled, sneering black-hats, and not as traditionally masculine as either party. Butch is a man who appreciates beauty and art, but doesnt have the stomach for violence; its not until late in the film that we (and the Kid) discover that hes never shot a man before and he looks sickened to have to do it. Hes a pleasure-seeker above all else: robbing banks and trains are his way to make an easy living and enjoy whatever sinful freedoms his vocation affords him.

Audiences in 1969 were all too happy to embrace the light, quippy irreverence of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid after a turbulent summer, and Goldman, director George Roy Hill, and the two impossibly handsome stars made them feel cool for doing it. True Grit had performed well earlier in the year as a throwback to the genres past, giving John Wayne a proper victory lap, but Butch Cassidy was thoroughly modern, a star-making vehicle for Newman and Redford that reflected a need for the genre to turn the page and that feels as much of its time as it does authentic to Wyoming in the late 1890s. With Ross at the center of a love triangle between friends, the film attempted to bring Jules and Jim to the American mainstream, taking a lesson from the French new wave on how to revivify old Hollywood craft.

It still works spectacularly well. Theres an alchemy up and down the production: Jack Lemmon, Steve McQueen, and Warren Beatty all passed on playing the Sundance Kid, and none seem capable of the quiet confidence that Redford possesses in the role, which parries so well with Newman that the two would run it back again with Hill a few years later in The Sting. The pop doodling of Burt Bacharachs score is about as far from a traditional western score as possible, but it somehow meshes with the sepia sheen of Conrad Halls photography, which burnishes the legend of these two men while their story is still being told. And while Goldmans screenplay dances on the edge of glib, its lively and sophisticated, with a strong theme about the capitalist forces that really tamed the Wild West.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is such a rollicking good time that it takes a while to notice its about the end of the line for its heroes, whose celebrity is already widespread when the film opens and ultimately hastens their demise. Your times is over and youre gonna die bloody, warns a sheriff, prophetically, in an early scene, and the film is mostly about Butch and Sundance getting chased out of America by hired guns and dying at the hands of the Bolivian army. Theyre mostly guilty of stealing from the wrong guy: EH Harriman, the railroad tycoon, spends more trying to catch them than they rob from his safes, but its an opportunity for a powerful man to send a message about whos really in charge. Guys like Butch and Sundance can handle local lawmen and half-hearted posses, but they cant fight progress. The EH Harrimans of the world will make certain of that.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/sep/23/butch-cassidy-and-the-sundance-kid-paul-newman-robert-reford

Leave a Reply:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.