I saw this movie in uptown New York when it first came out in 1969, with my mother and a friend of hers. For weeks before I went to see it, our shop girls had been doing impersonations of Newman and Redford’s funniest lines in the movie. Even so, it did not disappoint, and afterwards we went out to the Russian Tea Room, and had blinis and beet soup. Many of my favourite movies are associated with good memories, and this is one of them.
When I first saw it, even despite the nonstop imitation of its gags by our shop-girl, Susan Reiner, I didn’t realize it was a comedy. I must have seen it again since, in the 1970s, but I don’t remember. I watched in early in March with the intention of writing about it. It was the day before my cat died, and I saw it as a slow, joking waltz toward death. I couldn’t write the next week because I got ill. I’m glad that I left it two months and then watched it again, because it really is a ‘comedy Western.’ Sundance and Butch Cassidy are joking about moving to Australia to rob banks moments before their death, and there is no deep sense of impending doom in the movie. I could be wrong but I don’t think its one of those late 1960s / early 1970s movies about the death of the old West, with civilization penning in the heroic outlaws. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is that kind of movie, epitomized by the Dylan song about the sheriff and outlaw. At least today, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid seems to me to be a comedy of wit, that is, largely a verbal comedy spanning out from the sparring between Redford/Sundance and Butch Cassidy / Newman. It’s a buddy movie, and, given that much of the film consists in Sundance and Butch being chased by lawmen, a road movie. If one may purloin an old word from the sex-n-gender wars, the striking thing about the film is its gaiety, accentuated by its key song, ‘Rain drops keep falling on my head.’
Back in the innocent day, when it was released, cinema audiences gasped when the film transitioned from black and white, at the start, to sudden colour about ten minutes into the film. People laughed at the simple jokes, like Sundance admitting ‘I cannot swim’ moments before having to escape their pursuers by leaping off a cliff into a swirling river. I can remember Susan Reiner imitating Kathleen Ross in the apparent ‘rape’ scene, near the beginning, where Sundance puts a gun on a school teacher and orders her to undress: when she is done stripping, the seeming victim says to her lover, ‘why can’t you just for once get here on time?’ When the trio flee to Bolivia to rob banks there, they themselves are held up by their inability to speak Spanish. All very predictable jokes. But still very clever and witty, on a fourth viewing.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid seems to me to be a brilliant example of the film as a film. The film that knows it’s a film, and makes not pretentions or protestations otherwise. Its utterly ‘unrealistic’ for Sundance and Butch Cassidy to extol in witty repartée at the most dangerous moments of their lives. I doubt if any of the actors in the film are of the ‘Method’ school of performance art. They do not seek to become their roles, or to convince us that they ‘are’ the characters they play. Throughout the movie, one is aware that one is watching a staged drama on horseback. After the 1960s, film finally broke away from its nest in staged drama, and became its own genre, detached from stage performance. Butch Cassidy must be one of the last ‘stagey’ movies.
After writing that paragraph, I checked up Kathleen Ross, Robert Redford and Paul Newman. It seems that Newman did indeed graduate from the famous New York school of Method acting.
Butch Cassidy does not, in my opinion, have a deeper theme. It does not extol the bandits and the outlaws, as did the near contemporary Bonnie and Clyde or the slightly later Pat Garrett. Butch Cassidy is not a film with a great message, and that is quite an achievement for a movie made in 1969. It is still, I think, a greatly entertaining film, one that has not dated in the sense of losing its capacity to induce its audience into its world.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is not ‘about’ something, but of course it would not resonate with audiences if it did not reflect our experience in some way. The experience which it captures and reflects is the universal human experience of feeling trapped, as one’s choices catch up to one. The opportunities for free movement are steadily diminished by the choices one has made in the past. So the pursuit of Butch Cassidy and the Kid reflects the experience of every adult, as he finds that there is in the end no space in which to re-invent one’s self. The sixties out of which this comedy western came was a wonderful period of self re-invention. That’s because it was not a stagnant time, but a time of opportunity. So many outstanding characters of the time invented their past in order to have a different future. In that respect, it was, perhaps, like the Old West. At a significant point in this movie, the Kid and Butch reveal to one another their own, real and mundane names. Closer to the end of the movie, the glamorous star of the Wild West, the Sundance Kid, reveals to his lover and closest friend that he grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is not about some dreary moral message, such as ‘you cannot endlessly re-invent yourself and if you try you will get shot to death by a large section of the Bolivian army.’ But its narrative reflects the universal human experience of finitude.—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.