It’s hard to believe that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid turns 50 this month. This film is one that is definitely of its time, but it also feels timeless. It is technically a western, but it certainly defies the conventions of western films that came before it. Perhaps that’s why it appears on so many lists of the best films of all time. Part drama, part western, and part comedy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a film I will always love.
I have to admit that the first time I saw the film, it wasn’t by choice. I was a kid, and the thought of a western that was older than I was didn’t appeal to me at all. I knew I’d be bored. I’m sure I whined. But my dad told me to just give it a try. Normally my mom and I were the ones who shared a love of the same movies, but I decided to give it a try. It was one of the first movies I remember my dad really knowing by heart. He quoted lines from the movie. (His favorites? “You use enough dynamite, there, Butch?” and “Hell, the fall’ll probably kill ya!”) I enjoyed it that first time, but it wasn’t until I watched it again with him when I was in high school or college that I fully realized why he loves this movie. It’s an incredible film and one that perfectly encapsulates the transition of film from the ’60s to the ’70s.
It came at the end of the ’60s, certainly a turbulent decade filled with change, and it was a direct contrast to other westerns released the same year, like True Grit or The Wild Bunch. Yes, it was a western in terms of settings and costumes, but in tone, it was far more lighthearted and modern. There were always touches of the ’60s in westerns released during the decade, but none of them embrace the time as much as this film. Even the Burt Bacharach soundtrack, including the hit song, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” is a modern soundtrack. William Goldman’s screenplay was filled with quippy one-liners and zingers that are in direct contrast to the violence in the film.
If you’ve never seen the film, I highly recommend checking it out. Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) are the leaders of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. They’ve robbed banks all over, and now that it’s 1900 and the West is not so wild anymore, Butch has the bright idea to go to Bolivia. There’s only one problem–they’re being trailed by detectives. So in order to escape, they need to grab some money and grab their girl, Etta (Katharine Ross). Hilarity and adventure ensue, right up to the bitter end. I won’t spoil exactly what happens, but if you’ve seen it, you’ve likely debated on just how it ended. It’s one of the first films I recall seeing that has an ambiguous ending.
The film was met with a mixed reception when it came out. Most critics loved it, but some, like Pauline Kael, Gene Siskel, and Roger Ebert, didn’t. The film won four Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. It was also honored at the Golden Globes and the BAFTA awards. Since then, it has been included on many lists as one of the greatest films of all time. When I still had cable, I remember seeing the film in heavy rotation on different stations, though I don’t know if that’s still the case.
The magic in the film mostly comes from the performances of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Paul Newman’s Butch Cassidy is a confident, fast-talking con man who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else. Robert Redford’s Sundance Kid doesn’t have much to say–he mainly speaks up when Butch talks himself into a corner. And if you’ve ever wondered why Robert Redford’s film festival is called Sundance, it’s because of his love for the character.
William Goldman’s dialogue helps tell a story of two friends who know each other better than they know themselves, and who are coming to terms with the fact that the world is moving into the modern age. There’s not much room in the civilized West for two gunslinging bank robbers. And it is that aspect of the film that gives it its timeless quality. Regardless of time and place, the story of progress and how it affects people is one that will always be. Add in a love triangle and a catchy tune, and you have a movie that is sure to be around in pop culture for the next 50 years.
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