Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid was one of the biggest hits of 1969. The film was a contemporary buddy comedy disguised as a western, and its reflexive, almost satirical humor seems to have divided critics, some judging it as successfully unique and others as overbearingly silly. I fall in the former camp. George Roy Hill’s classic is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, with humor and style that holds up over its 110-minute runtime (as well as its 40-year age).
The film stars Paul Newman as Butch and Robert Redford as the Kid. It served as a sort of vehicle for the rising star Redford and the falling star Newman, and both performances are a quality highlight of the film. While it’s true that their dialogue is anachronistic in the early 20th Century setting, and that their sympathetic portrayals depict violent bank robbers as genial bandits, it’s part of the film’s awareness and conscious decision to be a fun, light affair.
For me, it totally works. Newman is fantastically charming as Butch, from his manners and sincerity to the bicycle tricks performed during the famous “Raindrop Keep Falling on My Head” sequence. Redford’s Kid is much more gruff and dangerous, but still able to quip with Butch under gunfire. The stars have a fantastic chemistry that keeps their banter just as funny today as it was then.
The film is interesting in its use of various different sequence techniques. It begins with its credits alongside a silent film era projector showing still images of the Hole in the Wall Gang holding up trains. It then upgrades technology but maintains an old Western feel with an introductory scene done in sepia. By time it transitions to the full color cinematography that the film mostly sticks to, the audience is prepared for a unique and nostalgic ride.
Other sequences also make the film stand out among contemporaries. It seems to borrow French New Wave techniques like the aforementioned filters, the famous freeze frame final shot, and wordless sequences. These sequences, like the “Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head” scene, are accompanied by cheerful music, a style that has comedic results when Bolivian bank robberies are accompanied aurally only by cheerful a capella. Their journey from the United States to Bolivia is depicted through a montage of old time still photographs, as well. The movie’s definitely not afraid to use montages.
In the middle of the movie, Butch and the Kid endure a relentlessly long chase scene. It actually overextends the definition of a scene and must be called a sequence. The “superposse” hired by the angry owner of the company they’ve been robbing are shown to be the best trackers imaginable, following Bruce and the Kid across every kind of terrain they ride through. This sequence stands as the apex of the film. The pursuers maintain a distance that lends the entire thing an eerie suspense. They are far enough to be indescribable, yet they never fall out of range and are always looming in the distance. Other critics, including Roger Ebert, have complained about its inclusion, and I can understand, since the whole thing pretty much hijacks the film, but to me it was a well-done and uniquely intense chase sequence that tops all others.
Even for those who might not have enjoyed the superposse sequence, the film picks up again after the heroes escape to Bolivia. Their initial confrontation with the foreign language is the source of much humor, and after an adequate time being lighthearted again after the chase, the film is able to close with an intense and exciting scene.
**Spoiler alert. This paragraph contains spoilers**
The climactic final shoot out is nothing short of amazing. It builds kinetic tension through interludes of silent stillness as the duo take cover and reload. The shoot out soon reveals itself as the hopeless struggle that it is, first when the pair of robbers are shot and injured and finally when the massive armada arrives to surround them. While the rest of the film and the banter leading up to the final minutes are light and humorous, the film ends somewhat majestically as Butch and the Kid go out in a blaze of glory against an unstoppable foe. The iconic freeze frame helps both the story and the film reach immortal status.
Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid was one of the screenings for my first film class at college, but due to a busy schedule it was the first and only screening I skipped in that class. I can’t believe I let such a classic film evade me for two years. I’m glad I’ve finally seen it, because I do consider it one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and additionally, one of my favorites.
Final rating: 10/10
–James A. Janisse