The 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of the greatest westerns ever made, because it’s so much more than a horse opera or cowboy shoot ’em up. It’s about heroes and mythmaking, why love is so complicated and how two dastardly criminals are so likable, to us and each other.
The setting is Wyoming of the 1890s and we’re reminded, as the best films in this genre do, that the days of cowboys and outlaws weren’t for wimps. The streets were muddy, the homes were dusty with dirt-encrusted floors and people were shot for giving someone a wrong look or an unkind word.
The opening scenes of George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are in brown, washed-out color tones, giving viewers a sense of the wild west days of old. As the establishing scene progresses, in which gunplay breaks out over a card game, the film slowly switches to color.
We meet Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and Harry Longabaugh (Robert Redford)–”The Sundance Kid”–two train robbers whose antics are becoming so widely noted that a hired posse of lawmen are in pursuit. While they manage to outride their opponents for a time, our two anti-heroes wonder if their time is coming to end, and if their much discussed escape to Bolivia is an actual possibility.
Along for the ride is Etta (Katherine Ross), a school teacher who is Sundance’s girlfriend but flirts openly with Butch. Over the course of the film, it seems she’s in love with both men, a touch that seems to reflect the flower power era in which the film was released. When your boyfriends are played by Redford and Newman, who could blame her for failing to chose just one?
It’s hard for me to write about this movie in terms of its story, which is compelling but maybe the eighth or ninth best thing about it. Let’s talk about Redford and Newman: they are positively sensational, share such a delicious chemistry and are such a joy to watch, they make this the captivating, sexy and surprisingly hilarious ride that it is. Ross is a marvelous match for them both and good luck resisting the scene where Newman takes Ross on a bike ride (set to the Oscar-winning “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”). Or the sequence where Butch and Sundance use too much dynamite to blow up a bank vault. Or the hysterical bit where they attempt to rob a bank in Spanish.
There’s also the scene where Butch and Sundance talk one another into jumping off a high cliff, which feels like a something you’d see in a subsequent Lethal Weapon-style buddy comedy. Here, it’s funny but suspenseful, because the stakes are so high for the characters. We genuinely care about these outlaws, making their brushes with danger all the more exciting.
There’s a montage that portrays the joy the three fugitives share while on a voyage–the editing and music in this portion is masterful. Otherwise, the story builds in its scope and escalating danger. The extended chase with “the man in the white hat” evokes a sort of existential tension and dread.
It’s also a great comedy, made all the richer for how obvious it is that Newman and Redford’s unforced chemistry reveals a genuine affection they shared in real life. The Sting may be the vehicle that won the Best Picture Oscar and is arguably the better known movie (perhaps for its legendary score as much as the con man angle). Yet Butch and Sundance is the better, funnier and more consistently thrilling movie.
I took my mother to see this at the legendary Alamo Drafthouse movie theater in Denver a few years back and it’s a memory I treasure. Seeing a movie this great on the big screen is a gift (it’s back in theaters now for a special screening). If it’s been a while or, heavens to Betsy, if you’ve never seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid before, what in tarnation are you waiting for?
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid screens at the Maui Mall this Sunday (Jan. 17) at 2pm and 7pm and on Wednesday, Jan. 20 at the same times.