AFI Countdown Challenge #50: Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid

The year is 1969.  A new Western hits the big screen.  In the film, modern times are beginning to overtake some longtime outlaws out for one big score.  Among their crimes is a daring train robbery, but the consequences of their actions forces the outlaws to flee south of the border, all while being pursued by an implacable tracker working for the law or the wealthy business types that seem to always get their way.  Eventually, the outlaws meet their end while heavily outnumbered by well-armed locals.

That could describe The Wild Bunch or today’s entry, the halfway point in the countdown challenge, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The key difference between the two is one of tone.  Both films show the protagonists, either the titular Wild Bunch or Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall Gang, dealing with changing times, but for The Wild Bunch that invention is the machine gun.  For Butch Cassidy, it’s a bicycle.  Besides, I can’t imagine a Burt Bacharach score to The Wild Bunch.  “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head” would seem out of place in a Sam Peckinpah film.  For Butch Cassidy, it becomes one of the most iconic scenes in the film as Paul Newman’s Butch rides around on his new bicycle with Katharine Ross’ Etta Place in the sort of scene that is basically what this film is:  a breezy story detailing the last days of some wanted men who didn’t seem that dangerous when all was said and done.

Funny thing:  Etta is Sundance’s lover, but her best remembered scene is the above one with Butch.

As for the film itself, what jumped out at me is just how slow and lackadaisical is it.  Butch Cassidy never comes across as particularly dangerous.  He’s the smart one, and sure, he dispenses some violence, but it’s a beating to prevent a knife fight to the death at the hands of a disgruntled member of his gang looking for new leadership.  Then he admits the guy’s idea of robbing the same train coming and going is a good idea.

It’s that kind of film.  I’d actually classify it more as a comedy for most of its run time.  A good chunk of the narrative is spent with Butch and Sundance, separated from the rest of the gang, being tracked by a lawman in a white straw hat and a Native known as “Lord Baltimore” who can track anyone over any terrain.  The two bicker, make a jump off a cliff to escape, and generally just enjoy themselves.  Butch doesn’t seem to want to hurt anybody, and when a hapless clerk named Woodcock gets injured in a dynamite blast because he won’t open the door to his train car to let the Gang in to rob it, Butch goes to check on him and seems rather relieved when Woodcock pops up again on the return trip.  Butch is a more easygoing man, someone for whom violence doesn’t seem to come naturally.  It isn’t until late in the film where either man guns someone down, and Butch admits he’d never shot a man before.

As for Sundance, he’s harsher, more taciturn, but he also has something of a romance going with Etta.  He doubts Butch’s plans for Bolivia when the pair, plus Etta, first arrive in the place, but this is the sort of film where the real obstacle would be neither man actually speaks any Spanish.  It’s the sort of film where Butch and Sundance will watch from a dark brothel balcony as the local Marshall tries in vane to organize a posy for the very men watching from the nearby balcony.

However, there’s a tonal shift when the guys attempt to actually go straight.  Up to this point, robberies looked fun and harmless, but when they’re actually doing something legal, guarding a payroll for a mining company, their new boss is killed and the money stolen.  In retrieving it, they gun down the other bandits, causing the first casualties of the film.  We’d seen Sundance was a terrific shot already from the first scene, a sepia-toned sequence that introduced the pair when Sundance shot another man’s gunbelt off and the six-shooter away from him without hitting the other man.  But when both Butch and Sundance kill the other bandits, they now have blood on their hands.  We can ask whether or not the two deserved to be hunted as much as they were up to that point, but the fact is neither seemed all that bothered to kill the bandits, so it was really only a matter of time.

Of course, the time comes not long after in the other famous scene from the film.  Surrounded by the Bolivian army, Butch and Sundance, both wounded, run out into a freeze-frame and a hale of gunfire.  And even up until the end, they still engage in the sort of breezy chatter that characterizes the film, with Butch suggesting they move on to Australia, where at least they’ll have horses and the locals speak English.  Butch and Sundance are no Wild Bunch.  They will die and not while taking a lot of bad men with them.  We won’t see it happen.  We’ll just know.  For characters this fun, seeing them die might be too much to ask of an audience.

NEXT UP:  We’re going back to 1937 for the first feature length animated film:  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.


Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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