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

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 23: Hellfighters (1968)

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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 Hellfighters (1968) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 153 of the first edition hardback, Ebert gloats about how great being a professional critic was in his glory days. He writes, “It was a honey of a job to have at that age. I had no office hours; it was understood that I would see the movies and meet the deadlines. I loved getting up from my desk and announcing, ‘I’m going to the movies.’ A lot of my writing was done at night and on the weekends. I saw about half of the movies in theaters with paying audiences, sinking into the gloom to watch John Wayne fighting flaming oil wells in Hellfighters at the Roosevelt, or Pam Grier inventing blaxploitation at the Chicago.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “Out in front of the Roosevelt Theater there’s a big photo of John Wayne and this quote, attributed to him: ‘I’ve made a lot of action pictures but never one as exciting as this.’ I doubt that Wayne volunteered this information; it sounds more like a studio publicity idea. The fact is, Wayne has made a lot of action pictures, and over the years he has gotten to be about as good at it as anybody. He must have been miserable during the filming of Hellfighters, which is a slow moving, talkative, badly plotted bore.” – from his 1968 review for The Chicago Sun-Times

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When praising the young, energetic talent that reignited American art cinema in the late 60s’ so called New Hollywood movement, it’s all too easy to overlook the undeniable virtues of the system those films were bucking against. The John Wayne action epic Hellfighters is a perfect snapshot of Big Studio glut when compared to its more forward-thinking contemporaries like Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate. While these smaller New Hollywood upstarts were pulling influence from still-exciting sources like the French New Wave, the lumbering, old-fashioned Hellfighters more closely resembles instantly outdated modes of entertainment like Earthquake, Airport, and The Towering Inferno. Ebert was right to praise those smaller, more experimental works in his reviews while labeling Hellfighters “a slow moving, talkative, badly plotted bore.” I can’t disagree with a word of that. The dirty secret, though, is that although formally & thematically outdated in the face of smaller, more passionate films being made around them, Old Hollywood ghosts like Hellfighters effortlessly pulled off mesmerizing visual spectacles that were never truly touched by the likes of a Bogdanovich or a Friedkin or a De Palma. Even if its superiority was simply a question of budget, there’s an immense beauty to the costume designs, sets, framing, and rich colors of Hellfighters that could’ve been transcendent if were applied passionately instead of with workmanlike competence.

As with all John Wayne movies, whether or not they’re set in the dusty West, Hellfighters is often classified as a Western. This makes even less sense here than it does with the London-set cop drama Brannigan, since Wayne’s tuxedo’d firefighter lead doesn’t even carry a gun. Loosely based off the real world personality Red Adair, Wayne plays infamous oil field firefighter Chance Buckman (man, I love that stupid name) as he travels across the globe putting out dangerous oil well fires with barrels full of dynamite. Real manly stuff. Based on that description, you might think that the art film version of Hellfighters might be Sorcerer or its predecessor Wages of Fear, but it actually more closely resembles a film from the late 90s. Much like Bruce Willis’s tough guy hero in Armageddon, Chance Buckman is an oil industry legend who bullheadedly infantilizes his adult daughter by attempting to protect her from a twofold danger: the physical danger of his industry & the emotional danger of the womanizing men who work within it. It’s not at all difficult to imagine Michael Bay growing up fond of Hellfighters, thanks to its hyper-masculine self-delusion & over-indulgence in practical effects explosions. The John Wayne film often mirrors Armageddon‘s bullshit romanticization of the hard working men who risk their lives for oil & the worried women who love them, despite the constant danger of loss. Where Armageddon employs this ludicrous narrative & attention to visual craft for a punishingly kinetic live action fantasy, however, Hellfighters is content to lie still & talk its audience to death. It’s an entire movie built around the idea that large spouts of fire look cool. It’s not exactly wrong, just too long to justify that thin of a premise and too lethargic to fully command its audience’s attention, even as beautifully decorated it’s production design can be. If Hellfighters could’ve operated with Michael Bay’s punishing sense of immediacy it might’ve been an all-time classic. At the very least, it could’ve shot John Wayne into space to fist fight an asteroid the size of Texas. There’s pretty much no one who wouldn’t pay to see that.

A large part of what makes Hellfighters feel desperately old-fashioned is its constant glorification of traditionalist masculinity. So many bare knuckle punches are thrown without any real consequence in bar rooms, brothels, gambling holes, and hospitals that they start to register more like a handshake between bros than an act of violence. News reporters are whiny little wimps who can only get in the way while Real Men do the Important Work, the kind that requires muscles & explosives. The women of Hellfighters are wives, daughters, and secretaries, completely extraneous to the plot outside a fresh-from-The Graduate Katherine Ross, whose virtue & emotional well-being Chance Buckman is tasked to protect. The closest the movie comes to passing the Bechdel Test is a single scene where Buckman’s wife & daughter are golfing alone together, but their entire conversation centers on whether or not it’s worth the worry to love an oil field firefighter. Buckman himself is a stoic emotional void, only budging in his rock solid confidence to express annoyed frustration & mild worry with the women in his life who needlessly complicate his profession. Otherwise he just does what he does best: exploding fires into oblivion & unconvincingly delivering oil-themed one-liners like “If you’re coming to me for advice, I’m a dry hole” with a distinct lack of passion.

