"Who are those guys?" -- Butch Cassidy
Director: George Roy Hill
Writer: William Goldman
Principal cast members:
The opening graphic of this movie tells us, "Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true." Prior to 1969, most movie westerns were rather moralistic and generally followed certain codes in how the Wild West was portrayed. There were definitely examples that were gems of filmmaking like 'The Searchers' and 'High Noon' but for the most part, we knew who the good guys and the bad guys were and whether they ended up winning or not, we were on the side of the good guys.
William Goldman's screenplay for this film broke the mold on sympathy for the good guys. In this film, we are rooting for the bad guys from the opening scenes. Goldman's dialogue establishes two characters that we like very much and we find ourselves enjoying their adventures immensely. Westerns were never the same after this one.
The true story is that Robert Leroy Parker, aka Butch Cassidy, was a sometime cattle rustler and train robber who occasionally dabbled in banks. At some point in his life, he partnered up with Harry Longbaugh better known as The Sundance Kid. The two of them apparently took a special delight in robbing the Union Pacific trains owned by E. H. Harriman. Harriman eventually reached such a point of frustration that he outfitted a special posse of famous trackers and lawmen to hunt the pair down. With the heat on, Butch and Sundance headed to South America with Sundance's girlfriend, Etta Place. The three apparently tried their hand at ranching but eventually turned to robbing mining shipments and banks. Their final fate is not known for certain though it is believed that Place returned to the United States and the two outlaws did not, eventually being gunned down by local law enforcement somewhere in Bolivia. Most of these details work their way into the screenplay as we find ourselves seeing a pair of western outlaws from their point of view.
Director George Roy Hill creates a solid western framework for this film. The action scenes are nicely composed and the exteriors are beautiful. We get a fine sense of the vastness and desolation of the desert scenery that is Utah and Wyoming where most of the first half of this film takes place. The close-ups on the principal actors give us glimpses into their thoughts and fears and help us to know our characters.
Most of our introduction to Butch and Sundance, however, comes to us in Goldman's wonderful dialogue. Younger movie fans know William Goldman better for his more recent work, 'The Princess Bride.' It isn't hard to see that same mind at work in this film. From the dialogue, we learn that Butch is a charismatic leader, a dreamer who often laments that 'I have vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals!' Sundance, in contrast, is the stoic, less garrulous partner who lets actions speak for words. At the same time, their friendship is apparent in the dialogue, as is the marvelous sense of humor that both present.
We meet up with Katherine Ross when Sundance surprises her as she returns home from a day of teaching school. It is a frightening scene in which Sundance has her disrobe at gunpoint and we begin to think he isn't as nice a guy as we thought. Then, when he takes her in his arms, we realize they are a couple already.
Ross's character, Etta Place, is very much a guide to understanding Butch and Sundance. The duo's relationship is a true friendship, but without the trappings and formalities of something more conventional. We come to see that Etta clearly has a lot of affection for both men, though the only bed we see her share is that of Sundance. When the two men head to Bolivia, she agrees to go with them on one condition: she will not, she insists, watch them die. Later, when things start to take a dark turn Etta decides she should return to the states. We know what her decision means even though Sundance asks her if their impending doom is her reason for leaving and she denies it. Through it all, Etta shows us the most human and honest elements of these two legends.
Several elements of screenplay and direction create some of the most iconic moments of movie westerns. After the gang's final robbery of the Union Pacific Flyer, we see another train towing a single car approach on the track. It stops some distance away and we zoom in to a tight shot of the side of a freight car. Suddenly, the door of the car drops away and six horsemen fly over us hell bent for leather. It is our first look at the super posse and Hill does a dazzling job of instantly establishing that these guys are menacing and something more than normal pursuers.
Over the ensuing scenes, we see Butch and Sundance try a wide variety of tricks to shake this posse and not once does the group lose their trail. Time and time again, Butch looks back across the miles at their pursuers and mutters, "Who are those guys?" Though we never see a single close up of a face in this posse, there is an implacable, unshakeable menace to the group. They become a sort of faceless and totally inescapable monster. Even when the outlaws head to Bolivia, the sight of a straw skimmer hat sends them into a panic, as if in the back of their minds, they really doubt they will ever get away from these guys.
That sense of inevitability that the consequences of a life of crime will ultimately be tragic is an underlying theme of the movie. Etta's refusal to stick around for the end is just one example. Earlier, when she reads the newspaper article about how Harriman hired this super posse to hunt them down, Butch is incredulous at the expense this group represents. He wonders if they were hired permanently. Etta responds, "No, only until they kill you." When the group gets help from an elderly sheriff played by Jeff Corey, he tells them, "Your time is over and you're gonna die bloody, and all you can do is choose where."
The direction is outstanding and the screenplay is a work of art. Everyone in the cast does a fine job with their roles, but the true high point in the film is the amazing chemistry between Newman and Redford. The two became friends making this film and teamed together in future projects. There were several other movie superstars whose names were tossed around for this project including Dustin Hoffman, Jack Lemmon, Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, and Warren Beatty. Watching the film today, it is almost impossible to imagine it being made with any other two actors. That, above all, is a measure of the perfection to this film.
Coolness factor: 6
Overall entertainment: 8