Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

This is one that a lot of critics missed at first, as they did Bonnie and Clyde and 2001: A Space Odyssey. By that I mean they wrote negative reviews, then looked at it again after it had become a smash hit solely by word of mouth (adjusted for inflation, it is the 34th most money-making film in history!), and saw the things they weren’t able to see the first time. And the reason they couldn’t see it is that it broke all the rules of a western movie. Westerns are, in their own way, as stylized and straitened as a Kabuki play. The most important rule, according to the screenwriter, William Goldman, is that the hero never runs away. John Wayne never ran away. Butch and Sundance ran away from the super-posse, all the way to Bolivia, and never came back! The only difference in the reality of the skedaddling and the movie version is that there was no long chase, as we see in the film. As soon as they first heard of the posse, they ran! And good for them!

Critics simply didn’t yet have the mental tools to deal with this movie, which was such a radical departure from what they expected. And it pretty much marked the end of the western genre, which had been a mainstay of movie storytelling right from the very first frames of the first real narrative movie: Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery. Sure, there have been other westerns since, like the Coen Brothers True Grit. But westerns used to be huge! Boys wanted to be Hopalong Cassidy, or Hoot Gibson, or Roy Rogers. A whole section of Disneyland was devoted to the western. We wore cowboy hats and packed cap pistols.

I had a long association with the producer of this film, John Foreman, whose Newman-Foreman company made several films starring Paul Newman, and quite a few others, including They Might Be Giants, Millennium, and Prizzi’s Honor, which should have won the Best Picture Oscar, but was beaten out by Out of Africa. John had a lot of anecdotes about The Man Who Would Be King, which he produced with John Huston, but not so many about this film, except that the explosion of the baggage car (made of balsa wood) was bigger than anyone expected, just like it was for Butch and Sundance and the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. He did say it was a lot of fun, but mostly he just stood around and mediated disputes between Newman and the director, the seriously under-rated George Roy Hill. John was good at that. I really miss him. He was the best-educated, most honest, and most loyal man I ever worked with in Hollywood.

I say it broke all the rules of the western. Here’s a few of them.

There was no background music. All the music comes in three interludes: the bicycle scene, the montage of sepia-toned photos in New York, and the chases in Bolivia. All of it was anachronistic modern-day music, including the monster hit song “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Everyone thought Hill was insane. Western music should sound like Copland, or Elmer Bernstein, or Alfred Newman. Critics hated that. (Including Roger Ebert, who got this one totally wrong.)

The dialogue was contemporary, on purpose. Again, hey, people didn’t talk like that back then! Well, sure, but this film played with all those old tropes.

The middle of the film is an almost thirty-minute chase where we barely see the posse except in very, very long shots. At the end of the film they both die, not heroically, but shot down like dogs. And we don’t get to see it (which was a big relief to me). The sound of a volley of shots, and then a freeze frame.

The movie was nominated for a slew of Oscars, and won four, including William Goldman for Best Original Screenplay. And rightly so. If you haven’t seen the movie (as if anyone hasn’t) these lines of dialogue will mean nothing to you. If you have seen it, they will call up some unforgettable scenes:

“Listen, I don’t mean to be a sore loser, but when it’s done, if I’m dead … kill him.” “Glad to.”

“Rules? In a knife fight?”

“Who are those guys?

“I can’t swim!”
“Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.”

“You just keep thinkin’, Butch. That’s what you’re good at.”

“I didn’t know you was the Sundance Kid when I said you was cheatin’. If I draw on you, you’ll kill me.”
“There’s that possibility.”

“He has to ask me to stay. Then I’ll go.”

“It’s over, don’t you get that? Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody, and all you can do is choose where.”

The movie manages to be comical without being a comedy, and moving, and so many other things. It started a long line of “buddy” films, but few of them had the chemistry that Newman and Redford had. It worked again later in The Sting. Ironically, no one wanted to cast Redford except Hill. He was not a big star yet. They approached Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, and even Dustin Hoffman. All of them would have been disastrous in that role, in my opinion. Redford was so grateful for this part that he named his festival for independent filmmakers after Sundance.