In the years since the New Hollywood takeover, directors have learned (and have been better funded) to apply Hellfighters‘s workman sense of extravagant spectacle to the energetic narratives that deserve it. Instead of overtalking its virtues between this piece, my initial review, and a subsequent podcast episode, I do believe Michael Bay’s Armageddon is a perfect example o how well that visual craft could be utilized with just a little creative gusto, even while holding onto its idolization of toxic masculinity. Hellfighters was an overlabored, undercooked movie industry dinosaur when compared to the more exciting, artier New Hollywood films that upended its place in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s a film without value. When gazing into the rich color, impeccable costuming, gorgeous sets, and mesmerizing explosions that Hellfighters wastes on a going-through-the-motions John Wayne action epic, there’s an undeniable sense of missed opportunity. The film could’ve been something truly memorable if its better aspects weren’t helmed by a sleepwalking studio system that misread what its audience was interested in seeing. I can’t recommend Hellfighters as an entertaining work to anyone other than the most diligent John Wayne completist imaginable. However, I do think it works as a valuable reminder that there was a lot of untold merit in the bloated studio system that the late 60s broke apart with its scruffy batch of babyface auteurs.

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Roger’s Rating (1.5/4, 38%)

onehalfstar

Brandon’s Rating (2.5/5, 50%)

twohalfstar

Next Lesson: Camelot (1967)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 22: The Graduate (1967)

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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 The Graduate (1967) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 153 of the first edition hardback, Ebert gushes about the wealth of great cinema that he was lucky to cover at the beginning of his career as a critic. He writes, “The big events of that period were movies like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The French New Wave had reached America. TIME magazine put ‘The Film Generation’ on its cover. A few months later they did a piece about me in their Press section, headlined ‘Populist at the Movies.’ Pauline Kael had started at the New Yorker, and movie critics were hot. It was a honey of a job to have at that age.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “Nichols stays on top of his material. He never pauses to make sure we’re getting the point. He never explains for the slow-witted. He never apologizes. His only flaw, I believe, is the introduction of limp, wordy Simon and Garfunkel songs and arty camera work to suggest the passage of time between major scenes. Otherwise, The Graduate is a success and Benjamin’s acute honesty and embarrassment are so accurately drawn that we hardly know whether to laugh or to look inside ourselves.” – from his 1967 review for The Chicago Sun-Times

The Graduate, released in 1967, contains no flower children, no hippies, no dope, no rock music, no political manifestos and no danger. It is a movie about a tiresome bore and his well-meaning parents. The only character in the movie who is alive–who can see through situations, understand motives, and dare to seek her own happiness–is Mrs. Robinson. Seen today, The Graduate is a movie about a young man of limited interest, who gets a chance to sleep with the ranking babe in his neighborhood, and throws it away in order to marry her dorky daughter. […] When the movie was first released, I wrote of the ‘instantly forgettable’ songs by Simon and Garfunkel. History has proven me wrong. They are not forgettable. But what are they telling us? The liberating power of rock and roll is shut out of the soundtrack (‘The Sound of Music’ plays on Muzak at one crucial point). The S&G songs are melodic, sophisticated, safe. They even accommodate the action, halting their lyrics and providing guitar chords to underline key moments. This is Benjamin’s music; Mrs. Robinson, alone with her vodka, would twist the radio dial looking for the Beatles or Chuck Berry.” – from his 1997 review at the time of the film’s 30th Anniversary

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The reputation of the New Hollywood staple The Graduate has changed drastically over the years as our culture has evolved slightly in its gender politics, while the film has obviously remained static as its own. I assumed when reading Ebert’s inclusion of the title among the most exciting films of his early career as a critic that this might be the first lesson in this series where we’d have drastically different takes on a film’s merits (as opposed to my minor quibbles with his emphatic takes on stuff like Apocalypse Now and Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein). Indeed, Ebert’s 1967 review of The Graduate is the exact glowing, enthusiastic celebration of the film’s minor rebellions I expected. It’s a reading that experiences the film’s central conflict through the eyes of its protagonist, Benjamin (a fresh-faced Dustin Hoffman). On my most recent rewatch of The Graduate I didn’t sympathize with Benjamin at all, but rather with his infamous seductress Mrs. Robinson (the smokily poised Anne Bancroft), a character the film often tosses aside & vilifies despite her having the moral high ground. Ebert, in his admirable life-long pursuit of humility & empathy, had of course reached this conclusion decades before I did, when he revisited this landmark work for its restoration in 1997. In his second review he kicks himself for not recognizing how much of a heartless ass Benjamin had been to the tragic Mrs. Robinson. It’s a revelation that might only come with age & maturity, both for the individual viewer and for the audience as a culture.

