For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is another film on AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list that focuses on a transitional historical period. The Wild West has been all but tamed and the time of the hero outlaw is coming to a close. in this movie. Think of the comedic version of “The Wild Bunch,” and instead of an ensemble cast, it’s a buddy film.
This film also comes from an interesting cinematic moment. The grip of the Production Code had loosened and filmmakers were able to explore new ways of telling their stories. Motion pictures had been around for 70 years, and a new guard of filmmakers was beginning to emerge. Because of this, “Butch Cassidy” is not quite comedy nor drama, and neither commits to being a Western nor changing the Western. It is in many ways an experimental form.
Many will recognize most of the scenes from early in the film. “Butch Cassidy” sets a pretty fast pace for itself from the get go, and offers a ton of memorable moments. Here is the tense, sepia-toned introduction of the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford).
We can see that Sundance wields a quiet power, while Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) is more affable and gregarious. Cassidy runs the Hole in the Wall Gang, and even when his authority comes into question, he keeps his sense of humor.
One of the things about “Butch Cassidy” that makes it a fascinating film to (re)watch now is the soundtrack. The idea of a period piece with contemporary music is nothing shocking to any current moviegoer. Just think “A Knight’s Tale” to give a blunt but fun example. The Burt Bacharach compositions are still surprising when paired with the visuals of “Butch Cassidy.” This next clip is easily the most famous and apparent of these pairings. (Sound starts at 9 seconds.)
Though “Butch Cassidy” is often funny, and the performances from Newman and Redford are solid, the film, which had been building into something fascinating and new, begins to slip as Butch and Sundance approach their jump. After a double heist of a train going and coming, Harriman, a railroad owner hires a dream team of lawmen and trackers to go after Butch and Sundance. It leads to a stand-off along a cliff face.
After their splashdown, the two head off to Bolivia. Here the story turns, and dips into the realm of a more traditional dramatic Western, where two men try to outrun their past. (Sound starts at 8 seconds.)
Unfortunately “Butch Cassidy” hadn’t been on that narrative path and the switch seems somewhat abrupt and is something of a letdown. The small bit of foreshadowing prior to the jump from the cliff is stern, but still makes you feel like the film has lurched into a different gear.
Now I like a good Western, and I like both traditional narratives and those that attempt to change up the rules. I am in no way saying that “Butch Cassidy” is not a good movie. It is, but Director George Roy Hill does not quite succeed in crafting a new form. Hill manipulates portions of the Western to suit his needs, but later in the film his resolve weakens, and he reverts back to a more traditional Western narrative.
Roger Ebert suggests that Hill’s production, which shot on location, was too tied to these location shots to edit around them. I’m not sure that’s the case. After all Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were real people, who met with a violent end.
Hill can either choose to make them into mythical figures and continue on his course towards a Western fable about the end of an era, or he can choose to stay true the last days of Butch and Sundance as they go to Bolivia and set up shop down there. I just think that Hill loses his nerve with the story he’s trying to tell.
Still I do enjoy “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and I think that what the film achieves makes up for where it fails.
I’d be interested to hear what you think. Is “Butch Cassidy” a new form of Western, or a flawed, but enjoyable experiment? Either way it’s worth a look.
Next up #72 “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994)
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)