Directed by George Roy Hill and written by William Goldman, the God of screenwriters, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” stars Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katharine Ross. How could a film with this pedigree be anything but good?
What you may not realize, or know, is that this film made Robert Redford the star he is today. Paul Newman, already an established star having appeared in “Hud”, “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Hustler”, among others, was a bankable star and the film was made because he agreed to make it. Initially, he wanted to play the Sundance Kid, but eventually settled on the role of Cassidy. Robert Redford was not new to film, but he was nowhere near the icon he would become. He had some early success which was followed by a few clunkers. The pair became a match made in heaven and would go on to appear in more films together. On screen, they appear to be friends, much like their characters, and this adds to the charm of their relationship.
Redford clearly recognizes the influence this film had on his career. His famous film academy and film festival are named after his character in the film.
Butch and Sundance decide to rob the mail car of a train owned by a powerful rail baron. Butch is tired of the work and wants to retire, but he needs one or two big scores to set him up. After blowing up the rail car, they run off with the loot and hide out in a small town, at a brothel they frequent. Meeting up with the rest of their gang, they quell a revolt and decide to do one more job. They will rob the same mail car on the same railway, on its next run through the area. It is the perfect crime, no one would suspect the same train being robbed, so it will probably be loaded with money. After blowing up the car for a second time, they notice another locomotive speeding towards them and a crew of men on horseback alight from the car and give chase, chasing Butch and Sundance, and their two accomplices, for days, across many terrains. Finally, they realize the rail baron has hired a famous Indian tracker to help a band of men, including a former sheriff who is now a famous bounty hunter, catch the duo. After the chase, they return to the home of Ella (Katharine Ross), the Sundance Kid’s girlfriend. Tired, they decide to leave the country and travel to Bolivia and begin robbing banks there.
As I watched this DVD of “Butch Cassidy”, two things quickly became apparent. This film is virtually timeless. With the lone exception of the song “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”, the film could’ve been made yesterday, the images are so clear. The second is that the DVD print is one of the most beautiful transfers I have ever watched. The cinematography by Conrad Hall (who would later work on “American Beauty” among others) is simply stunning and brings out all of the rich detail of the landscape. Everything is crisp and clear, when it is supposed to be, colors are bright and vivid, it’s just beautiful to watch. It doesn’t hurt that the stars are two of the most handsome men to ever appear in film, at the prime of their careers, and one of the most beautiful women to ever co-star. How did anyone get past all of that eye candy?
The key to becoming fully invested in this film is William Goldman’s screenplay. He introduces the characters in action, we learn as we go, and they are almost always moving, or doing something. Goldman fills their mouths with witty dialogue, showing us how their relationship works, and they are instantly likeable to us. This is basically a love triangle with Ross’ Ella playing the go-between. The two men have a very close friendship, enjoying each other’s company. But Cassidy loves Ella as well, even appears slightly jealous until he realizes his friend is the recipient of this woman’s love, so they get along. Then, there is the famous chase. The railway baron’s men chase Butch and Sundance for days, taking up a significant chunk of the film. But this scene proves to us how committed the two men are to each other and makes their future trek to Bolivia all the more believable. We have to believe there is a real threat and these men never let up on the chase, if they catch Butch and Sundance, they will be killed. As soon as they reach Bolivia, Goldman has a lot of fun with the characters again, exploring their relationships, rebuilding them in a way, and making them light hearted again. It is almost amazing to watch this film because if a studio executive were presented with the same screenplay today, it would probably not be made. It doesn’t hit plot points at pre-determined pages, it tells an unconventional story, and we never actually see the villains. Goldman had the luxury of writing this film during a period in which studios were still able to work with somewhat unconventional screenplays. Of course, they wanted to make money as well, but they still considered film an art form.
George Roy Hill is an underappreciated director. I think a large part of this is because many of his films are very humorous. Comedy is not as highly respected in Hollywood as drama, even though making a good comedy is much more difficult. So I suspect the humorous elements of most of his films made him less respected in Hollywood, but when your films are as good as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting”, you deserve some respect. He made his share of duds, but when he passed away a few years ago, Hollywood was robbed of a talent ready to make at least a few more classics.
During this period, big screen Westerns were becoming unpopular. Perhaps the dearth of television westerns was keeping the public out of the theaters, but this genre was considered risky at the time. Recent films starring Burt Lancaster and others were failing to light the box office fire. The second disc contains a new “Making of” feature including interviews with Newman, Redford, Ross, former studio executives David Brown and Richard Zanuck and more. Zanuck reveals that he took a real chance in greenlighting this film, but fought for it all the way. He also haggled with Hill and the filmmakers, in an attempt to keep the budget under control; he became concerned when the film was projected to cost about $7.5 million (consider the average studio film now costs at least $125 million). But the film would go on to be a big hit. Such a huge hit the filmmakers followed this with the equally popular “The Sting”.
The second DVD also contains some archival interviews with the stars, some trailers and more.
In the “Making Of” documentary, they discuss the inclusion of the song “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”. People fought against it but Hill and composer Burt Bacharach felt it would be the perfect accompaniment to the scene of Butch and Ella riding a new-fangled bike through her barn yard. It does work, but it is clearly not a fit for the period depicted in the film, and is the most dated element within the film today. It just seems silly today.
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is a superlative example of the treatment all classics should receive on DVD. This is a film every DVD library should have.