AFInity: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
By Kim Hollis
August 6, 2009

If one more person talks about his pretty eyes, I'm going to smack them.

We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#73: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

I must have been around 14-years-old when I first saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and I remember thinking it was pretty great. It was a Western, though, and I've never been a particular fan of the genre (though my favorite TV series ever is Deadwood). This meant that I never bothered to see the movie a second time until this past weekend. I...regret this choice.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a bit of a sneaky film. On the surface, it looks like a Western, of course. It's also a buddy movie and has elements of unconventional romance. The film's façade is carefree and lively, so much so that you barely consider the fact that there's something deeper and more meaningful underneath it all. That something was completely missed by my 14-year-old self. Almost two decades later, it has a little more impact.

The film is (very) loosely based on the true-life exploits of the titular outlaws, with Paul Newman in the role of Butch and Robert Redford playing the Sundance Kid. The two of them head up the Hole in the Wall Gang, a group of bank robbers who also branch out into knocking off the occasional train. After Butch decides that there's more financial opportunity to rob a train twice, things go terribly awry on the second heist attempt, as they use too much dynamite and another train arrives, with an expert posse inside that has been tasked with taking the outlaws down. The rest of the movie sees Butch and Sundance always on the run, looking over their shoulders at every turn, with a few engaging little pit stops as they make their way to a blaze-of-glory finale.

I realize that this plot description makes the movie sound slight. It could have been, but the writing (by William Goldman) is so fine, and the acting so layered, that it leaves the viewer with ideas to ponder and characters that we hate to leave behind. Sure, it's taking the notions of the standard Western and turning them a little bit upside down. Gone is the ultra-violence of Peckinpah and Leone. Traditional notions of good guy/bad guy are up in smoke. Even the music lets us know that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid intends to reframe the genre to something new and all its own.

What that means is that the kind of guys we might typically see as the heroes become the shadowy, threatening men-without-faces who are in hot pursuit of the outlaws, who in turn are the guys we've been trained to root against. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, though, we're absorbed in the chaos created by the outlaw protagonists. It's a lot more fun to watch guys like them having a blast as they relieve others of their wealth than it would be to focus on the upstanding citizens charged with their pursuit.

And yet, even with all the fun, there's an underlying sense of melancholy. We get the sense that Butch and Sundance are relics of an era and that this is something they understand. Their time is coming to an end, and at some point they'll fade away. They won't go down easy or without a fight, but there's an inevitability about where their story is headed that cannot be denied.

The primary reason this comes across so clearly is because the characters are so well-written, but one also feels that the actors' interpretation of their roles is crucial. It would have been easy to make Butch the brilliant schemer, planning all their jobs with efficiency and perfect cunning. Sundance could have been the irresistible brooder. Instead, we are given characters with a much greater depth. The opening scene alone does an amazing job of telling us who these two men are – Butch is the problem solver and the guy who does the talking, while Sundance has a certain personal code that he follows even as he exists amongst the wrong element. We learn that Butch is blithe and ne'er-do-well, and Sundance is the ideal counterpart who precisely assesses the room before taking action.

The characters grow as the movie progresses. We come to see that even though Butch has a knack for planning and knows a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff, he's not infallible. His schemes sometimes go wrong. And Sundance, despite a tough exterior, has fears and worries that are surprising. The viewer is given the sense that the two friends have seen better times – that at one point, robbing banks was child's play for them, but as times are changing, they're being forced to adapt, which isn't coming easy or naturally to them.

I'm always inclined to like Newman in everything (I seriously can't recall a time that I wasn't enchanted by him in a film), and Butch Cassidy gives me that much more reason to regard him as one of the finest actors ever. I would have thought that Redford might be better suited to play Butch Cassidy, but his take on Sundance is just right. He does the slow burn really, really well and has a caustic air about him, but never takes it too far. We have to believe that these guys would stay buddies through a lot of harrowing stuff, and they do indeed feel like old friends. We don't often talk about chemistry between male leads, but it's significant here.

George Roy Hill makes some fascinating decisions as the film's director, and they really add to the experience of watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I would contend that any number of scenes in the movie would work perfectly well as short, standalone films. So much is encompassed in these segments. Character is revealed, themes are uncovered and story is progressed. Hill also makes unique use of color, as the opening scene has a sepia tone to it, giving it a gritty feel that makes it feel very much like a Western, but the humor and dialogue take it to another level.

The music in the film is extremely anachronistic, and yet it never really feels out of place. Everyone seems to know Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for the use of the song "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head", which was written for the film by Hal David and Burt Bacharach. It's been parodied so many times that it's ingrained into the cultural zeitgeist. Yet, it really does fit the moment – Butch takes Sundance's lover, Etta Place (Katharine Ross), for a spin on his new bicycle. Its upbeat message sets the mood, right up until the bike "betrays" Butch and he decides that if this mode of transportation is the future, he wants no part of it. The contemporary music, both the signature song and the score (also by Bacharach), further prove the notion that Butch and Sundance are men of a transitional time.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is that I've found myself thinking about it often in the days since I viewed it. I think about that opening scene and marvel at how much is revealed in such a short time. I remember this scene:

and I am impressed at how much we learn about both Butch and Sundance in a segment that also provides a lot of levity. I recall some of the breathtaking scenery and the sense of dread inspired by the name La Fours or the thought of a white Boater hat. This movie is one that I regret not having watched 20 times or more. I'll plan to remedy that in the future.

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