American Cinema has had a love affair with “The Old West” for decades. Who can blame them? It’s a subject rich in the very history of America itself. It also lends to being interpreted in many different ways; it’s been glamorized, satirized, turned on it’s head, and realistically portrayed. In the case of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it combines that classic Western feeling with modern undertones. Much in the same way Bonnie and Clyde connected with the younger generation when released two years earlier, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would also target and connect with the changing youth of the time.
Set in the end of the 1800s, the film centers around Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford). The Hole-in-the-Wall gang has been terrorizing and robbing for years with Butch as it’s leader. After a not so good robbery attempt, they are then relentlessly pursued by a posse of trained trackers and lawmen. After a series of narrow (albeit lucky) escapes, the pair, along with the Kids girlfriend, Etta Place (Katharine Ross), make plans to travel to New York then to Bolivia where they can live the rest of their days knocking over banks and making easy money. After some failed robbery attempts, the pair attempt to go straight, only to find themselves unable to resist thieving. After stealing a marked mule, they are soon cornered by the police and go out in a blaze.
Directed by George Roy Hill (who would go on to direct Newman and Redford in The Sting) uses a variety of story telling techniques to bring the story to the screen. A personal favorite of mine is the New York photograph montage. The product of a last minute change, the scene was originally supposed to be filmed on the Hello, Dolly! sets, but after the studio changed their mind (wanting to keep the sets a secret), they just took stills of the actors on the sets and wove the pictures into original period photos from the time. It’s one of those happy accidents that becomes one of the most memorable moments from the film. The film was written by William Goldman. While not a household name, he is behind some of the greatest movies and novels of recent memory. He is adapted his own novels Marathon Man and The Princess Bride into screenplays. He even penned All the President’s Men and The Stepford Wives. His ability to write excellent dialogue and build interesting characters is very present in this film.
Of course, the actors bring their own swagger to the parts as well. I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the parts of Butch or the Kid. Paul Newman has a very gentle, but strong presence that translates onto the film. You see why people follow him and how easily people could be persuaded by him. I can imagine that the real Butch must have been a very charismatic person to have people so readily follow him. Butch’s laid back, calm personality counters the Kid’s more brash one. Robert Redford could have taken his part of the more gun-ready Kid and just played him as the more simple of the two. While there is some of that, the Kid isn’t an idiot. He may not be the brains, but he isn’t a gun slinging idiot. Together, both the actors have an incredible chemistry. It’s no wonder they were paired again for The Sting. They play off of one another very well in this film and you get the feeling that they are genuinely looking out for one another.
Katharine Ross plays Etta Place, the Kid’s girlfriend. I’ve viewed this film a few times and each time I am less and less impressed with her part. I feel like the movie would have been more then fine without her in it. Rather, I don’t think she adds any dramatic tension to the plot. I’m sure I would have people argue with me, but I tend to find the scenes with her drag. I understand why she’s important in the context of the two men, but she doesn’t really add much to the film to me. Her performance is decent, but I tend to forget she’s in the film until I watch it. She just doesn’t leave a very strong impression on the audience.
What I found so unique about the film is how you can see the time it was made reflected in a very strong period piece. First, the writer chose to focus on the end of the characters instead of the beginning and height of their “fame”. I always felt this was done to show the changing times. By focusing on the end, we are forced to feel the change that is coming and can’t be stopped. The symbol of the bike is strong and interesting in the context of the film. Butch buys one and enjoys using it. I always interpreted this as his willingness to embrace the future. However, when they decide to flee the country, he tosses the bike to the side exclaiming, “The future’s all yours, you lousy bicycle.”
The idea of that we can’t stop it is further explored in the endless pursuit of the two by authorities. It starts when the men burst from the train and continues, even when they move to another country. They may be able to escape for a brief time, but they will eventually run out of time. You can’t out run the future.
With the 60s coming to a close, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, came at time when change was in full force. In the same vein as Bonnie and Clyde, an older subject found relevance with a younger audience. The simplicity of the story forces the viewer to focus on the characters as they try and stay alive. More then that, they try to out run the inevitable. I know I’ve felt that way; not in a life or death situation, but feeling like I’m running from what I will eventually have to face. While the ending is a little ambiguous as to their fate (not blatantly showing what happens), one can only assume the finally ran into destiny.