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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Special Edition) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 16 May 2000

Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid

20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: PG
starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross, Strother Martin, Henry Jones, Jeff Corey, George Furth, Cloris Leachman, Ted Cassidy
release year: 1969
film rating: Four and a half stars
sound/picture: Four stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

Screenwriter William Goldman still thinks this should have the title on his script: "The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy," and feels it's only because Paul Newman, the bigger star, was cast as Butch that he got top billing over Sundance. That may have been Fox's reason for the title switch, but it was the right one to make. The rhythms of the words are better, more pleasing, with Butch listed first, and though Goldman tried to balance the movie evenly between his two outlaw friends, Butch is the one we remember best.

But not by much, since 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' is the movie that turned Robert Redford into a major star. The role had originally been offered to others: Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty, even Paul Newman himself (who at first expected to play Sundance to McQueen's Butch). But director George Roy Hill fought hard for Redford, and his insistance paid off, for audiences as much as for the actor, for it turned out that Newman's loose, amiable performance fit perfectly with Redford's taciturn, energy-under-tight-wraps approach to Sundance. They were a sensationally good match, almost a comedy team, and it's no wonder that they soon appeared together again, in 'The Sting.' (In the exceptionally good interviews, done in 1994 for the laserdisc release, both actors lament that they've never again found a script worthy of costarring in, but remain good friends.)

This is a wonderful DVD package, one of the highlights of the medium so far, even if it was originally prepared for the laserdisc release. Those interviews are excellent; Newman comes across just like we always hoped he would -- intelligent, laid-back, confident but not arrogant, a heck of a nice guy. Redford is edgier, more concerned about details, but still seems good-hearted and very bright. Katharine Ross is melancholy; she was living with cinematographer Conrad Hall while making 'Butch Cassidy,' and did not get along with director Hill. She relates a very sad incident that no one connected with the film seems to have forgotten.

There's also an amazingly good "making-of" documentary, filmed at the time the movie was being made. It was directed by Hill's assistant Robert Crawford, who had unusual access to the set. His footage was shot without sound, but the sound we hear was also recorded on the set at different times; the blend is strangely impressionistic, and gives a better sense of what it's like to be on a movie set than almost any other such film I've ever seen.

It's too bad no one thought to mention that both Butch and Sundance had been characters in movies before, though rarely in the same film. Butch was first portrayed on screen by Slim Whitaker in 1933's 'Deadwood Pass,' and over the years by John Doucette, Gene Evans, Howard Petrie, Neville Brand (twice), Arthur Hunnicutt and John Crawford. Sundance tended to draw bigger names: Arthur Kennedy played him in 'Cheyenne' (1947), followed by Robert Ryan, Ian MacDonald, William Bishop and the Skipper, Alan Hale, Jr.

There's also a narration track; there are some quotes from George Roy Hill scattered throughout, and they're astute and interesting. But by far the best stuff comes from Crawford and from Conrad Hall, whose warmth, intelligence and enthusiasm are infectious and touching. We also learn unusual sidelights: Hall is the son of James Norman Hall, who co-wrote "Mutiny on the Bounty," and he grew up in Tahiti. Strother Martin, in both this and 'The Wild Bunch,' was a champion diver, almost making the Olympic team. And Crawford tells a lengthy, very amusing tale about fencing Redford.

Then, of course, there's the movie itself. It's always divided critics; as the narration and some of the interviewees point out, when it was released, the movie received mostly terrible reviews. No one liked it except audiences the world over, who loved it, going back to see it again and again. The popularity of the film resulted in a later "prequel," 'Butch and Sundance: The Early Days' with Tom Berenger and William Katt, three TV movies about Etta Place (one with Ross), and any number of imitations and knockoffs, such as the TV series 'Alias Smith and Jones.' There was even an extremely weird Saturday morning cartoon, 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids.'

Some of the luster has been buffed off the film by the passage of time, and its weaknesses are somewhat more obvious now than they were back then. The story is extremely slight: Butch and Sundance hold up a train, get chased by the Super Posse, and flee to Bolivia with Sundance's lover Etta Place (Ross). There, they try to go straight but end up robbing banks again, and are gunned down. There are really only three characters in the film, Butch, Sundance and Etta; the only antagonist is time itself -- the days of the outlaws are over. The movie makes just a shade too much of this idea, without the rugged eloquence Sam Peckinpah brought to much the same idea in 'The Wild Bunch.' (Itself partly based on Butch Cassidy's "Hole in the Wall Gang," which was sometimes called The Wild Bunch.) The movie is sentimental about not being sentimental, and Butch and Sundance never really cross over from likable movie heroes to real people.

But then, despite the claim at the beginning -- "most of what follows is true" -- it's really not. It's a comic poem spun out of some of the elements of the lives of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; some of what we see did happen, but not much of it, and what is true is altered for purposes of the movie. For example, it's clear from the interviews that Goldman and Redford knew full well that Butch wasn't killed in Bolivia, but returned to the States to live out his life quietly, far from the outlaw trail. And they know that while Butch was widely liked and admired, a rascal with a silver tongue, only Butch liked Sundance, a cold-eyed killer.

The movie is as amiable as Butch himself, a relaxed canter through bogus Western history, underscoring the fantasy of their lives with occasional realism. ("Who ARE those guys?") It's the tale of Butch and Sundance as Butch himself might have told it, with himself as the hero the movie suggests he longed to be. (At one point, he decides he and Sundance should join the Army to fight in the Spanish-American War, so they can be heroes.) He's wistfully more than half in love with Etta Place, leading to one of the movie's more memorable moments, when he shows off on a bicycle to the tune of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head." (A pleasant, funny song that became a major hit despite some of the silliest lyrics ever; sample: "I'm never going to stop the rain by complaining, because I'm free.")

The movie violates all kinds of unspoken rules of Good Movies -- the big chase comes in the middle, the nicest guy doesn't get the girl, the heroes die at the end -- and succeeds not only despite this, but partly because of this. The deviations from the expected stuff gave 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' a fresh, roguish air; it was a Western with a twinkle in its eye but also a sad, wry grin -- this, too, shall pass away.

Thanks to this outstanding DVD, 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' itself is not going to pass away any time soon. If you have any fondness for this film, buy this disc.

If you liked Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you might also like...
The Wild Bunch, Cat Ballou, The Sting

more details
sound format:
Dolby stereo
aspect ratio(s):
special features: many extras including making-of documentary, interviews, audio commentary, variety of trailers, and alternate end credit roll
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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