Review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Dir. George Roy Hill

BCandTSKUpon returning to their hideaway to plan a robbery, famed outlaws Butch Cassidy (Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Redford) are challenged for the leadership of their gang by an ambitious oaf, whom they slyly outmaneuver before admitting his plans for the group were pretty worthwhile after all. And pretty worthwhile stealing for themselves. They will rob the Union Pacific Flyer, not once but twice: hitting the train once would be audacious, but twice would be downright unexpected and, thus, probably more profitable.

The heist is a success, but when railroad director E. H. Harriman organizes the toughest posse that ever rode to track down the bandits, the two are forced to abscond to Bolivia, where further “nice” bad-guy shenanigans and fish-out-of-water fumbling awaits. One scene sees Sundance wax vehement on the cosmopolitan inadequacies of the locale; in another, the two use language crib notes to perform an amusingly amateur stick-up.

Harriman’s hired guns, however, led by mercenary ex-lawman Joe Lefors, aren’t much bothered by jurisdictional complications. This is a manhunt, but there will be no arrest: putting Butch and Sundance in the ground is what counts and the country is immaterial.

BC&TSK is essentially a kind of three-way romance between Butch, Sundance, and the audience—whom the film clearly anticipates is enamored of the actors who play them. Sure, Katherine Ross puts in an appearance as Etta Place (Sundance’s main squeeze), but in a cheeky celebration of male camaraderie like this one her character is as extraneous as it is uninteresting, and she serves mainly as a proxy for the fraternal fling between Butch and Sundance.

And now I’m afraid I have to get a lot less cutesy than George Roy Hill’s buffed-up buddy flick: what we have here is an almost quaintly undaring picture motored along by the cheery bankability of stars, jokes, and glamorous production. We never forget that BC&TSK is foremost an investment, and it comes off as a particularly bloated and populist one when posed against the challenging, Vietnam-influenced viciousness of contemporary The Wild Bunch (1969). The audience is longlined with dazzling visuals, showy score and a wagonload of wisecracks. And then there’s the iconic leading men. Newman is a first rate actor, but his performance (and seemingly permanent tickled-baby grin) is at times tiresomely smug, and the chummy routine he and Redford have going doesn’t really show off the acting skills of either.

Butch3.jpgBC&TSK’s most irksome offense is not its free-wheeling lack of imagination or expensive blandness, but the portentous tone it eventually takes on. The elegiac finale that sees Butch and Sundance go down is greatly misjudged, clashing with the general mood of affable anachronism that is, really, the film’s bread and butter. Having dialogue that’s all hammy jokes and merry sarcasm is all well and good, but one can’t expect to trade it in for moodiness when the film is almost over and instantly have achieved something.

In this sense, BC&TSK hijacks the worked-for sentiments of earlier Westerns like its heroes do trains. The “inevitable end of the outlaw life” theme is hastily rolled out: a few perfunctory lines about how it’s “comin’ to an end” and that’s that—a lazy attempt at poignancy waylaid by smug charm and glossy production. Which brings us to “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head,” written for the film by Burt Bacharach and Hal David: catchy song, charming, great—not here. Its use is the epitome of camp tedium, dashing any chance the film has of achieving the bleaker tone it eventually desires.

Butch2.jpgWhat we’re left with is a Western too afraid of getting its hands dirty to really explore the themes it feels entitled to rudely grope at in its final scene. The film’s serious side is almost entirely compromised by its specious appeal to generational “hipness” and Western cliché. Various homages to other pictures—Jules and Jim (1962), Bonnie and Clyde (1967)—also seem indicative of its lack of real interest in putting its nose to the grindstone and forging something worthwhile on the subject at hand.

After all this, I will hardly sound convincing when I say that I don’t think BC&TSK is a bad movie. Even with Newman’s smarmy delivery, there are a number of genuinely funny lines. Maybe it’s showy, maybe not—but either way the cinematography is mesmerizingly top notch, in measures both playful and painstakingly. The heroes’ relationship to their inexorable but almost unseen pursuers is one the story’s more thoughtful aspects; the posse come to serve as a metaphor for the forces of time and civilization that Butch and Sundance continue to test. The night-time chase sequences are hauntingly shot, and tension is effectively developed through our boys’ refusal to admit what is increasingly clear: their days are numbered.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a fabulous looking picture; and it’s a funny picture—thoroughly attuned to the cocky snap of sarcasm and one-liners—but this cavalcade of cool barely disguises the weaknesses that make it an ultimately unfulfilling picture. Butch might be the one with the plans, but William Goldman’s script doesn’t have too many new ideas; Sundance might be fast on the draw, but BC&TSK is a little wide of the mark.  3 / 5