Directed By: George Roy Hill
Written By: William Goldman
Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross
You get the feeling watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that George Roy Hill doesn’t quite know what he wants his film to be. Is it a shoot-‘em-up Western? A quixotic trek through America’s desert? A buddy-bandit dramedy? A Bonnie and Clyde-esque study of outlaw destiny? For me it’s at its most affecting when its hitting notes somewhere between those last two, and while it doesn’t always find those notes with precision, director George Roy Hill does find them often enough to at least sketch a sombre melody.
The film is unquestionably romantic in its telling of the Hole in the Wall Gang’s story. Hill looks at the gang’s two leaders with a keen fondness; the film opening with a gold and brown colour palette and an ancient film roll texture as we meet Butch and Sundance for the first time, clarifying we’ve begun a nostalgic foray into western folklore.
The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) is the second in command. He’s steely and economical, the more enigmatic of the two. It’s telling that the first time we meet The Kid he’s playing cards, his features thickly coated with a most resolved poker-face. It’s an exterior he rarely departs from, save for the sporadic wry smile or brief chuckle, often musing at his buddy’s big ideas; “you just keep thinking Butch, that’s what you’re good at”. He’s a dead-shot, the sharpest in the West, and when we first see him in outlaw action he’s prowling across the top of a moving train, emblematically moving with an impressive prowess.
Butch (Paul Newman) is the leader and the ideas man. The comedic heart of the film, his tongue forever planted in his cheek, his wit always laced with an enthused sarcasm. Watching him in action you question if Butch would even know which end of the pistol to hold when push comes to shove, giving him a constant air of harmlessness. As a sheriff himself tells us, he’s never met a soul more affable than Butch.
Newman and Redford are cinematic soul-mates, and they’re given plenty of humorous ammo to fire at one another through William Goldman’s sharp, Oscar winning screenplay. The dichotomy of the downbeat Sundance and the rambunctious Butch makes for a whimsical chemistry, the performers crafting their clearly drawn characters into wonderfully sympathetic anti-heroes.
Together, they lead the most revered gang in the west, their reputations preceding them. It’s when they decide to pick on Union Pacific head E.H Harriman that things start to come undone. They hit a Union Pacific train, The Overland Flyer, twice. The first time they do so the train crew can hardly believe their luck, being stuck-up by the best in the stick-up business as Butch jovially teases the train’s safe-keeper, more schoolyard bully than famed outlaw in his role.
The second time however it becomes evident that Harriman has poured his resources into a cut-throat, restless pursuit of the bandits, and it’s here that their fates are sealed.
Katharine Ross plays Etta Place, the duo’s most devoted friend. She beds with Sundance but emotes with Butch, but however loving she is of the two she has no illusions about their destiny. As Butch and The Kid’s back-pocketed sheriff tells them, “you should’a let yourselves get killed a long time ago…you’re gonna die bloody. All you’re gonna do is choose where.”
There are quiet moments of sombreness as the two dance around their looming end. They flee to Bolivia, try to reinvent their game, but for all their hopefulness they must know they’re merely delaying rather than avoiding. And with two so loveable personalities at the heart of the cataclysm, it’s hard not to be saddened.
The weakness of the film however, is the jauntiness these moments are spliced with. The Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head scene is a famed one in movies, and it is beautiful. It’s wonderfully charming in isolation, romantic and kind-hearted, but in the context of two outlaws racing towards their downfall, these moments don’t gel.
And other times it feels as though Hill wants so badly for his film to descend into Arthur Penn-like bloodshed, fingering the trigger of chaos, but thankfully never pulling, as the film is at its best when it’s synthesising the downbeat and the lively.
It’s not clouded in vision, more distracted, but despite its sidetracked tendencies Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is irresistible. It may have its affecting moments of sombre destiny contemplation, but this is a lively film, snappily cut and colourfully rendered. We haven’t seen the last of the Newman/Redford combo in Best Picture runners, and their combination is dynamic, the driving force of a film that does that fundamental thing we seek in our movies, entertain.