Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 25: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 153 of the first edition hardback, Ebert mentions that he lacks a formal film education and that he learned a lot about filmmaking as a craft by visiting sets as a journalist. He writes, “I spent full days on sound stages during movies like Camelot and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, watching a scene being done with a master shot and then broken down into closer shots and angles. I heard lighting and sound being discussed. I didn’t always understand what I was hearing, but I absorbed the general idea. I learned to see movies in terms of individual shots, instead of being swept along by the narrative.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid must have looked like a natural on paper, but, alas, the completed film is slow and disappointing. This despite the fact that it contains several good laughs and three sound performances. The problems are two. First, the investment in superstar Paul Newman apparently inspired a bloated production that destroys the pacing. Second, William Goldman’s script is constantly too cute and never gets up the nerve, by God, to admit it’s a Western.” -from his 1969 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

I often use the “I’m just not into Westerns,” excuse to avoid having to actually engage with films in the genre, but what am I supposed to do when a Western clearly just isn’t into itself? Arriving in the strange middle ground between the big budget Western and the small, ramshackle productions of New Hollywood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is at war with its own nature. It wants to both please the old guard by revisiting a John Wayne era of Hollywood filmmaking, yet side with the existential rebelliousness of its contemporaries like Bonnie & Clyde. I suppose it found the right balance for a lot of people in consolidating those two sides, but I found it to be something of a bland compromise between two spiritually opposing filmmaking styles. Maybe if more of Butch Cassidy‘s sardonic, self-hating spirit were allowed to disrupt its outlaws-on-the-run premise I would have been won over as a modern, Western-ignoring cynic. As is, I found it to be kind of a middling choir.

Paul Newman & Robert Redford, pretty much the dual definition of Hollywood Handsome, star as two train-robbing bandits who find themselves on the run from ever-encroaching lawmen after a job gone bad. Katherine Ross (who’s been popping up in quite a few of these late 60s pictures) tags along as a lover & conspirator and the trio wind up mounting one final stand in South America. That’s a fairly reductive plot synopsis, I’ll admit, but it covers pretty much the entire arc of the film as long as you’re willing to disregard stray sequences where Katherine Ross teaches the boys rudimentary Spanish so they can rob Bolivian banks or flirts innocently with one of them on a bicycle to Bury Bacharach’s “Rain Drops Keep Falling On My Head,” (which was, bafflingly, written for the film). The real hook of Butch Cassidy, though, isn’t the strength of its story, but the then-refreshing casual banter of its two anti-hero protagonists. I’ll admit that aspect of the screenplay does help cut down on the film’s boring, idyllic tough guy Western aesthetic, but the exchanges are too few and far between to amount to much except brief reprieves from the otherwise oppressive stillness of the genre film they disrupt.

Ebert complained in his 1969 review that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid‘s production was too bloated and its pacing was too slow & labored to match the rebellious nature of the spiritually similar (but far superior) Bonnie & Clyde. I can’t disagree with either point. Just as one character remarks to Newman & Redford’s titular bandits, “It’s over. Your time is over. You’re going to die bleeding. All you can do is choose where,” the same feels true of the genre their characters are serving & lightly subverting. The Western genre is in some ways antithetical to the New Hollywood era, since it was such a routine mainstay of the old Studio System formula, especially in this film’s lavishly produced form. You can feel Butch Cassidy attempting to change with the times in its mid-gunfight quipping and its shrugging tagline, “Not that it matters, but most of it is true.” It could have pushed those tendencies a whole lot further, though. One version of the screenplay had Butch & The Kid watching a movie adaptation of their lives in a South American cinema, heckling & nitpicking its perceived inaccuracies. The idea was reportedly cut for being “too over the top,” which is a shame, because it’s the exact kind of blasphemous energy this film needed to be worthwhile as a genre update. I assume I’d get some backlash from more dedicated fans of Westerns as a genre for that stance, but that’s okay. I don’t speak their language.

Roger’s Rating: (2.5/4, 63%)

Brandon’s Rating (2.5/5, 50%)

Next Lesson: Batman (1989)

-Brandon Ledet

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