When you consider just how identified Robert Redford and Paul Newman are with each other, it’s amazing to realize that they have only made two movies together to date. Of course, when they’re both as good as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, I guess it’s not so hard to imagine.
The pair’s first teaming with director George Roy Hill is a western only in its outer trappings. The film’s tone, characters and language are as contemporary to 1969 as M*A*S*H was more contemporary to 1970 Vietnam than it was to 1950 Korea. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is also very similar in many ways to the 1970 World War II comedy Kelly’s Heroes. Both films project their late-sixties anti-establishment attitude back onto a historical time period. In both films, their freewheeling heroes rebel against figures of authority that represent the counter-culture’s villain’s of choice. In Kelly’s Heroes, it was the military. For Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, their target is a faceless corporation in the person of one E. H. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid can’t be construed as a realistic biography of the real-life outlaws. If it weren’t for the success of this film, I doubt that they would be well remembered at all. They were two relatively minor figures from the waning days of the wild west. Very little is known about them, other than the fact that they robbed some banks and trains until the Union Pacific Railroad sicced a posse of the best lawmen in the west on them. They headed for Bolivia with Sundance’s girl, Etta Place (Katherine Ross), where they robbed some more banks before dying in a shootout with Bolivian soldiers. The film gets these basic facts right, leaving it free to fill in the very large blanks left by the historical record.
Newman and Redford make a dynamic, likeable team. Their charisma as individuals is augmented by an onscreen chemistry forged by a real world friendship that, by all accounts, endures thirty years later. Although the real Butch Cassidy was known for being charming, it’s unlikely he was the likeable fast-talking rogue played by Newman. And, although Redford gets the maximum mileage out of the Kid’s relatively few lines, I doubt the audience would have accepted him as the cold, mostly friendless killer that the real person was known to be.
Of course, fidelity to the historical past is not the point of a film like this. We’re supposed to cheer for these two turn-of-the-century mavericks as they outsmart the forces of order. However, this film is not blind to the costs of such rebellion, especially when it’s increasingly out of touch with the times in which they live. This point is driven home by the opening scene, in which Butch cases a bank that has been fitted with a collection of very modern security devices. The twentieth century is closing in and signaling the end of the line for men like Butch and Sundance. When they are leaving for Bolivia, Butch pushes his new bicycle into a ditch, rejecting the technology that was to replace the horse and, by extension, the changes that were bringing an end to what we knew as “The West.” In effect, by rejecting rather than embracing change, their fate is effectively sealed at that point.
Whether you call it a parable about rebellion or just a western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of the better expressions of the spirit of the time in which it was made.