Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is not a conventional western, but more a modern “buddy film” with a western theme. It has no real discernible plot beyond a series of entertaining seriocomic vignettes basically intended to demonstrate the easy charm of its two wisecracking protagonists.
The significance of the movie, however, lies primarily in its phenomenal commercial success. It received a slew of mixed reviews following its initial release, but somehow, its good-humoured cynicism caught the mood of late 1960s America and totally captivated filmgoers – even attracting those who did not like westerns.
The film is loosely based on the historical escapades of the Wild Bunch, an outlaw gang led by Butch Cassidy (real name Robert Leroy Parker) and his quick-draw partner the Sundance Kid (real name Harry Longabaugh) – the last of the infamous outlaws of the Old West. The gang operated out of the Hole-in-the-Wall, a remote pass in the Big Horn Mountains of Johnson County, Wyoming, which proved an ideal hiding place for men with prices on their heads. Between 1889 and 1902, Cassidy’s feared gang stole from banks, railroads and mining companies. Realising that the new 20th century banks and trains were becoming progressively harder to rob, as well as being relentlessly pursued by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, both Butch and Sundance took off for what they thought were easier pickings in Bolivia, South America. According to legend, they swiftly gained a reputation as “Bandidos Yanqui” before fate finally caught up with them in 1908, when both were ambushed and shot dead by soldiers of the Bolivian army.
The screenplay was the brainchild of writer William Goldman, who became fascinated with the various accounts of the lives and legends of the two leaders of the Wild Bunch. He spent a number of years researching the two bandits and deliberately wrote their story as a parody on the passing of an individualistic way of life. He sold it to Richard Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox for a record $400,000.
Zanuck wanted two superstars for the lead roles and offered the Butch part to Steve McQueen and the Sundance Kid character to Paul Newman.
Both tentatively agreed, and it was this package which was then offered to George Roy Hill, a relatively new director best known for his two movies starring Julie Andrews – Hawaii (1966) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). Hill however, had different ideas about the casting – he saw Newman, not McQueen, as Butch. Newman told him he could not play comedy and Hill countered with, “Butch is not a comic part, he’s a straight guy in sometimes comic situations”. Once McQueen learned Newman was considering playing Butch, and that no matter what part he played, Newman would demand top billing, McQueen bowed out of the project.
Hill suggested the then practically unknown actor Robert Redford as Sundance, after having seen him handle comedic situations in the Broadway play Sunday in New York. There followed months of haggling with Zanuck over the casting of Sundance until he finally relented, after Newman interjected that he too wanted Redford for the part. Once filming began in Zion National Park, Utah, any reservations Zanuck had about Redford soon evaporated. Hill was right – Redford was a perfect fit for the Sundance Kid.
The movie’s opening scenes immediately establish the bromance between the witty affable Butch and the serious Sundance. Butch would prefer to rob banks because, unlike trains “they don’t move”. But tougher security in the banks forces him and his gang to hold-up trains. They plan to rob the Union Pacific Flyer twice – once going and again on the return trip. They assume the railroad boss would never suspect that the train would be robbed twice, and figure that the train on its return run will be loaded with money. (Both robberies are based on historical fact.) In the second robbery, the gang dynamite the safe that demolishes it and the rail-carriage, which results in thousands of dollar bills fluttering in the wind. As they collect the money, a mysterious express train comes down the track and stops. A heavily armed and mounted super-posse disembarks from one of the carriages. “Whatever they’re selling,” says Butch, “I don’t want it”. After shooting down a number of the gang, the posse concentrate on pursuing Butch and Sundance.
The extended chase sequence, which lasts a full half hour, is the best section of the film. It’s practically silent, except for the clatter of Butch and Sundance’s horses’ hooves and the ominous thunder of the pursuing posse – continually shot at long distance.
Butch’s increasingly exasperated, “Who are those guys?” is one of the many memorable punchy one-liners delivered by Newman throughout the film. They manage to keep one step ahead of their implacable pursuers until trapped on the ledge of a sheer cliff overlooking a raging river. They both jump off the cliff into the river and temporarily lose the posse. But when the law picks up their trail again, the duo and Sundance’s lady friend, Etta Place (played by Katharine Ross), travel to New York, en-route to Bolivia where they intend to continue their illegal exploits.
For the New York sequence Hill wanted to shoot it as a live-action scene with dialogue, on the movie set of Hello, Dolly!. The Barbra Streisand musical was in production at the time on the Fox backlot but Richard Zanuck adamantly refused the request. Hill then suggested that he instead use a still camera incorporating his three actors into the Dolly sets. This resulted in a stylish montage of still images with a musical accompaniment, which evoked an atmosphere of turn-of-the-century New York.
When the trio arrive in Bolivia (actually shot in Mexico), they find a poor barren country and also a language barrier, as neither of them can speak Spanish. The Bolivian authorities soon catch on to their nefarious activities and Etta decides to return to the US stating, “I won’t watch you die”. Now on their own, Butch and Sundance are eventually taken by surprise in a marketplace by the Bolivian army. Both badly wounded, slumped bleeding in a pueblo, Butch has a new idea: “When we get out of here, we’ll head for Australia – they speak English in Australia.” As they run outside, headlong into a hail of bullets, director Hill spares the audience the final bloodletting with a freeze-frame of our two heroes that’s akin to a sepia image in an old history tome.
The contemporary musical soundtrack composed by Burt Bacharach – with the featured song Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head – sung by B.J. Thomas, fitted perfectly with the quasi-western theme of the movie. Both music and song went on to win Academy Awards, with the film gaining two more for Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography. It gave Robert Redford his first major movie success and strengthened Paul Newman’s already impressive film career. Furthermore, the Newman-Redford team proved so popular with audiences that four years later, director George Roy Hill reprised the duo playing two 1930s Chicago con-men in The Sting (1973), which could easily have had the subtitle: “Butch and Sundance Ride Again”.