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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Print E-mail
Friday, 01 August 2008
ImageIn 1969, two highly influential and revisionist Westerns were released: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Wild Bunch.”  They were loosely connected in that Butch Cassidy’s gang was sometimes called the Wild Bunch (but not until after the gang had long broken up), and that Strother Martin is in both movies.  At parties in 1969 and for several years after, you could almost start a fistfight by declaring your allegiance to one in favor of the other.  (I’ve always backed “The Wild Bunch.”)

They’re equally revisionist but in very different ways.  Peckinpah’s great movie is more realistic in some ways; it’s occasionally funny (“silver rings!”) but never remotely a comedy.  But both films are valedictory about the old west, both dealing with the end of the Old West by depicting outlaws whose deaths seemed to mark something of an ending.  (It’s possible that neither Butch nor Sundance was killed in Bolivia in 1908, but this is, after all, a movie.)

In initial engagements, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” opened with a ‘legend:’ “Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true.”  When audiences laughed at the film, taking it for a comedy, “not that it matters” was removed (and isn’t on the print on this DVD).  It’s not likely that made much difference, because the first third or so of the film is jocular, light and amusing, keyed to the ingratiating personality of Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman).  The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford in his star-making role) is more taciturn, more quick to anger, a better gunfighter, but always amused by his affable pal, Butch.  “You keep thinking, Butch,” laughs Sundance.  “That’s what you’re good at.” Audiences embraced “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid;” the closing scene, when Butch and Sundance are about to be gunned down by an unexpectedly large posse of Bolivian police and soldiers, is a freeze frame (not quite what’s seen on the box cover).  The image recedes into the distance, taking Butch and Sundance safely back into the past moments before the bullets tore them apart.  It was an elegiac ending, poetic, romantic—and it protected the audience.  In “The Wild Bunch,” we see the outlaws in their one moment of honor and dignity, but we also see them die in that fusillade of bullets.  Which ending is superior?  I favor that of “The Wild Bunch;” it sent me out of the theater where I first saw it onto the sunny streets of Hollywood, shattered, shaken, changed forever.  The ending of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was almost winsome by comparison.  Strong, but not the combination of poetry and brutality the Peckinpah film delivered.

The extensive supporting material on this handsome DVD, the two documentaries and the two commentary tracks, reveal that William Goldman’s script was eagerly sought by studios all over Hollywood.  Fox ended up with it, and soon enlisted Paul Newman, then probably the biggest movie star in the business.  Initially, he was to play Sundance with Jack Lemmon (!) as Butch Cassidy.  (The title was then “The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy.”)  Lemmon was out and Steve McQueen was in, but there were difficulties getting him to sign—and Paul Newman switched over to the role of Butch while everyone was waiting.  Marlon Brando was considered for the Sundance Kid; so was Warren Beatty.  Redford was not nearly as big a star as Newman; most of his films had been comedies (“Barefoot in the Park”) or films in which he wasn’t the lead (“Inside Daisy Clover”).  But director George Roy Hill liked Redford, and pushed to enlist him.

Redford was eager to play the role and to work with Paul Newman; he suspected their personalities would mesh well on screen, particularly with Newman playing the friendly, funny Butch, and he himself the quiet, enigmatic Sundance.  And of course, they did work well together, so well they teamed up again a few years later for “The Sting,” and have remained linked in the public consciousness almost as if they had been a comedy team.  Sometimes they sound like it, as when Butch gloats to Sundance, “Boy, I got vision and the rest of the world needs bifocals.”  Or in his exchanges with railroad money guard Woodcock (George Furth.)  Or when Butch uses just a trifle too much dynamite to open a railroad boxcar.

Hill also fought to include “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” for a time-out sequence in which Butch rides a bicycle around their ranch hideout with Sundance’s woman, Etta Place (Katharine Ross) on the handle bars.  It’s now hard to imagine this movie without that song—or that song without this movie.  The bicycle scene is one of the great stand-alone sequences in movies, and the song one of the most famous (even if the lyrics don’t seem to make much sense).  All of Hill’s instincts were on the nosey, and are the reason the movie had an Oscar nomination for Best Film.  It won Oscars, for among others, best original screenplay and best song.

The movie was slightly revisionary in terms of hats.  Butch wears a wide array of them—a fedora in place of a cowboy hat, a derby, a standard cowboy hat—but he’s always the same guy under the hat.  Sundance, like a classic gunslinger, tends toward black, but does wear that emblematic corduroy jacket when they’re pursued by the Super Posse.

