"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Fox, 1969)

It doesn't do it for me


Many times in this blog I have referred to a famous movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but have never actually discussed it in a review. Let’s do that today.
‘The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy’, as it was originally to be called, makes an enjoyable story with, as Katharine Ross said, “A beginning, a middle and an end.” It is one of the most popular Western movies of all time, won four Oscars and despite bad initial reviews went on to become a huge hit. That’s because it is fun, amusing and there is a chemistry between its two stars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, that is hard to beat. Of course it bears little resemblance to the true story of Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh (the real names of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) but that alone is no impediment to a good Western. Westerns are rarely if ever historically accurate. It was beautifully shot by Conrad L Hall in Mexico, New Mexico, Utah and around Durango in Colorado, and it is directed by George Roy Hill. The stars are handsome and charismatic. The dialogue is full of wit and humor.
You can feel a ‘but’ coming, can’t you?
It’s a big but. This is not a Western fan’s Western. It is an amusing commercial vehicle and a big ‘buddy’ movie. It’s overly ironic and even perhaps mocking of the genre.
Probably the worst thing about the film, and bad enough almost to ruin it on its own, is the ghastly 60s ‘jokey’ Burt Bacharach music, and when we come to the totally dire bicycle/Raindrops sequence, the film (still in its first reel) almost dies there. It is rare for a single moment or performance to sink a movie utterly but it can be done. Brian Keith sank The Rare Breed pretty well single-handed in his wig and ‘Scottish’ accent, and Bacharach does it here. The music is toe-curlingly awful, throughout.
But I think the underlying reason for the failure of this picture as a Western was the lack of love or respect for the genre by the writer, William Goldman, a Princeton academic at the time whose first screenplay this was. He says, in an interview on the DVD, that it is hard to balance drama with humor successfully. It is, Mr. Goldman, and you certainly didn’t manage it. The director also made no other Westerns and is known for such works as Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Sting. He should have stuck to that genre.
Writer and director do use, probably deliberately, many Western tropes, not to say clichés: a train robbery with bandits running along the top of the cars, escape by jumping into water, the (impossible) galloping exit of the posse from the railroad car, that kind of thing. And the ‘end of the West’ theme is strong, as in so many true Westerns, especially from the 1960s on. It’s nostalgic and describes characters feeling out of place in a world that is over (in some ways, of course, a world that never existed or if it did exist it only lasted thirty years or so in a limited part of America). So superficially we feel ‘at home’, we recognize the scenery.
The heroes leave ‘the West’ and go off to Bolivia, just as other Western characters went to California or Mexico – a new West, a further frontier. There is even, bizarrely, a comparison to be made with a true Western that came out the same year, The Wild Bunch (not only that The Wild Bunch was the name of Butch Cassidy’s gang, I mean): cowboys leave the United States and do not find the new frontier that they hoped for and die there. Both films were in a way deconstructions of themselves, or anyway of the genre. Both are arguably ‘Vietnam’ films, as ‘superior’ Americans go to foreign parts and shoot the natives (though, agonizingly for ‘superior’ Americans, fail in the end).
But it sticks in the craw, really, to compare Butch Cassidy with The Wild Bunch. In some ways they were complete opposites. The latter was a true (late) example of the genre with great, aging Western actors and a director/mastermind who loved the Western and was experienced in it. It doesn't mock itself or the genre. Butch Cassidy may well be, as I said at the beginning, an amusing, romantic buddy picture much loved by non-Western fans and often seen on TV by millions of people, but to us, e-pards, to true Western buffs, to real oater fans, it has a whiff of bad eggs about it. Even without the bloody bicycle sequence.


  1. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of the greatest western buddy movies ever made. Conrad Hall won the Oscar for Cinematography and Burt Bacharach's soundtrack won a Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media. I saw the film in 1969 at age 16 with my best friend and we joined the military 2 years later to fight in Vietnam. We are still friends and still talk about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

    1. Yes, and you are not alone. Many people love this movie.
      Thanks for your comment.