Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)


Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of many movies from the late 1960s which comes with the label "classic" but doesn't exactly work today.  I was disappointed when I first saw it, having heard so much about the film and excited at the time to see the movie everyone raved about.  I found it to be a boring, rambling mess where not much happened.  I think there were two factors going into that: I didn't know the first time through that it was supposed to be a comedy, and I saw it on an old VHS tape.

The latter can have some effect on the viewing experience, since I am quite sure I was not seeing it in the correct aspect ratio, but the usual "full-screen" pan-and-scan aspect that most of the old tapes were in.  For a movie like this it can seriously affect many of the wide shots of the scenery as well as limit being able to see what the director had originally intended to be on the screen.  I am pretty sure the sound was not exactly up to par either. 

I also think my age is a factor.  I still find bits of this disjointed or lagging, and George Roy Hill's directing is stuck right there in the late 1960s.  What I found myself appreciating this time around was the humor, which is surprising since Paul Newman was reluctant to give a comic performance as he felt that in the past he did a horrible job.  The key is that the lines that are genuinely funny are delivered in a way that is in character for Cassidy rather than Newman trying tell jokes.  Robert Redford, as Sundance, often has his own witty comebacks, although he often plays the straight man.  This buddy aspect is more the true focus of the film than the action or adventure parts, which I appreciate now more than ever.  It's possible even in my 20s, when I first saw it, I would have enjoyed it more if that's what I was looking for in the film. 

Butch Cassidy is the leader of the Hole in the Wall Gang, a band of outlaws robbing trains and banks in their little section of Wyoming in the late 1890s.  After a brief challenge to Cassidy's leadership by Harvey Logan (Ted Cassidy), Butch decides to go with Logan's idea of robbing the same train twice, coming and going.  While it works the first time, the second results in several errors and the boys being pursued by a "superposse" led by an American Indian tracker.  At first planning on joining the Army to escape, the duo make it back to the home of Etta Place (Katharine Ross), Sundance's girlfriend, and head out to Bolivia. 

In Bolivia they quickly become known as Banditos Yanquis as they return to their usual ways of making money.  They are successful for a number of years until Butch spots what he thinks is the leader of the posse that was pursuing them back in Wyoming.  They attempt to get legitimate jobs to throw them off, but ultimately return again and again to a life of crime. 

As with most great westerns the scenery is wonderful, with the American parts of the movie filmed in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, with Mexico standing in for Bolivia.  Since we never see the posse close up - we see them exit a special train and then pursue Butch and Sundance - it was one of the aspects that I was unable to appreciate previously.  Although this is arguably the weakest part of the film, next to the bike-riding scene with Newman and Ross set to "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head", there are scenes that stand out such as the night pursuit where the lanterns of the posse are seen miles below in a valley.  

While Newman and Redford are great and often play well with each other as well as with William Goldman's dialogue, Katharine Ross isn't completely lost in this.  She plays a part, both conscience and muse, for both men, although she is faithful to Sundance throughout.  Goldman didn't make Etta Place a throwaway romantic interest, but rather a mitigating factor to keep the movie from becoming an all-too-typical macho tale.  This is important since, while the action and western aspects are often emphasized, this is generally a serio-comic story based somewhat on real events.  There is drama to be had as well, since things ended for the pair rather abruptly (as does the movie), but the friendship is the center of the film rather than their outlaw activities. 

While I appreciate Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid much more for what both Goldman and Hill were trying to do, I still find some of the old problems popping up.  One is Burt Bacharach's music.  I mostly love his music, particularly when working with lyricist Hal David, but "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" is one of their more insipid compositions.  B.J. Thomas is also far from one of my favorite singers.  The other music Bacharach provides is quite intrusive at times, particularly the jazzy number that plays during the montage of their exploits in Bolivia, while other times it works when it's kept to a minimalist, almost ragtime sound that is more in keeping with the period. 

Speaking of "Raindrops", the aforementioned bicycle scene points out another problem that occurs often in the film.  Scenes drag on way too long.  This whole sequence is a distraction that plays out over the entire length of the song and does nothing but reveal the fact that Butch may at one point have been a rival for Etta's affections - something that is revealed in one line of dialogue after the song is over, thus making everything that came before it superfluous.  The pursuit by the posse, though beautifully filmed, also drags on too long, as does the montage of the three enjoying life in New York before heading off too Bolivia.  This is followed by another montage of robbery scenes that, again, is dragged out to fit the length of song.  It's not something necessarily out of step with how movies were made at the time, and was George Roy Hill's way with experimenting with the narrative structure, but today it just seems a leftover relic from a different time.  The movie itself is under two hours, but still could have had another 20 minutes chopped and worked just as well. 

That is the problem with experimentation at times.  What's avant-garde at the time becomes quaint as the years go by, while it is the tried and true elements of the film, largely the chemistry between the actors as the witty script from Goldman, that still hold up.  While it is a relic from the past, and more stuck in the 1960s than the 1890s, this is still a fun movie to watch if approached as a comedy rather than a straight biopic or action film.  

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Time: 110 minutes
Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross
Director: George Roy Hill

 

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