It’s also revisionist in the roles.  There really are only three roles in the film, Butch, Sundance and Etta Place.  A few people pop up for one or two scenes, but never return, and we never hear of them again.  Ted “Lurch” Cassidy has a memorable scene when Butch and Sundance return to their gang’s hideout, the Hole in the Wall.  Harvey Logan (Cassidy) wants to take over the gang; Butch doesn’t want to let him, and in trying to talk the big guy out of it, lands the first perfectly-executed kick to the balls in cinema history. But after a couple of train robberies, we never see or hear about the gang again.   Henry Jones is seen briefly as a bicycle salesman, and Strother Martin a few good moments as their boss in Bolivia.  You probably won’t spot Cloris Leachman as a good-natured whore, but she’s in there.  We never see the faces of the Super Posse the head of the railroad has unleashed on Butch and Sundance—but that’s part of the idea: it’s as if the entire country has risen up against the two nervous outlaws.  (“Who ARE those guys?” they both wonder.)  The most significant of these smaller roles is Sheriff Bledsoe (Jeff Corey), who likes both of our heroes.  “I never met a soul more affable than you, Butch,” he says, but does warn them, “You’re two bit outlaws on the dodge…  Your time is over.  You’re going to die bloody.”  This finally begins to become obvious to Butch and Sundance, when they’re down in South America, and it’s why Etta returns alone to the United States.  “I’m 26, I’m a school teacher and I’m single,” she says, adding that’s about the bottom of the pit.  So she won’t stick around for the finale.  “I’ll miss that scene, if you don’t mind.”

The disc includes a deleted scene (but no soundtrack for it); in Bolivia, Butch, Sundance and Etta go to the movies and see a little short about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  (This is the silent movie that unrolls behind the opening credits.)  They’re annoyed that the movie gets things wrong, but don’t know how to react to the depiction of their deaths.  This was originally where Etta walked out.

Just as there aren’t many characters here, there really isn’t much story, either.  We meet Butch and Sundance, see them reteam with the Hole in the Wall gang, rob a couple of trains, get together (again) with Etta, then go on the run when that Super Posse chases them, even as far as Bolivia.  (More of the movie is set in Bolivia than most people remember.)

The movie itself was unusual in its light jazz score by Burt Bacharach; “Raindrops” fit perfectly into the movie overall, even if at times it seems a little out of keeping with the images we watch.  And Conrad Hall’s wide screen photography is masterful, as usual for this great cinematographer.

This movie was influential, even copied—remember “Alias Smith and Jones”?  There was a TV movie sequel with Katharine Ross, “Mrs. Sundance,” and a prequel with Tom Berenger and William Katt in the lead roles, but those are not well remembered, with good cause.  This is the real deal, an actual classic.  It may not be quite as good a movie as you remember, but it’s still fascinating to watch, with excellent performances by the two leads.

The film looks decent for its age.  However, the print used for the transfer is noticeable worn.  The colors are faded.  Hairs and dirt are present for a majority of the runtime.  The black level is poor, giving us a flat image.  For sound, Fox has given us a new 5.1 mix as well as the original 1.0 mono mix.  The 5.1 mix is fairly worthless.  The surrounds are empty and there is virtually no stereo separation in the front.  Stick with the original mono mix on this one.

The commentary tracks are reasonably good; the one with several people is a shade ragged.  The documentaries are well produced, apparently having been completed a few years back.  Among those commenting are Paul Newman (looking very old), Robert Redford (looking great) and Katarine Ross.  William Goldman is frequently seen, as are Richard Zanuck and David Brown and, somewhat unaccountably, writer-director Lawrence Kasdan.  He had nothing to do with this movie, but seems to be an expert on it.  We learn that hiring Hill was a little problematic—he’d been fired off “Hawaii” and “Thoroughly Modern Mille” (though his is the only director’s name on both of them); Redford and Newman liked him, and he came aboard.  He worked again with Newman and Redford on "The Sting," then Redford on "The Great Waldo Pepper" and Newman on "Slap Shot."  His "Slaughterhouse-Five" is a worthy movie, as is "The World According to Garp."  But he never again made a film nearly as popular as "Butch Cassidy.”  (It’s interesting that “The Wild Bunch” isn’t mentioned in either featurette.)

This turned out to be a one-of-a-kind movie, unduplicatable, greater than the sum of its parts, beloved by moviegoers around the world.  There are better Westerns, but there are not a lot that so many people loved this much.

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