50 Years Ago: ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ Says Goodbye to the Old West
"You know," says Butch Cassidy (played by Paul Newman) in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, "when I was a kid, I always thought I'd grow up to be a hero."
His partner, the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), deadpans in reply, "Well, it's too late now."
The exchange captures something essential about the movie, which was released on Oct. 24, 1969.
The film was the brainchild of screenwriter William Goldman, a prodigious talent who would go on to pen projects as varied as All the President's Men, The Princess Bride (based on his novel) and Misery. Long fascinated by the true story of the titular characters, who were born Robert LeRoy Parker and Harry Longabaugh, respectively, Goldman shaped a somewhat-true version of their lives into a buddy-film screenplay about the end of the West.
Butch Cassidy was the leader of a group of ruffians known as the Hole in the Wall Gang. "I never met a soul more affable than you, Butch," says a friend of his who's a sheriff to boot. It's true. Butch doesn't want to hurt people, and it comes out late in the movie that he's never actually shot anyone. He just wants to have a good time and to make his money by stealing it.
His partner is the Sundance Kid. He's perhaps a bit more prickly than Butch and is an expert gunman, but is similar in that he shares a wide-eyed and almost innocent commitment to living how he wants to, which also includes stealing money whenever possible.
Unfortunately for the two men, it's 1898. The 20th century, with all its mechanical contrivances, is fast approaching, and it's going to annihilate them and their way of life. They begin to understand this when they good-naturedly rob a Union Pacific train twice in a row, enraging the boss of the railroad, E.H. Harriman, who assembles an all-star posse to hunt them down and kill them. The posse is led by a Native American tracker who calls himself Lord Baltimore and a legendary lawman named Joe Lefors, recognizable by his white straw hat.
In a long and beautifully shot chase sequence filmed in at least four states – Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and California – Butch and Sundance realize that no matter what they do, they will never be able to escape Lefors and his posse, who will never stop until the outlaws are dead.
So they go to Bolivia, with Sundance's girlfriend Etta (Katharine Ross) in tow.
Though at first dismayed by this new country, they soon find that it's full of what they love best: banks and mining payrolls that are fantastically easy to rob. For a while the three of them live the high life. But they can't escape the knowledge that even here Lefors is bound to show up sooner or later, and it becomes slowly clear they're approaching the end of their adventures. After Etta goes back to America, Butch and Sundance are identified by the brand on a stolen mule and trapped by a regiment of Bolivian troops. Butch suggests that the place they really need to go is Australia, which he's certain is populated with easy banks, nice beaches and people who speak English. With that, they charge out, guns blazing, to their death.
This story is told by a talented director, George Roy Hill, working at the height of his powers. It's enjoyably languorous in its pacing but brisk and confident in its delineation of character, and it moves with a remarkable forward energy. The most miraculous trick Hill pulls, however, is the way he combines lighthearted camaraderie with an inescapable sense of doom.
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Throughout the film Butch and Sundance communicate through one-liners and charming banter, and the chemistry between Newman and Redford is famously irresistible. But behind their devil-may-care friendship is the implacable fact that the two men will not make it out alive, a fact personified by Lefors in his white hat (we never see anything else of him.) This knowledge grows in us as it grows in the characters – Etta sees it clearly – until their repartee begins to seem like the laughter of men walking to the gallows.
It's this elegiac feeling, in addition to the star power of the actors (Ross, even with a limited number of lines, keeps up with Newman and Redford) that has resulted in the film's status as a classic since its release. It tells with good humor a story often told elsewhere – such as in the Westerns of Sam Peckinpah, whom Hill cinematically quotes in a late shootout scene – with more savagery.
The West with all its freedom and joy is dying. Technology and modernity are on the march, signaling the closing of the open range where life was once bountiful. In one of the movie's most famous scenes, Newman and Ross ride a newfangled invention called the bicycle to the tune of "Raindrops Keep Fallin on My Head," written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David specifically for the movie. But, delightful as it is, even this mechanical contrivance comes to seem to Butch as evidence of the betrayal wrought on him by the passing of the years. Lefors, in his white hat, becomes the ultimate personification of this: an unstoppable force that cannot be bargained with or avoided.
And what is the possible response to this doom? There is none, except good, humorous, earnest connection.
The Newman laugh. The Redford sardonic squint. The half-earnest belief in another Bolivia or Australia out there where we will be permitted to live as we like. In the way that it whistles not past but into the graveyard, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid carries forward a longstanding if oft-forgotten American tradition that values the integrity of the human over the ineradicable push of the inhuman future.
All these years later it's still a valuable film, and will remain one, because of this.