Not that it matters, but most of it is true…
The film opens with some old sepia-toned footage of a notorious gang from the turn-of-the-century and that is when we meet our two anti-heroes Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford). Butch is the brains behind the operation (I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals) and Sundance is the brawn, with the most accurate gun in the West.
They make a living robbing banks and trains, but due to their lifestyle, they seldom come out ahead. Life becomes more difficult with tumult within the gang, a crackdown by the authorities and a price tag on the heads of Butch and Sundance.
Soon it becomes evident that their life of crime will never be the same with a professional tracker on their tails and a posse formed to see them hang. They are chased through hills, rock, water, and the like before finally getting away in one final desperate attempt at escape.
With one last brilliant piece of inspiration, Butch decides they should head for Bolivia to lay low, and soon enough they pack their bags and bring along The Kid’s girl (Katharine Ross) to the promised land of South America. They get more than they bargained for thanks to the language barrier and a lack of decent plunder. However, even abroad, their legend grows, winning them the new moniker “Banditos Yanquis.” The pair takes a stint on the right side of the law for once, but it somehow seems bleaker than their early days as bandits. It is evident that the hourglass is running out on them. And so it does, but not without one final glorious battle to cement the aura around two legends of the West.
I will not go so far as to call Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid a masterpiece because I have read too many reviews to know that there has been a great deal of division over the film. I can only speak from my own experience when I say that I quickly grew to love this story. This appreciation stems from the spot on chemistry of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Their outlaws are not your typical thugs but lovable buffoons you cannot help but cheer for through all their screw-ups and pratfalls. Paul Newman has his ever-present mischievous smile plastered on his face, and Redford plays the cool and collected Kid to the tee. Perfect casting for the roles and to think it might have been Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty.
They got together again in The Sting, which was another good film, although I will always be partial to their first collaboration. William Goldman’s script can only be described as a fun romp that accentuates the comradery of Butch and Sundance. The musical score by Burt Bacharach with the inclusion of “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” is often at complete odds with what we have come to expect with classic westerns, but that suits the film just fine.
You see this is not your typical western by any means. It’s not supposed to be. Butch and Sundance are working in the twilight of the West. The horse is soon to be replaced with the future: the bicycles. Bank vaults are becoming more complex, fervor for the Spanish-American War is at its peak, and lawlessness is no longer going to be tolerated. Whether people realized it or not, this film is one in a final wave of classic westerns that finally petered out in the 70s. Now the western genre just like the West before it is dead. A dying breed of genre much like film-noir or even musicals.
That’s why Butch Cassidy works for me. People have criticized the constant change in tones, but this story never claims to be the absolute truth, and it would not be the same film if it did. This story of outlaws is not a history lesson but a legend about two infamous bank robbers. There are moments where we love these antiheroes and moments where we do not know quite what to think of them. They become disillusioned and beaten down by the changing times. Their ambush in Bolivia has only one apparent conclusion. It ended in a bloody and violent death. However, we do not have to see that for the sake of the legend of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In one mythical moment, they regained their previous status. They went out as they came in, and they will forever be remembered as Butch and Sundance of the Hole in the Wall Gang. They have since been replaced by superheroes on the silver screen, but in their day and age, they were the original supermen — tarnished as they were.
What is amazing is that the film has not only resonated with audiences for generations, but with the leads themselves who really identified with their roles. That is perhaps the greatest compliment to its characters.