Sometimes, the best place to start is the most obvious place.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid gets my vote for being the greatest film of all time.
Okay. Maybe not the greatest, but it is my favorite.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Directed by George Roy Hill
Written by William Goldman
Starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katharine Ross
110 minutes, Rated PG
Most of what follows is true.
Even at 12 (the age I was when I first saw this film), I was intrigued by that title card. It set a tone immediately that informs a viewer that this isn’t the sort of western that you should take too seriously. They might as well have said Yes, this is a western. Yes, it is based on a true story. But you’re going to laugh. A lot.
This was the summer of 1987 and my family did not have a VCR in our home. But we did have a video store that would allow you to rent a VCR. Some sort of a package deal. A “rent a VCR and five movies for $10” kind of thing. My mother worked a lot back then and renting a VCR for the weekend was commonplace.
I’m not sure why, on the weekend in question, my mother decided that her twelve-year-old son needed to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but it was among the stack of movies she had brought home. I had not heard of it, but knew 1) that I liked westerns and 2) that I generally liked most of the movies that my mother had so far recommended. My mother’s only proviso for this film was that I not watch this one in front of my younger brother because she “couldn’t remember” whether it was appropriate for young children or not.
The movie opens with the title card I already mentioned and then there’s a montage of old-timey photos for the credits. Then the movie proper starts and I’m annoyed because the god damn thing turns out to be in black-and-white. I would have shut it off if not for one of the opening scenes where Sundance (played by Robert Redford) refuses to leave a poker game until they invite him to play another round and then shoots off an adversary’s gun belt before the poor sap has even had a chance to draw his gun. I was flabbergasted by how cool Sundance seemed just as the movie saved itself by fading into color. From here, the movie spends some time trying to make you think that Sundance is a creep capable of sexual assault. Then, Butch Cassidy (played by Paul Newman) shows up and crashes a bicycle to the bouncy lilts of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”. Eventually, there’s a knife fight that has no rules, Harvey gets kicked square in the dingus, and the Hole In The Wall Gang rides off on their horses to commit the first of a couple of train robberies. By this point, I was transfixed. God himself could have ascended from Heaven and demanded that I stop watching, and I might have renounced religion right there and then for good and all.
I had never seen anything like this movie before.
Keep in mind that I’m 12 at the time. I’m not really supposed to think that this movie is good. But I did, and I watched it more than once that first weekend. I requested that Mom rent it again on later weekends. It was my favorite movie. But it was so old and dated that I couldn’t really convince any of my peers that I wasn’t a total nutcase for liking this movie so much. Kids my age were not supposed to like old westerns, no matter how funny they are. This didn’t stop me from watching it, however. Repeatedly. By the time I was in college and surrounded by more-enlightened friends willing to give a film older than we were a try, I had probably watched this movie thirty times.
I am now in my 40’s. I’ve easily watched it three times that amount. Between catching it on classic movie channels, viewing it on the big screen at various revivals over the years, studying it in numerous screenplay classes or seminars, and owning it on DVD, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve seen it right around 100 times. At least. But why? Why does a 1969 western comedy speak to me so profoundly?
The short answer: I have no idea.
The long answer is three-fold:
1) It may have something to do with the screenplay. Not only is the script filled to the brim with quotable whip-crack dialogue, but the screenplay itself is divided perfectly into three acts. This might be why it’s so ever-present in the college courses I’ve taken. The first act is the set-up, where we meet the characters and ramp up to the big train robbery. The second act depicts our heroes on the lam, as they attempt to evade a super posse hellbent on seeing them hang. The third act is in Bolivia, after our heroes have moved to another country in an attempt to start anew. Not only is each act a perfect extension of the ongoing story, but each act would work just perfectly as a movie of its own. William Goldman knew what he was doing when he crafted this script. Perhaps that’s why he won an Academy Award for writing it.
2) It may have something to do with the performances. While something like this would have never crossed my mind at the age of 12, I am hard-pressed now to imagine anyone other than Paul Newman and Robert Redford in these roles. These are both actors whose work I greatly admire, but their performances in this movie are legendary. Butch Cassidy and Sundance pretty well define Redford and Newman for me. I am especially fond of Paul Newman’s post-Butch Cassidy work, but Redford brings out the best in him. With Redford, Paul Newman appears to be having fun. There’s a twinkle in those famous blue eyes that you don’t really see in his other films. As for Redford, he has always seemed to be at his best whenever he is emulating the spirit he created here. It’s as if Robert Redford takes himself too seriously when he isn’t playing Sundance. And to really punch that point home, I will say that my favorite Robert Redford performance (aside from this one) is in The Sting, another movie that he starred in with Paul Newman. I think it’s too bad that the two actors didn’t do more films together.
3) It may have something to do with an almost life-long ability to relate to these characters. Not that I wanted to, you know, rob trains and participate in bank heists, but that I completely understood the dynamics of the relationship on display. I have a background in theatre, have had many creative partnerships, and have noticed throughout a duality in my own personality that perfectly mirrors these men. I have found, over the years, that it is very easy for me to switch personas as necessary. Sometimes, I’m the reluctant leader (Butch). Other times I’m okay letting others take the credit for my good ideas (Sundance). Sometimes, I take charge because I want to (Butch), and sometimes, I take charge because I have to (Sundance). Sometimes, my advice is profound (Butch). Most of the time, I am sarcastic (Sundance). I’ve even stood silently and watched while the girlfriends, or significant others, of creative partners slowly took my place (I’ve often thought that Butch was annoyed by Etta, perturbed that she stood in the way of their otherwise invincible bromance). Whichever character we may be talking about, I have been that guy. And I am equally comfortable in either pair of shoes. If I am allowed a slightly-pretentious metaphor, I’ll say that I have both gone to Bolivia without doing my research and jumped off the cliff to save my own skin, even though I was unable to swim.
Every movie has flaws, to be sure. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is no exception. I think the Burt Bacarach tunes are out of place and give the film a sense of whimsy that is unearned. There is more than one montage (again, set to Burt Bacarach) to reflect the passage of time that actually, to my mind, slows the film’s pacing down. In addition, I think, despite my own admission in these pages that the movie makes me laugh very hard, time has categorized this movie as more of a comedy than it actually is. In reality, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a rather dark and brooding film. It focuses on two men who know they are reaching the end of their line. It just happens to include remarkably funny moments of genuine levity.
These are minor complaints, things I’ve decided over time. I didn’t notice these things when I was 12. If I did, I certainly didn’t care. Not one of these flaws has affected my ability to relate to this movie repeatedly as I have aged.
There are any number of movies that I keep coming back to, watch over and over again. When I need a quick movie fix, but need something comfortable that I don’t have to think about so much. Die Hard comes to mind. The Muppet Movie. The Breakfast Club. Mission: Impossible (don’t judge me). The movies that cure depression, or serve as background noise while I fold the laundry.
I do not fold laundry to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I’m too mesmerized by it, too drawn to it. It sucks me in every single time.
I’ll end right where I started: this movie gets my vote as the single greatest film of all time.