Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid  (1969)    51/100

Rating :   51/100                                                                     110 Min        PG

This is one of the most famous westerns of all time. Directed by George Roy Hill and starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford (Hill would later receive an Oscar for directing the same duo in 1973’s ‘The Sting’), one already a Hollywood giant and the other soon to become one, the film is very much one of two halves. It follows the exploits of the eponymous outlaws as they rob trains and try to evade the consequences. Little of the real facts about their lives are known, but Butch Cassidy was the leader of one of the gangs that made use of ‘The Hole in the Wall’ in Wyoming, a pass that sheltered various gangs for over forty years and was never successfully infiltrated by the law.

The opening of the film displays an immediate level of class in the way it’s shot and edited, and the entire first half of the film has a sincere artistry to it as it successfully creates the feeling that the riders in pursuit of the main characters are more like vengeful riders of the Apocalypse than real men. It gives it a real tension, and distinction within the genre, as the characters are fleshed out amidst this grim and pensive backdrop.

Then, however, as the pair make their famous emigration to South America, there is a montage of stills to denote the change in location whilst some truly woeful music plays. It completely breaks the wonderful previous buildup. What ensues thereafter is much closer to standard western fare, and as we see more of the two outlaws we realise that they aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed and ennui starts to creep in. This is summed up by their decisions come the finale, one which is as famous as the song written for the film: Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s ‘Raindrops keep falling on my Head’ (which won them the Oscar for best original song, the film also won best cinematography for Conrad L. Hall {he won again for ‘American Beauty’ 99 and ‘Road to Perdition’ 02} and somehow for best writing, courtesy of William Goldman).

The film was released in 1969 and was the top grossing film of the year. It was, in fact, an extremely big year for westerns with the original ‘True Grit’ and ‘The Wild Bunch’ coming out too. The Red Dragon doesn’t care much for ‘True Grit’, but rates ‘The Wild Bunch’ as one of the best films of all time, whose new editing and camera techniques left an enduring legacy on cinema as well as an ending which has scarcely been rivalled in the western genre. Indeed, both ‘The Wild Bunch’ and Butch Cassidy have been chosen to be preserved by the American National Film Registry (which, since 1989, has chosen 25 or so American films each year for preservation): ‘The Wild Bunch’ was preserved in 1999, Butch Cassidy in 2003, and it’s interesting that the name of Cassidy’s gang had to be changed in the film to avoid confusion with the earlier release of ‘The Wild Bunch’ – in real life his gang were Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, probably named after a more notorious band of the same name from Oklahoma (‘The Wild Bunch’ features entirely fictional characters), and in the film they become ‘The Hole in the Wall Gang’, which is misleading as in reality no one gang was called this but the hideout featured several ‘hole in the wall gangs’. As a result of the film’s popularity, Butch Cassidy is often still erroneously associated as being the leader of ‘The Hole in the Wall Gang’. The endings of the two films have a couple of storyline points in common too, and whilst in ‘The Wild Bunch’ they have a real context, here in Butch Cassidy they feel more like artificial insertions for the finale, and it’s impossible not to see it as trying to imitate the previous release.

It’s a real shame the promise shown at the beginning is subverted and replaced by torturously bad and even conflicting dialogue, and direction, come the end. It stands as a shining example of how Hollywood can make anything successful with little more than high profile leads and cheesy romanticism, a formula still oft repeated today.

SPOILER ALERT

The Red Dragon wonders why they did not try and fight their way out of the back exit, or indeed risk a peek over the many small walls to the left and right of the place they end up cornered in. Having gone to extreme lengths to avoid the law (including leaving the continent) it is most unexpected to see them run into the arms of a tiny army in order to commit suicide and immortalise themselves in cinematic history. Cassidy initiates this lemming like crusade in order to procure more ammunition for himself. Why? He can’t hit anything anyway, and he seems to still have a reasonable amount left. We learn that the Kid has somewhere in the region of five million bullets left anyhow as the film descends into a version of Operation Wolf with the Kid shooting a never ending stream of useless Bolivian military as they appear from behind the smallest pottery bowl and wicker basket. It is unfortunate they make a decision to fight it out in a tiny village that just so happens to be housing the entire Bolivian army. Would the Kid’s bullets not have fitted Butch’s gun? Didn’t the Kid or the numerous corpses have another weapon? Alas, such is the price to pay in order to become Hollywood icons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.