Western Wednesday: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

I used to know this movie like the back of my hand. Unfortunately—and here’s a good case for never watching a movie more than twice in a single year—I eventually saw it so many times I grew bored. That was right around the time I discovered spaghetti westerns and The Wild Bunch, which made the film seem a little too sleek in comparison. Fast forward to my thirties and I’ve forgotten just enough of it to enjoy it again, but not quite enough to love it.

I know I voice my hatred for certain aspects of the Hollywood machine a lot, but that’s misleading. I love Hollywood when it’s at its best. When you’ve got Robert Redford and Paul Newman, you’re getting damn close to the territory I prefer. I don’t care about celebrities, but I love movie stars. Here are two of the best.

Like so many westerns, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is set in a time when the gunslinger is becoming obsolete. In The Wild Bunch, the main characters knew it the moment they laid eyes on their first car. In this film, Butch and Sundance should have known it from the very moment they acquired their first bicycle. After botching their latest train robbery, the duo realize the rules of the west have changed and they somehow never got the memo.

Knowing there’s no way they’ll be able to survive if they continue their old ways, Butch and Sundance find themselves at a crossroads. They reluctantly discuss their options around a table owned by Sundance’s patient love interest, who probably would have been Butch’s love interest if he’d been the one who met her first. Butch, who’s always been the know-it-all of the duo, suggests they should pack up and head for greener pastures in Bolivia. But when they arrive they find their destination is little more than abandoned farmland and dust.

There’s a reason William Goldman’s screenplay is analyzed to death in film seminars and screenwriting classes. The story, which equally indulges in and pokes fun at the idea of myths and legends, has a lean simplicity to it. The banter between the characters is a not-very-distant ancestor to the kind of humorous dialogue that appears in Hollywood blockbusters as recent as The Force Awakens. The filmmakers quickly establish the main characters, the female lead, and the gang whose leadership is hanging by a thread. Minutes later, Butch and Sundance are on the run, chased down by an all-star team of man-hunters whose faces we never see.

That first half of the movie deserves its classic status and then some.

Unfortunately, the best scenes all occur before the midpoint. I’m referring to the long sequence of chase scenes in which they’re desperately trying to throw the unseen antagonists off their trail, crossing desert, rock, and water to do it. They occasionally pause to watch their pursuers from afar with an even mixture of dread and awe. “Who are those guys?” they ask repeatedly.

Nothing else after it really compares until that final, iconic freeze frame.

Despite its bottom-heaviness, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is still an entertaining popcorn flick. That’s pretty much all I feel like saying about it at this point in my life, which is part of the reason I like stories so much—they can change as much as I do. Maybe I’ll love it again the next time I see it, but I don’t plan on watching it again for a very long time.

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