Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG for violence
Running Time: 110 min.
Cast: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katherine Ross, Strother Martin, Henry Jones, Jeff Corey
Director: George Roy Hill
Screenplay: William Goldman
Review published November 29, 2003
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a nostalgic Western at the time of its release, and in time, most people were nostalgic for this film itself. It's a deceptively complex film, and a bit of a paradox in filmmaking, completely unconventional although it conforms to every known convention, and totally irreverent, although clearly paying much respect to the genre it is born in. It is a much beloved film, but like most movies carried by mystique and charisma, it works a kind of magic that will hit some very hard and completely miss others. Regardless of how you feel ultimately, this is clearly an inspired work by George Roy Hill (The Sting, Slap Shot), taking risks with William Goldman's (All the President's Men, The Princess Bride) witty screenplay, and delivering a Western unlike any before or since. And how could it? Even if you were to remake this film shot for shot, the chemistry between Redford (The Candidate, Three Days of the Condor) and Newman (Cool Hand Luke, Torn Curtain) could never be replicated.
Newman is Butch and Redford is Sundance, the brains and the gun, respectively, of the infamous Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, a gang of bank robbers that were as beloved as they were feared. They are good at what they do, but a certain lethargy has set in to the gang, so they take to robbing trains. No one wants to take them on, until one day a "super posse" has been called together, with uncanny tracking capabilities and unending tenacity, with Butch and Sundance literally having nowhere to run and nowhere to hide anymore. Butch's hope is to take their chances in Bolivia, but first they have to survive, and eventually make a living in a place where they have to start over.
Nominated for seven Academy Awards, and winner of four, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a critical failure but a commercial success at the time of its release. The critics didn't know what to make of the odd nature of the film, or the fact that there were lots of laughs in what is a serious Western, or at least there was too much seriousness in what should be a comedy. This was a new breed of film, where the heroes would rather run away rather than fight, spending most of their time bickering about petty issues regardless of the seriousness around them. Quite fortuitous that two actors were cast who could tell a joke with as serious a face as Newman and Redford, terrific actors with mastery of subtlety, so fine tuned that they can speak seriously, sarcastically, or ironically with the same face, and we know which they mean just from their tone or body language alone.
But they aren't the only necessary piece in making this a classic. There's also the beautiful look of the film, from Hill's use of lush locales and romanticized vistas, to Conrad Hall's (The Professionals, Fat City) Oscar-winning cinematography, which makes the West as real as if we were actually there. There's a quietness to the film that gives us moments to admire the scenery, which is every bit as enjoyable as the scenes with dialogue or Burt Bacharach's (Arthur) award-winning music. Of course, Hill's vision and style provides most of the memorable scenes, from the ambitiousness of the bike riding montage, to the boldness of the improvisational style, making this enjoyable just through sheer quirkiness, but it works through and through.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a funny, smart and endearing film that only increases its enjoyment with each repeated visit. It's so droll as to be uproariously funny, so off-the-wall as to keep you on your toes with its unpredictability. Highly recommended, not only for fans of the two leads, but for people who just enjoy good bravura filmmaking. Employing a bit of self-irony, it goes to show that the lovers of movies will be the sole determinants of which films become classics, and critics be damned for disagreeing.
©2003 Vince Leo