After a prolonged hiatus, it’s time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Today I review the timeless classic, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid.
Directed by George Roy Hill
Written by William Goldman
Tagline: Not That It Matters, But Most Of It Is True.
What It’s About:
In the waning days of the American West, notorious bank and train robbers Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) see the writing on the wall for their way of life and head for Bolivia and a fresh start with schoolteacher Etta Place (Katherine Ross).
Why I Bought It:
The first trip I ever took the West Coast was with my parents. We did the tourist thing, walked Hollywood Blvd, and hit the wax museum. On the way out, my dad and I were pulled aside by the photographer in the gift shop, who put us in front of a screen (I think it was blue, maybe green) and snapped our picture, then put our heads on the bodies of Butch and Sundance, in that famous pose where they’re leaning against some crumbling Bolivian backdrop, possibly on the last day of shooting (no pun intended). And for probably the only time in my life, it was a perfect fit. My dad was Redford, and I was Newman. My mom bought it on the spot, and it’s hanging still in the basement of their house on the stairs going down to his model Santa Fe railroad layout, next to a framed photograph of the real life Hole In The Wall Gang I picked up somewhere.
I had never seen the movie at that point. I was maybe thirteen or fourteen and didn’t care a whit for westerns.
My love for the genre came much later, after I’d burned through Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, John Ford, and the Duke and came the long long way around the barn back to the great American westerns of the late sixties and seventies, of which is this is one of the very best.
Rewatching this movie is like slipping on an old coat, or seeing a couple friends from the old bunch. You know, the guys you were inseparable with in high school – only neither of you has changed. This is a flick carried on the shoulders of two giants in, if not star-making, star solidifying roles; Paul Newman as the irascible, likable Butch Cassidy, and Robert Redford as the winsome, steely eyed Sundance Kid. It’s impossible to imagine William Goldman’s words coming out of any other pair of actors. The charisma, the affability of the two leads is irrepressible, inimitable. Newman and Redford are one of the greatest pairings in movie history, right up there with Bacall and Bogart, Flynn and DeHavilland, Tracy and Hepburn. This is the touchstone of male buddy movies. Without it Shane Black could never have a career.
If it sounds like I’m taking this one up inordinately, it’s just that there’s nothing to really say about BC&tSK except praise. The word classic gets bandied about for every superhero movie and Disney cartoon that comes down the pike – but this is the real deal. A bona fide Hollywood classic. If you haven’t seen it, your repertoire has a great big hole.
Butch and Sundance is the father of bromance movies. It’s a platonic love affair between two guys who are so good together the people they rob step out of cover just to see them do their shtick. The lawmen that should be arresting them on sight offer them a place at their table. They’re the ideal romantic outlaws, stealing from the modernizing, corporate juggernaut of the advancing railroad and somehow never having a dime to retire on because they frankly suck at it. They don’t kill anybody, take no personal effects, and spend what they earn like water on the myriad of fairweather friends and women who appear out of the woodwork after they pull a job and fade away when the money’s gone. It’s their fallibility that makes them loveable. For as renowned a train and bank robber Butch is, sometimes he uses too much dynamite. For as deadly a gunfighter as Sundance is, he can’t hit the broad side of a barn if he’s not bending, spinning and twisting while he shoots, like some kind of proto-Jon Woo heroic bloodshed protagonist.
I call it a love affair. It’s definitely about the relationship between Butch and Sundance (I think, without any of the homoerotic subtext that you’d expect), but moreso, it’s a love affair between them and us, the audience. It doesn’t take long to fall for Butch and the Kid. They’re devilishly good looking, but again, their fallibility makes them seem real, like a pair of guys you’d like to hang out with, not movie stars aping real people. Katherine Ross has an admittedly light role as schoolteacher and Sundance’s paramour Etta Place, but she’s almost like the blank protagonist character in a video game. She’s the audience, wooed by these two guys into participating in their crazy lives for the thrill. But she’s also, I think, a stand-in for Goldman and George Roy Hill. Everybody falls for Butch and Sundance. You just can’t help it. The filmmakers can’t help it. I think the actors couldn’t even help it. That’s why Newman’s charity for mentally disabled youths was called Hole In The Wall, and Redford’s continuing film festival is named for Sundance. These are such well written parts. It’s a lightning strike. Perfection.
