Thursday, 15 October 2015

Movie Review: Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969)

The western reimagined to suit late 1960s counterculture sensibilities, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is a buddy movie celebrating outlaws. The film rides a flood of charisma emanating from stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford in fine form.

It's the late 1890s in Wyoming, and times are slowly changing: bicycles are threatening to replace horses. Butch Cassidy (Newman) leads his Hole in the Wall gang as they pull off a series of bank and train robberies, with his partner The Sundance Kid (Redford) providing most of the accurate shooting skills. Cassidy, who never actually seems to use his gun, summarily puts down an internal leadership challenge, while Sundance enjoys the company of girlfriend Etta Place (Katharine Ross).

The gang proceeds to pull off two more heists, hitting the same train on consecutive journeys. Their audacity catches up with them, and a relentless posse is assembled by the rail company, forcing Butch and Sundance to flee for days. Cornered on a rocky mountainside, they finally shake off their pursuers by diving from a great height into the river. With too much heat on them, the outlaws along with Etta decide to relocate to Bolivia. They start a new life, but despite language and cultural barriers, they are soon back to their old ways of robbing banks and payrolls for the fun of it.

The strong anti-establishment winds of the late 1960s allowed outsiders to be re-acclaimed as heroes, and Bonnie And Clyde proved that cinematic excellence can be achieved by allowing villains to become likeable cinematic protagonists. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid ignores half a decade's worth of Spaghetti Westerns by revisiting the genre and creating a fun-filled place where the bad guys are good and the good guys are boring. Butch and Sundance get the witty dialogue, mostly outsmart rather than outgun their opponents, and carry on affairs with sexy school teachers and lovable whores, all with an irreverent, irresistible attitude.

The screenplay by William Goldman was deeply researched to represent actual events from the lives of Butch and Sundance, but ultimately, there is not much in terms of plot. A few routine train and bank hold-ups and one long chase do not a great movie make. Fortunately, director George Roy Hill recognizes that Paul Newman and Robert Redford create a tandem that is impossible not to adore. With Newman as Butch providing the smart alecky brains and Redford as Sundance supplying the brooding gunplay, the movie is all about two buddies having a grand old time out west. The film's appeal extends as far as the interplay between the two men can take it, and Newman and Redford deploy their magnetism to stretch the limited material much further than it would otherwise deserve.

Despite the star power and witty dialogue exchanges, the film's faults do occasionally come to the surface. The posse chase scene goes on forever and consumes a remarkably long portion of the running time, a case of a concept introduced, consumed and then squeezed out of all joy. Even the "who are those guys?" line gets tired before the chase even ends. The bicycle riding montage, set to the out of place Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head, kills more screen time and is only cute for those who choose to absolutely worship Newman riffing on a silly persona.

But Hill maintains stylistic interest by playing with some sepia-toned scenes, and then rebalances the film with a strong final third. The outlaws work their way back to fine form in Bolivia, overcoming the language barrier to get back into the business of taking other people's money. And the final, bullet-drenched climax with the Bolivian army effectively combines the film's buddy sensibilities with a classic western showdown.

Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid may be more scrubbed and lighthearted than its era deserves, but it does effectively commemorate the unlikely partnership of two men who left a bullet-marked legacy on two continents.

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