Before either retires, I hope to see Robert Redford and Paul Newman share the silver screen once again. The pair’s chemistry was certainly evident in their 1973 Best Picture winner The Sting, but their masterpiece together is definitely 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a movie that features one of the best endings in movie history and also one of the great chase scenes.
The movie opens with the tagline: “Most of what follows is true.” It is mostly true, but by using the word “most” it allows director George Roy Hill (who also directed The Sting) some freedom in his telling of their story. It allows him to spice it up with some style, adding to the entertainment value of the film.
Butch and Sundance were some of the most notorious outlaws in our country’s history, operating around the Salt Lake area. When the law got too close, they fled to South America where they ultimately met their doom. The film follows the friendship of Butch and Sundance, as well as their relationship with school teacher Etta Place (the beautiful Katharine Ross).
The centerpiece of the film is perhaps the longest, most drawn out and exhausting chase scene in movie history. Although this chase scene lasts a good thirty minutes, there is nothing dull about it. After robbing the Union Pacific Railroad once again, Butch and Sundance encounter a “super posse” hired to hunt them down and kill them. The posse features some of the best law men in the country, employed by “Mr. E.H. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad” who is tired of Butch picking on him.
The chase takes place over desert and prairie, over the mountains and through the woods before finally reaching its climax at the river, a moment that no movie lover could ever forget. One of the elements that keeps the chase scene interesting is that the audience is never clued into the pursuers’ identity. Like Butch and Sundance, we are constantly wondering: “who are those guys?”
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid also features some wonderful music composed by Burt Bacharach. It is one of the best cinematic uses of music for a non-musical in movie history. There are three musical interludes in the film. One comes as Butch, Sundance and Etta visit New York on their way to escape the law in South America. Another comes during a montage of their criminal exploits in Bolivia. The best and most memorable musical interlude, however, comes near the beginning of the film, as Butch parades around on his new bicycle, impressing Etta while B.J. Thomas sings “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” The song was recently recycled in a similar scene in Spider-Man 2 and the scene has been paid homage to in many films and television shows since.
Perhaps what makes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as memorable a film as it has become is the brilliant ending. Surrounded by seemingly hundreds of Bolivian soldiers, Butch and Sundance make their last stand. Instead of showing their brutal murder in bloody excess like that of Bonnie and Clyde, director George Roy Hill instead freezes the frame, while we hear the thundering sound of gunfire. The image of Butch and Sundance’s last stand is one that sticks in your memory. I doubt their bloody massacre would have left as much of an impression.
Another element that makes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as memorable and un-dated as it has become is the brilliant screenplay by William Goldman, the man also responsible for such greats as The Princess Bride and All the President’s Men (also starring Robert Redford). The characters in Butch and Sundance do not talk like the characters in most westerns. Instead, they talk like characters in a modern buddy comedy, such as the Lethal Weapon series. You could even argue that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid served as the inspiration for the many buddy comedies that followed. Goldman himself has said that the characters talk the way they do because he just could not get himself to write what he called “John Wayne dialogue.” He loved it and was raised on it, but he did not want to write it.
Finally, a discussion of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would not be complete without mention of the work of late, great cinematographer Conrad L. Hall. Hall won his first Oscar for his work on Butch and Sundance. He would later win Oscars in 1999 and 2002 for his work on American Beauty and Road to Perdition. Part of his visual scheme in Butch and Sundance involved dimming the color at the beginning, middle and end of the film, creating a look like the film was made in the glory days of The Hole in the Wall Gang. It adds to the film’s “most of what follows is true” authenticity.
The greatest films are often the ones that never seem to show their age and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid certainly fits that definition. Watching it today, it seems like it could have been made yesterday; and I’ll bet it always will. I love this movie; I give it an A+.