In the late 19th century, Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and his dead-shot sidekick “Sundance Kid” (Robert Redford) lead the Hole in the Wall Gang out West, making a living through robbing the Union Pacific Railroad. Things are going great for the gang until, following a second robbery mishap, they’re tracked down by a posse hired by Union Pacific head E. H. Harriman.
Now on the run, Butch and Sundance, along with Sundance’s girlfriend Etta Place (Katharine Ross), make a break for Bolivia, which Butch believes to be a robber’s utopia.
Released in 1969 and loosely based on the real-life outlaws, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the first pairing of acting legends Paul Newman, Robert Redford and director George Roy Hill (who’d all reunite again in 1973 for the Best Picture winning The Sting). At the time, the western genre was no longer the cinematic powerhouse it once was. Sure, there was Sergio Leone, but a lot of people today probably don’t realize his films, such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, were initially met with negative reaction until re-evaluated years later. By 1969, western legend John Wayne was in the decline of his career (although he would win the Best Actor Oscar the following year for True Grit). With its satirical, revisionist take on the genre, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a much needed breath of fresh air for westerns, grossing over $100 million at the box office, which was huge for 1969.
Opening with a mini-silent film, the film then leads into Butch and Sundance’s introductory scene, captured in that same silent film black and white (also used in a photographic montage later on) before changing to color. In just a few minutes, Hill sets the tone of this film up for us, where we get the full essence of who these two outlaw protagonists are.
That Butch, he’s always thinkin’.
Clearly, the primary reasons behind this film’s success are none other than the pitch-perfect performances from Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Newman’s career (with the exception of Cool Hand Luke a few years ealier) was in a bit of a slump, while Redford was a star on the rise. This film is what both men needed as it reinvigorated Newman’s career into the ’70s and propelled Redford into stardom. Considering the paper-thin plot, much of the film rests on these two, and their chemistry together couldn’t get any better. It’s no wonder George Roy Hill sought them out again for The Sting. Their interaction together – Newman as the charming big-talker and Redford as the straight-shooter – is natural and brilliant as they embody the very characters they’re portraying.
Oh… so that’s where Sundance Film Festival gets its name.
Playing opposite the men is Katharine Ross, who obviously doesn’t get much to work with like her costars do. It’s still a nice, quiet performance from Ross, and although she doesn’t get the many memorable moments like Newman and Redford do, she does get easily the most poignant foretelling to Butch and Sundance. I won’t give away much with her character, but despite her not appearing as substantive as the two men, her presence carries more weight for them than we might initially believe come later on in the film.
It is hard to imagine anyone other than Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the roles of Butch and Sundance (originally Newman was wanted for Sundance and Steve McQueen for Butch). That said, not enough credit goes to Oscar winning director George Roy Hill for the risk both he and screenwriter William Goldman made in taking this film down a more comedic path than previous westerns. While not an all-out spoof like Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a more satirical approach to the genre on life support. The sense of adventure is still there, but Hill dialed back the violent, gritty vibe typically found in western films and replaced it with a more lighthearted feel while still keeping it grounded enough from wandering off into ridiculously silly territory. Balancing a variety of tones from action-packed, romantic, comedic, western to even fantasy-like (the bike ride set to “Rain Drops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”, which features a fantastic zoetrope-like sequence) could result in a fairly unbalanced film, but Hill never looses sight of the film’s focus: Butch and Sundance. Whether the film’s aiming to be funny, heartfelt or intense at the moment, it’s all about those two men.
Another genius move by Hill is what I like to call the invisible antagonist. We never see those chasing after Butch and Sundance up close. Every now and then we’ll get a shot of them riding after the two in the distance or a shot of a white hat nearby (that’s what they’re referred to as wearing). It’s a genius move simply ’cause we don’t need to see them. Whether it’s from a reaction shot of Butch or Sundance seeing those men or something mentioned about them, their presences are clearly felt.
Along with Robert Redford, William Goldman was a writer on the rise in the film industry. He’d later go on to pen films like All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, A Bridge Too Far, The Princess Bride and Misery, but it was this film (for which he won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar) that put his name on the map. It’s not a story heavy film, which showed just how much faith Goldman and Hill had in their two leading men. The plot’s as straightforward as you can get, but the strength of the writing lies in Goldman’s dialogue (“Rules? In a knife fight?!”), filled with wit and sharp humor. It’s not just the wit of the dialogue either, but also that there are humorous moments that you never see coming, yet they fit so perfectly.
While it isn’t an openly deep film, there is something meaningful to be found in the characters of Butch and Sundance. Society has labeled them as two men who had their day, but are now forced with the realization that the sun is about to set. They refuse to accept that, though (a fitting counter-culture tone for the time). However, it’s never meant to be taken as tragic or downbeat. Even when Butch and Sundance are finally faced with that realization in Bolivia, they ain’t giving in yet. Butch chooses instead to opine that they should’ve gone to Australia instead. Why? ‘Cause at least they speak English there. Their time may have come, but their eyes ain’t turning red anytime soon.
Much like Shaun of the Dead breathed humorous new life in the flagging zombie film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did the same for westerns over 30 years prior. Gorgeously shot by Conrad L. Hall with a nice anachronistic score from Burt Bacharach and Hal David, this is a simple yet entertaining tale bolstered by Hill’s direction, Goldman’s snappy dialogue and two iconic performances from Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Regardless of what your impression of this film may be, there’s no denying its impact as action-duos later seen in Lethal Weapon, 48 Hrs., Men in Black, Thelma & Louise and even a film like The Blues Brothers owe quite a bit to this film.