Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Despite the abundant offenses committed during its 112-minute run, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid can’t really be called “a crime-fiction film.” But no matter. That movie, which first opened in limited release on September 23, 1969--40 years ago today--remains one of my all-time favorites. I’m pretty sure my original viewing of it came in the early 1980s, in a small vintage-films theater in Portland, Oregon, and I was accompanied by a cadre of friends from my initial post-college job. Since then, I’ve watched Butch Cassidy at least, oh, a dozen times. And enjoyed it on each and every occasion. The only other motion pictures I have sat through nearly as often are Casablanca, Chinatown, Harper, Seabiscuit, Citizen Kane, The Aviator, and James Garner’s Marlowe. And none of those other films makes me smile as often or as broadly as Butch Cassidy does.
William Goldman’s screenplay mixed conjecture, romance, lightheartedness, and good-spirited lies with the porous truth behind the legend at the heart of his tale. Butch Cassidy (né Robert LeRoy Parker) was a real figure, born in Utah in 1866. After leading a cowboy’s existence, he formed the notorious Wild Bunch (or Hole-in-the-Wall Gang) which operated out of a hideout in Johnson County, Wyoming (scene of the deadly Johnson County War of 1892). Cassidy’s desperadoes--a cabal that, by the mid-1890s, included Harvey “Kid Curry” Logan (later fictionalized in the TV series Alias Smith and Jones) and Pennsylvania-born Harry A. Longabaugh, better known as “The Sundance Kid”--became adept at knocking over banks and robbing trains, much to the disgruntlement of the folks who owned and ran such enterprises. After a few years of this existence, however, Cassidy sought legal amnesty and peace with the railroad companies. Neither was granted, unfortunately, and in 1901 he and Sundance, along with the Kid’s girlfriend (or maybe common-law wife), the mysterious Etta Place, hightailed it to New York City and from there shipped off to Buenos Aires, Argentina. They apparently hoped to settle down as legitimate ranchers, but in the meantime resumed their criminal ways. The Pinkerton Detective Agency continued to pursue the outlaws, and South American authorities did their best to apprehend Butch, Sundance, and Etta, eventually chasing them out of Argentina, through Chile, and up to Bolivia. One story goes that, by 1906, Etta Place had finally had enough of this life on the run, and departed for San Francisco. Butch and Sundance remained in South America, and were supposedly killed during a shootout in southern Bolivia two years later. Rumors, though, persist to this day that both survived and returned to spend the rest of their lives in the States under aliases.
But any part of that recap could be wrong. History leaves much to the imagination as far as these bandits go. Which made their story inviting to screenwriter Goldman and director George Roy Hill.
What they’ve given us in the Academy Award-winning Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a rollicking yarn about the closing days of America’s Old West and the blessings of friendship. Paul Newman (who died from cancer just about a year ago) was a boyish Butch, a fugitive with an unexpectedly deep well of optimism. As Sundance--the role that would first make him famous--Robert Redford comes off as laconic, fatalistic, an action-seeking man who has little time for ideals. (It’s hard to imagine how Steve McQueen, who had originally been offered the Sundance role, could have done better than Redford.) And playing the part of Etta, beautiful Katharine Ross witnesses the best and worst of each.
There are plenty of choice scenes in Butch Cassidy. I particularly remember the wonderful knife-fight episode, with Butch going up against the towering and ambitious Harvey Logan (Ted Cassidy). Then there’s that section in which the partners, fleeing from a posse that’s chased them to the cliffs above a river, have no hope but to leap down together. Still, Sundance balks. “I can’t swim,” he concedes through gritted teeth. To which Butch replies, “Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.” And off they go.
Perhaps the scene I look forward to most in this film, though, is the one in which Butch rides Etta along on the handlebars of his rickety bicycle--a particularly sweet, playful, and innocent interlude in the action. And one that makes you wonder why Etta stayed with the phlegmatic Kid, rather than going off with Butch. The accompanying song, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” was written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach and performed by B.J. Thomas. Watch it here:
So happy 40th birthday to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I think it’s about time to saddle up for another DVD showing.
READ MORE: “12 Wild Facts About Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” by Eric D. Snider (Mental Floss); “Falling in Love With, and At, the Movies. What I Said to an Oscar-Nominated Actress. To Which Your Reaction Will Be--I Promise You--No, He Didn’t Really Say That. But Yes, I Really Did,” by Chuck Ross (TV Week).