The Graduate opens by heavily leaning into Benjamin’s personal crisis of early 20s ennui. Freshly finished with his college degree & unsure of how best to utilize his overabundance of idle time, Benjamin is turned off by every opportunity offered by his parents & their colleagues. When viewed as a young audience, this refusal to play along can feel like an existential dedication to anti-establishment principles, a sort of small scale protest through deliberate inaction. As an adult, watching Benjamin float around a pool & pound cheap beer looks like a lazy, bratty waste of unearned privilege. In the midst of this directionless drift, Benjamin is seduced unapologetically by the much older wife of his dad’s business partner, Mrs. Robinson. Bored, ignored, and underappreciated, Mrs. Robinson is similarly idle in her untapped potential, but it’s a life imposed on her rather than a deliberate choice. She sleeps with Benjamin, whom she watched grow up, over a summer-long affair in an attempt to shake the cobwebs, enacting agency in her own search for pleasure in a way she’s often not allowed. The film’s central conflict, besides Ben’s annoyed desire to be treated like an adult instead of a sex toy, arrises when his parents & her husband pressure the directionless bum to date Mrs. Robinson’s daughter (the beautiful, big-eyed Katherine Ross). When Mrs. Robinson forbids him to sleep with her daughter, Ben is offended that she doesn’t think he’s good enough for her progeny, only serviceable as an older woman’s plaything. His brattiness spirals out from there, causing the two former lovers to inflict vicious harm upon one another as often as they can, ending with Ben stealing his mistress’s daughter away from the altar at a marriage much less . . . complicated in its central dynamics.

If there’s any room for me to disagree with Ebert’s ultimate assessment of The Graduate, which has widely become the critical consensus, it’s in the intent of that final scene, the disrupted wedding. In his 1997 reassessment, Ebert was confused that he had ever celebrated the film’s conclusion, writing “As Benjamin and Elaine escaped in that bus at the end of The Graduate, I cheered, the first time I saw the movie. What was I thinking of? What did the scene celebrate? ‘Doing your own thing,’ I suppose.” My only question about that confusion is whether or not director Mike Nichols ever intended for that scene to be played as celebratory in the first place. As soon as the excitement of escaping the wedding settles & the new fugitive couple settle in the back of the bus to the oft-repeated soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence,” The Graduate loops back to the young brat ennui that opens its narrative. The characters are stone-faced, visibly scared about what they’re going to do with themselves. This is exactly why Mrs. Robinson has a point about Ben’s unworthiness to court her daughter (despite the obvious gross-out factor of having slept with her first). It’s possible to argue that, as the adult, she was wrong for pressuring a young man into sleeping with her despite his initial unease. However, she does say to Ben, “If you won’t sleep with me this time, you could call me whenever you want.” Mrs. Robinson vulnerably offers her body to Benjamin for a shared pleasure, a proposition he eventually accepts of his own free will. After a prolonged affair, she learns how directionless & selfishly cruel the overgrown child truly is, which means she’s a pretty great judge of whether or not he’s prepared to be a good suitor for her only child (not that their own shared sex life isn’t enough to shut that down outright). The worst thing Mrs. Robinson does to prevent that doomed coupling is claiming that Benjamin had raped her, which is a lie fittingly portrayed like a cruel betrayal. I’m not convinced, however, that it’s any more cruel than Ben describing the affair with Mrs. Robinson to her face as “the sickest, most perverse thing that’s ever happened” to him. I’m also not convinced that the movie wasn’t aware of that cruelty on both sides, despite it taking most audiences a few decades to catch up to the full implications of its thematic minefield.

The Graduate is far from the masterpiece of auteurist anti-establishment storytelling it was initially misunderstood to be, but it’s still a well-made, memorable film. Its Simon & Garfunkel-soundtracked ennui commands an intentionally minor look & tone that suggests maybe a life played by the rules isn’t the most ideal path for personal fulfillment. When you’re young it’s tempting to seek that lesson in Benjamin’s directionless, impulsive narrative, but if you can learn to empathize with Mrs. Robinson’s tragically unfulfilled character instead, the film is a whole lot more satisfying. I like to think that aspect of The Graduate was its initial intent, but it’s easy to see why Ebert & so many others would disagree, especially since as a collective audience misread the film’s central romantic dynamic so boneheadedly wrong for such a long time.

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Roger’s Rating: (3/4, 75%)

three star

Brandon’s Rating (3.5/5, 70%)

threehalfstar

Next Lesson: Hellfighters (1968)

-Brandon Ledet