This project has led to some really strange realizations over the ebbs and flows of cinema. Looking ahead, things are going to get harder and harder for me, primarily because I’ve just seen more films from the coming years, making things harder. But, I can still come across years that are incredibly difficult to pick a favorite from. The last two years I’ve had to talk about have been incredibly difficult to narrow down, giving me a whole plethora of amazing movies that I really had to think about. 1969 does not have that problem. I don’t know the reason, but 1969 just wasn’t a great year for my kind of movies. I’m sure there’s a lot of great stuff here that other people love, but it’s kind of slim pickings for me. We’re more than halfway through this Cinematic Century project, and I can still come across years that are a bit of a struggle. And, I think the biggest problem with 1969, from my perspective, is that it’s loaded with movies that I like, but don’t love, and that would be weird for me to lift up as my favorite film of a year. I really do adore On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in all of it’s bizarre and problematic glory, but I’ve already talked about that movie in detail, and I’ve generally tried to shy away from just talking about James Bond again and again on this project. Which leaves me with a lot of films that I like, and maybe even respect, but would be hard-pressed to consider my favorite. The Italian Job is one such movie, giving us a really fun and quirky little heist flick, that can be a blast to watch, but that just doesn’t always work for me. Much in the same vein is the Wild Bunch, a Western I know that has a lot of love, but that doesn’t do a whole lot for me. I generally have never really clicked into Peckinpah’s whole aesthetic, and this movie is no different. And that gets to a similar place as Midnight Cowboy, a movie that I can watch and appreciate, but that doesn’t really connect with me on any major way. Which probably gets me to the film that I feel can be largely associated with 1969, Easy Rider. Which I can’t stand. I’ve watched that film twice, and I’ve found it intolerable both times. It’s dull, pretentious, and just full of the type of experimental “all style, no substance” crap that tried taking over American cinema in the 70’s and that I can’t stand. I get that other people like it, and I’m glad if you can get something from it, but it bugs the hell out of me. Which left only one movie that I could talk about this year. It’s a movie that I enjoy quite a bit, and after taking another look at it I really appreciated what a small-scale and enjoyable little Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is.
The film got its origins from the late screenwriting legend William Goldman. In the 1950’s Goldman, became fascinated with the stories of Wild West outlaw Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch gang. Apparently Goldman originally wanted to turn the story of Cassidy into a novel, but didn’t want to do the research necessary to bring it to vivid life as a novel, and decided to turn it into a screenplay instead. Primarily fascinated by the fact that Cassidy and his longtime associate Harry Longabaugh and the fact that they managed to escape America and live a second life in South America, and wanted to bring their story to the screen. Which, oddly enough, was one of the factors that made it hard for this script to get filmed, since people weren’t sure about having a Western set outside the United States. But, eventually the script gained some traction, and some really absurd people got tossed around for the leads. Including Jack Lemmon, who I guess would have made the film a comedy, and would have been fascinating. It eventually came down to Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, but the two apparently couldn’t get along, so McQueen bowed out and was replaced by Robert Redford, beginning the two’s on-screen chemistry. And, as with so many films that I’ve highlighted on this series, it wasn’t particularly well-received when it first came out. It broke too far from the traditional mold of the Western, and people just didn’t seem to know what to make of it. But, it eventually found its audience, and got the respect that I think it deserved.
The films opens up in the late 1890’s with charasmatic gang-leader Butch Cassidy returning to his gang’s hideout in Hole-in-the-Wall, Wyoming, leading their gang to be known as the Hole in the Wall Gang. Cassidy runs the gang, but also has a tendency to just leave for a while and do his own thing, returning when it suits him, which is how things are in the beginning of the film as Cassidy comes back to the hideout to see that there’s some malcontent brewing. There’s been a question of leadership, and one of the other gang members is attempting to usurp Cassidy and force the gang into a train robbery he’s hatched. Cassidy decides to defend his title, and asks his best friend, the Sundance Kid, to stay out of it. And, with some well-timed kicks to the groin, Cassidy asserts his dominance, and decides to just roll with the train-robbery plan anyway, since it actually makes sense. They’re going to rob a train of its payroll as it passes by, and then again as it attempts to make a second-pass, figuring that they wouldn’t assume someone would be dumb enough to try it twice. So, the gang load up on supplies and stop the Union Pacific train, and after dealing with an over-eager company man they relieve the train of its bounty and go celebrate.
