“Who are those guys?”
William Goldman’s elegiac script does a pretty good job of convincing us that Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) were the original Rock stars of the old West. After all, the Hole in the Wall Gang is at least as cool a name as the Hollies or the Crickets. Paul Newman’s Butch is the lead singer, lyricist, the brains of the outfit, and what else is Redford’s pistol savvy Kid than the original bad a*s ace lead guitarist? Their lives, as portrayed here, are nothing but a romping tour of celebrity excess. Rob a bank, go to the cathouse, rob a train, go to a cathouse. God knows neither of these guys had any intention of ever getting a real job. A real job to Butch was when he was a rustler! They make up cool names for themselves like Bono and Sting did, and they sort-of share a wife, Katherine Ross’ Etta Place. As you’d expect Sundance, the body, sleeps with her while the fast talking, always plotting Butch gets to wax poetic and entertain her mind. Butch and Sundance are nothing less than the Beatles to the foreboding Rolling Stone doom of the posse that will eventually catch up to them.
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is actually sort of a three-in-one serial western comedy. The first act establishes the characters. Sundance gets to show off his rapid facility with weapons, while Butch sits back and enjoys the change of heart that comes over a man when he drops the name Sundance into the equation. We get to see Butch and his gang when Lurch from the Addam’s Family steps up to challenge his authority. Butch, always thinking, kicks the poor bastard in the balls. We get some enjoyable train robbing scenes with an endlessly amusing sequence between Butch and Woodcock, the most dedicated geek security guard in the history of the world. The whole thing comes to a glittering crescendo when the “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” sequence pays homage to the future of both the bicycle and the music video.
Then the real world comes crashing in. Part Two: Butch and Sundance vs. the Super Posse. Apparently fed up with their nonsense, the law eventually forms their own Super Group to track our heroes down. When the duo split off from the rest of their gang, and Butch asks the stunned Sundance how many of the posse are following them, he is told all of them. For the better part of twenty minutes, when none of Butch’s tricks even remotely work, Sundance keeps an admirable faith in his partner. “You’re the brains Butch. You’ll think of something.”
When they narrowly escape, the duo decide to exploit some new territory in Part Three: Butch and the Kid Go To Bolivia. A bad idea that just gets worse and worse as Butch and the Kid struggle with Spanish, get jobs as payroll protectors (!), and walk slowly to their fate. “Bonnie and Clyde,” which came out just a couple years earlier, also focuses on some doomed outlaws, but in that movie fate was dark and certain. Here the guys aren’t even phased by the sympathetic law man who scoldingly warns them that, “Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody and all you can do is choose where!” Why spoil the fun until we get to see the guys go up against, like, 5000 Bolivian Militia Men. The film is so sad to see its affable heroes and good times go that it can’t bear to see them shot down. The movie ends almost the same way Porgy and Bess did. It’s not likely that Porgy is going to make it across the Country on that skateboard, but if you’re a true believer you will never doubt it. After all, maybe they did somehow manage to escape, and if they didn’t it sure was fun while it lasted.
Newman and Redford seem so established as a duo it’s a wonder that they only made two films together. Can you imagine how many vehicles Danny Glover and Mel Gibson would have pumped out had they had two movies that big? Paul Newman’s Butch is probably the most genial character ever portrayed on the big screen. He’s always smiling, talking and enjoying the ride no matter where it takes them. Without the more serious overtones of one of those John Ford westerns it’s perhaps a little easier to just take in the beauty of the scenery, a taut, well-meaning script written from legend, and a movie so gorgeously photographed that almost any shot would look good up on a wall in your den. Possibly the most likable movie ever filmed.