The rest of the cast is a cornucopia of familiar faces, all memorable even in their minute roles. The Addams Family’s Ted ‘Lurch’ Cassidy as Butch’s enormous, ambitious, and surprisingly clever underling Harvey Logan. Strother Martin rasping through Sweet Betsy From Pike. Jose Torvay, the bandit with the watch from Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, playing a bandit again here. In the opening scene where Butch defuses an ornery gunfighting gambler with a mere mention of Sundance’s name, you can just about make out Sam Elliot’s left hand as he vacates the card table.
One of the more ingenious elements is Burt Bacharach’s swinging, playful score which on paper sounds like a recipe for disaster, but plays perfectly, lending the three montage sequences in which it’s specifically brought to the forefront a fun, airy quality, particularly the song, Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head, which plays over a brilliant scene of Newman and Ross just playing around on a bicycle. There’s an underlying sadness to the musical numbers too in their down moments, which matches the images excellently. There’s a sad clarinet and accordion duet during the travel montage in which, via a series of still photos, we see Sundance and Etta dancing at a New Year’s ball on the passenger liner while Butch looks on a little sadly, then dozes in a chair. Very lyrical without a word spoken.
I once heard James Coburn tell a story about working on Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid in which he said that the day before they were to shoot Kristofferson’s death scene, Sam Peckinpah confided to Coburn, “I just don’t wanna kill him.”
We don’t want to see Butch and Sundance get their inevitable comeuppance. Yet when the boys brutally gun down a gang of Bolivian bandits, we know they’ve somehow crossed a line they won’t return from. It’s the heartbreak of the movie that is telegraphed by the bicycle salesman and the relentless, never in focus superposse led by the ominous night tracking Lord Baltimore and Joe LeFors in his white skimmer, and by Jeff Corey’s Sheriff Bedsoe, who warns them, “Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody. All you can do is choose where.” Etta tells them before well before parting ways, “I won’t watch you die. I’ll miss that scene if you don’t mind.” And whether by some mercy of Hill or reluctance of Goldman, we are spared the final heartbreak of say, The Wild Bunch. Butch and Sundance are surprised by Bolivian troops and after a desperate rush for the horses, are repelled and wind up surrounded by the Bolivian Army. Already bleeding from a half dozen wounds, Butch suggests they try Australia next. They trade a quip about LeFors and rush out shooting. We hear the Bolivian commander give the order to fire, we hear the crash of the guns, but like Bruce Lee forever leaping at the camera in the final shot of Fist Of Fury (no doubt lifted from this), the boys are washed in sepia, not blood, and we get to remember them as we loved them, game and daring, framed in the same daydream magic tones of the clever, old timey cinematograph opening credits.
This movie made legends of the real Butch and Sundance as much as it did the men who portrayed them.
It’s also, on a personal note, a movie I will forever associate with my father.
Best Bit Of Dialogue:
The escape from the superposse via the jump from the cliff is hilarious, and deserving of the description classic, but my personal favorite is the moment Butch and Sundance first attempt to rob a Bolivian bank. This has been Butch’s big brainchild the whole movie, and their reason for retreating the heat in America for this tiny but booming South American nation. The first time they try to size up a bank, they are discouraged by a friendly teller who fends them off with simple Spanish, which neither of them can speak or understand. This necessitates Etta having to tutor them in Spanish. Sundance neglects his lessons for amorous pursuits with her, and Butch scrawls his answers on a crib sheet in the next room when she quizzes them.
They burst into their first job, guns drawn, Butch yelling “Estu es un robo!”
The patrons raise their hands and go to the wall, Sundance covering them.
Butch fumbles through a couple false starts of Spanish, then furiously digs out his wrinkled crib sheet and reads;
Sundance, exasperated, yells;
“They GOT ‘em up! Skip on down!”
“SKIP ON DOWN!”
“Todos ustedes arrismense a la pared!”
“They’re AGAINST the wall ALREADY!”
Butch squints at the paper.
“Donde es….AWWWW You’re so damn smart, YOU read it!”
He flings it down and stalks forward with his gun. Sundance empties the drawers and they run out of the bank, bickering all the way, Sundance muttering “A goddamned CRIB SHEET.”
Would I Buy It Again?