Starring: Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Katharine Ross
Director: George Roy Hill
Mood: If you’re having the kind of week where your to-do list feels overwhelming and you just want to check off one damn thing so why not make it one of the Top 10 Westerns.
I was super excited to watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s one of those Westerns you hear about all the time. You’re supposed to see it.
I found it in the Walmart $5 bin months ago, but didn’t get around to opening it. The way I was motivated to finally watch it is bizarre, as far as reasons to watch a Western. It happened while I was re-reading The Princess Bride, by William Goldman – who also wrote Butch Cassidy.
In the rambling, self-indulgent introduction, Goldman wrote, “Fact: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is, no question, the most popular thing I’ve ever been connected with. When I die, if the Times gives me an obit, it’s going to be because of Butch.” And that’s exactly what happened. His New York Times obituary begins, “William Goldman, who won Academy Awards for his screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid…”
Anyway. The Princess Bride is f*cking brilliant, so obviously I had to watch Butch Cassidy.
It’s good, I’ll give it that. It’s a solid B- as far as Westerns go. Like, it’s got some appeal, but it’s definitely no Princess Bride.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is an original screenplay based on real life train robbers Robert LeRoy Parker aka Butch Cassidy, and Harry Longabaugh aka Sundance Kid. Together they managed to pull off the longest stretch of successful train and bank robberies in US history.
- Fun Fact: The original title was “The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy”, but they flipped the order because Paul Newman was the huge star.
The opening credits are GORGEOUS. You get this sepia-tone vignette showing the early days of the ‘Hole in the Wall Gang’. The first scenes are also in sepia, and it’s absolutely f*cking stunning cinematography. Butch is casing a bank, while Sundance is being called a cheat by a young Sam Elliott in his first-ever movie role.
(I had to watch the opening scene several times and I still don’t see it – no trademark Sam Elliott voice! No bushy facial hair! This was clearly around when that agent told him to lose the accent or he’d never make it in Hollywood…)
When Butch and Sundance ride out of that town and the movie slides into full colour, it’s every bit as rich and surreal as The Wizard of Oz.
After meeting up with their gang of outlaws, a train robbery goes sideways. Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) find themselves chased by a ‘super posse’ whom you never really see, but in real life was the Pinkertons. The two outlaws flee to Bolivia with their lady friend (Katharine Ross), where they pick up right where they left off robbing banks.
But the movie started to go downhill shortly after it went full colour.
Newman and Redford are good, but they’re not GREAT. You can tell that they’re both highly capable, but limited by the lines on the page.
The dialogue can’t seem to decide what kind of movie it’s trying to be. At times it’s flippant one-liners, like an ‘80s action flick. Other times it strives for seriousness, but misses the mark because those scenes are sandwiched between things like the f*cking ridiculous bicycle scene set to ‘Rain Drops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’ which is probably the worst use of music in any Western I’ve ever watched.
And that’s just one of many scenes with a painfully mismatched score.
Goldman did say he regretted being ‘too cute’ with the dialogue. I mean, it’s not like Butch Cassidy was trying for High Noon level of somber drama, and it didn’t need to. That’s the problem. The comedy would have been totally fine if the rest of the script had leaned into that sort of Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale thing, all modern music and dialogue.
The shootouts are actually pretty good, especially the last one in Bolivia. And I do have to tip my hat to a 27-minute chase that only pauses briefly in a whorehouse.
- Fun Fact #2: The entire cast and crew except Newman, Redford, and Ross came down with Montezuma’s Revenge while filming the Bolivia scenes in Mexico – they avoided it by refusing to drink the water on set and living off soda and booze.
Like The Long Riders, Butch Cassidy also suffers from a very distinct ‘60s style that detracts from the period (early 1900s). Katharine Ross, while lovely, looks like your classic flower child, and everyone has this kind of cocky cleanliness.
Butch Cassidy received lukewarm reviews at first, yet somehow also became the highest-grossing film of 1969. It went on to win multiple Oscars, and EVERY SINGLE BAFTA category that year (it’s still the current record-holder).
Oh, but there’s more. The Writers Guild of America ranked the screenplay number eleven on its list of 101 Greatest Screenplays ever written. The movie is also ranked number seven on the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Westerns!
And because learning about the making of this movie was honestly as fun as watching it – here’s a whole list of trivia.
Fun Fact List Time
- Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, and Jack Lemmon were all attached to the movie at different points
- The real gang was usually called the Wild Bunch, but they changed the name because The Wild Bunch film had come out a few months earlier (and is, ironically, one spot higher on AFI’s Top 10 Westerns)
- The real Butch Cassidy’s sister came on set nearly every day; she told the cast stories, and was reportedly stoked on how well the script and Paul Newman captured her brother
- On her day off Katharine Ross was visiting the set, and since the crew was short a camera operator, cinematographer Conrad L. Hall showed her how to get a shot and had her film; director George Roy Hill was so mad he permanently banned her from set unless she was working
- Hall stepped in as Paul Newman’s stunt double for one of the scenes
- If you love senior Cloris Leachman, you’ll be startled at her babyish voice in her scenes (currently rewatching her epic turn as Maw Maw in Raising Hope)
- The real Butch Cassidy was supposedly sweet and charming, polite to a fault during his robberies, and never actually killed anyone
William Goldman was so into the story of Butch Cassidy that he couldn’t wait to write this screenplay. What appealed to him most came from an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, ‘There are no second acts in American lives’, yet the real Butch and Sundance lived out this epic second act in Bolivia.
But the second act of Butch Cassidy is like a different movie, and it’s just not as enjoyable as the one we glimpsed in the opening scenes.
It’s possible that I was unfairly holding this movie up to its own hype. But when you’ve seen so many excellent Westerns of the ‘60s (like True Grit, The War Wagon, The Magnificent Seven, Support Your Local Sheriff, and Once Upon a Time in the West)… that special something is missing from Butch Cassidy.
It’s not BAD. I really enjoyed Redford as Sundance. It’s just… holy crap that soundtrack is f*cking awful.