Butch and Sundance end up vising a local brothel to celebrate, but end up spending more of their time laughing at the local sheriff who is attempting to round up a posse to kill the gang. And, after wasting some time they decide to go outside of the town and visit Sundance’s lover, Etta Place, a schoolteacher who is also good friends with Butch. The three have a nice time, frolicking and playing around with bicycles, before the pair get ready for their second train heist. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t go nearly as smooth. A much larger safe was installed, requiring Butch to use some dynamite to burst it open, which ends up blowing up a majority of the money. And, as the men scramble to get the money, a second train full of lawmen arrive to capture them. The gang splits up, and Butch and Sundance go their own way, hoping that the lawmen will follow the rest of the gang. They do not. Butch and Sundance flee around the West, shocked to find that the men manage to follow them no matter what. They eventually learn that this new posse contains two renowned trackers and lawmen, having been hired specifically by the head of the Union Pacific to track them down and kill them. Butch and Sundance try everything they can think of to escape the law, and end up deciding to try something very dangerous.
They, along with Etta, decide to flee the country. Butch has heard tale that Bolivia is a haven to criminals, and would be the perfect new country for them to live in, so the trio head South. And, they aren’t exactly pleased with what they find. The country isn’t up to their standards, neither Butch nor Sundance speak any English, and they generally don’t know how to do any honest work. But, Etta teaches them enough Spanish to pull off robberies, and the two get to work, becoming somewhat famous as two Yankee bandits. But, they get too famous, and the two eventually become worried that they’ve drawn the attention of Joe Lefors, the famous manhunter who lead the posse in America. So, the two decide to try their hand at going straight, getting a job as protection for a local mining operation. But, this just ends with them encountering a Bolivian gang and being forced to murder them, leaving both of them a little disillusioned. The pair then decide that the straight life isn’t for them, and they begin planning their return to robbery, which is when Etta decides she doesn’t want anything to do with them, returning to America. The pair then pull off a robbery of a payroll, heading to a small town to celebrate. Unfortunately, the police become aware of where they are, and the small town is surrounded by police who are looking to kill the Yankees. Butch and Sundance get cornered in a small building, and decide to go out in a blaze of glory, rushing the police as they are presumably mowed down.
The first time I saw this movie, I was kind of let down. I’d heard it held as one of the best Westerns that American cinema had ever produced, albeit a bit of a revisionist one, and I probably had my hopes too high. Or, at the very least I was expecting something very different. Because this is a very different movie. It’s slow, it’s quiet, and it revolves far more on the performances and characterization than the typical spectacle of the Western. There’s still some incredibly impressive moments in the film, like the absurd dynamite train sequence, and some really beautiful landscape photography, which is one of the more important aspects of a Western. But, this film is basically a biopic, following the exploits of two real people, at least purporting to tell their real story. And all of that focus on character could have easily fallen apart if it was given to lesser actors. I love Stagecoach, but I can’t imagine a film like this being given to someone like John Wayne, having to carry the film with his acting, not hist swagger. But, the unimaginable charisma between Paul Newman and Robert Redford is what makes this film what it is. They’re a hilarious and heartfelt pair, really giving us two characters who buck traditions and are able to seem more human than most Western characters tend to be, just two men struggling to figure out what to do when their way of life begins to die.
Which is kind of what the whole film is about. William Goldman really seemed fascinated with the idea that Butch and Sundance were able to get a second chance in life, something that so rarely happens in the annals of American folklore. They’re two larger than life figures, leading dramatic and mythic lives as real, honest outlaws. They ride horses, get in fights, visit brothels, and rob trains. Just like so many other Western characters. Because the Western is a deeply mythological genre, one that so rarely gives us real human beings. But, we actually get some human beings in this film, ones who realize that the myth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The West would never have stayed Wild, and their way of life began to die. They couldn’t be outlaws any more, and had no idea what to do with themselves. They had no faculty to lead normal lives. And, when the West started to tame itself around them, and they had nowhere left to go play cowboys, their lives fell apart. It’s an idea that has gotten explored a lot in Western fiction since, the idea that when their way of life started to fade, the outlaws had nothing else. And, when they have nothing left to life for, they’re more willing to go out in a blaze of glory. Times change, and it’s very easy to have those times pass you by, leaving you unequipped to continue life. But, when it doubt, just go to Bolivia.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was written by William Goldman, directed by George Roy Hill, and released by 20th Century Fox, 1969.
Categories: Cinematic Century