Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Dir. George Roy Hill. Starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross

Surrounded by the Bolivian army, there is no escape for Butch (Newman) and Sundance (Redford). They know it. Half a lifetime of crimes that made the two of them celebrities in the West, and which made it too difficult for them to stay home, pushed them to South America. A brief attempt to go straight peters out, but regardless of their intentions, their reputation as the bandidos yanquis follows them to an outdoor lunch where they are found. Guns blaze, both men are wounded, but Sundance shot down enough cops to keep them alive, and Butch, via Sundance’s cover, has tracked down enough ammo to give them a chance to take a deep breath and reload. Upon reuniting, the two of them pick up where they’ve left off again and again over the course of the movie. “Is that what you call giving cover?” Butch asks. “Is that what you call running?” Sundance replies. This is the banter, and the banter is the ethanol in this buddy comedy’s tank. Is that what you call giving cover? Is that what you call running? is ahead of its time, in its own way, just as The Wild Bunch, from the same year, is ahead of its time. The Wild Bunch is a movie which really leans into the cruelty and violence of a time and place where cruelty and violence are self-defense as opposed to a philosophical choice; it does not pull punches for the sake of people who voted for Nixon. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is ahead of its time, too, because it’s playing at being a western more than it’s actually concerned with being a western. The point is to recognize the trappings of a genre and laugh along as it pokes fun at them while not ever questioning that you’re just getting another microwaved version of the same old story. Butch Cassidy is Deadpool for westerns, no matter how good Conrad Hall’s photography is (and it is very good, incidentally) or how many times Butch and Sundance get on a horse.

Is that what you call running? Is that what you call giving cover? falls short because we’ve heard what the good banter in this movie looks like. It doesn’t quite have the same feeling to it as that delightful scene where Butch and Sundance do a Peter Pan, to borrow from another movie about a manhunt. I’m willing to believe any hagiography about William Goldman after that incredible punchline. Trapped on rocks above a pretty busy river, at their wits’ end after failing to shake a posse, Butch comes up with a plan. We’ll jump, because they will not follow us in doing anything as crazy as that. This goes back and forth a second until Sundance provides his rationale for wanting to stand and fight: he can’t swim. Butch guffaws. “You crazy,” he says, “the fall will probably kill you!” The two of them run off the cliff, screaming the whole way, but it works out for them in a way that none of their half-dozen other gambits did. It works for us watching too. The jump, compared to like, Harrison Ford’s Peter Pan, is not much of a jump, but that part hardly matters when it’s preceded with that bleak, hilarious witticism. For two soldiers of fortune such as Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Longabaugh, “the fall will probably kill you” is branded on their haunches. Every risk they take is not much of a risk at all, considering that they’ve chosen a lifestyle which provides big payoffs and which everyone has to know will end in a hail of bullets.

One of the movie’s worst scenes says as much. Etta (Ross) tells the boys that she’ll do anything but watch them die while they’re all in Bolivia together after a monologue in which she begins with the fairly benign business of mending socks. It’s predictable, and like virtually everything else in which real life or genuine consequences encroach on the guys in this movie, it feels like an intrusion into our good time. I don’t mind intrusions into a good time—I teach high school—but I do wonder what the movie thinks it’s up to. Does it know that, at its best, this is a hangout movie about a couple of guys who don’t get to grow old? Or does it take itself seriously, believing fervidly in its own power to make women weep?

This is a good time movie, even though some of the good timeyness is aggressive. (How many callbacks can one screenplay hold? I dunno, who are those guys? What place should Butch and Sundance go?) Butch Cassidy asserts his supremacy over the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang with a well-placed shot to a bigger guy’s nuts. The gang’s most difficult nemesis is named Woodcock (George Furth, in one of those rare but not unprecedented situations where one of the cast members is at least a good a writer as the guy writing the screenplay), an employee of the Union Pacific line who does not want to yield up the safe to Butch. It must have taken every remaining ounce of Goldman’s self-control not to suggest Woodcock has brass balls. The things Butch and Sundance say are for an audience, not for people on screen; it’s like watching Robin Hood doing open mic night. Take the opening sequence where Sundance gets prodded, and Butch tells the offender that he needs to ask them to stay. He asks them to, after a while, and Butch declines the offer and then they leave. What the point of this is I have no idea, but it’s definitely the kind of thing that men think is cool and quotable!

All this is, I think, forgivable. Newman and Redford have so much chemistry that it’s more like alchemy. Redford in particular is taking inspiration from that giant mustache, it seems, using it as a way into this slightly grim, entirely deadly, and very wry character. In The Sting, Newman is giving a much more interesting performance, but here in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a viewer in 1969 must have learned that Redford has this incredible store of what we can only call star quality. (I mean, it’s not called the “Brubaker Film Festival.”) There is some gruffness and danger in Sundance, with only a paucity of tenderness in there otherwise. That scene where he has Etta undress at gunpoint is a little clumsy, because it intends for that line about how late his to come off as laughy relief as opposed to the fact that it’s obvious they know each other. (The two Katharine Ross moments I’ve mentioned are about as much as she gets to do in this movie; for as much as she actually does have to do, and seeing as Newman and Redford have way better chemistry with her than she does with either of them, you sort of wonder why Etta Place is even in this story at all.) It’s not impossible to imagine Sundance creeping into a woman’s room and using his gun as a kind of foreplay only he’s enjoying, and the fact that the scene doesn’t work has nothing to do with Redford. But this is not that kind of movie. It’s a good time, and nothing that can spoil that good time so abruptly and impolitely could be allowed in.

The problem is that the movie allows a whole different set of bad times in all by itself, choosing to make Butch and Sundance’s retreat to Bolivia the start of a second act in their lives as thieves as opposed to a kind of bittersweet triumph over the law. Even in the last moments it chooses not to force us to watch Butch and Sundance gunned down, which is the opposite choice that a movie like Bonnie and Clyde makes. (This movie has seen that movie; the police officers get blown away in loving slow-motion detail, which kind of misses the point of why that happened in Bonnie and Clyde.) The sounds of that scene, or at least the sounds of Spanish and gunfire, play over a freeze frame of Butch and Sundance in that sepia tone the movie began with and returns to occasionally. Even when we are supposed to have this moment of pathos for our two dead heroes, who were so quippy, the movie cannot quite bear to let us see them blown away.

I happen to like the sepia business, just as I happen to sort of enjoy the whole “bicycles are the way of the future” thing that the movie returns to on occasion. For me, the “Butch and Sundance are figures of the past condemned to pass no further into the 20th Century” is a fairly interesting idea, albeit one that’s kind of disproved by that movie it keeps referencing. The bicycle is in there just the right amount, a symbol that falls short of obstructing the rest of the film. In an early scene, Butch rides around on the bike with a circus performer’s aplomb, showing off for Etta and obliterating a section of fence during one ill-advised trick. As part of a movie, it’s quite an aside, a lengthy parenthetical that isn’t entirely necessary but still makes its point. Newman is worthy of his own little sideshow, but more than that this is a kind of proof that Butch could belong to the new century if he so chose. The future may belong to those lousy bicycles, but he’s not so bad at riding them. It’s his decision to toss them aside and live in the past.

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