Charming Rogues in a New Kind of Western: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, directed by George Roy Hill

By Daniel Garrett

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Directed by George Roy Hill
Fox, 1968

Is charm the same thing as character? Is might the same as right? Is popularity an assurance of quality? The answer to all those questions is no; and yet in George Roy Hill’s film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1968), conceived by writer William Goldman, we have the story of charming rogues, a group of bandits, that has been very popular. The film has no purpose other than entertainment, and it received disapproving reviews when it opened, but its enthusiastic and lasting popularity has given the film the status of a classic, subsequently embraced by critics. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a gang of bank robbers led by two gifted outlaws, one a likable planner, the other a quick shot, roles performed by two distinctly talented actors, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, with an ingratiating performance from Newman and a mysterious but intense performance from Redford. It is Newman’s humility that makes the partnership possible. Katharine Ross is Etta, the woman in their lives, a teacher who goes to Bolivia with them when they leave to escape a special posse that has been organized to find and kill the two men. The scene in which Etta goes into a South American bank with Sundance, both respectably dressed, to commit a robbery, which ends with her giddy at the adventure, plays like a silent film comedy. It is a story presented with excellent craft. The film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has a lot of style, in its cinematography, and in its structure; and its landscapes are gorgeous, musical interludes romantic, and it has well-measured pacing. Its use of silent film and black-and-white photographs, tinged sepia, are a nice touch.

The traditional western film is about the safety of the family, the sanctity of community, and the sustaining of the nation; and yes it is about land, money, and the conflict with Native Americans, about violence and war. Is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1968) about anything but charisma and crime? Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has Rio Bravo to its right, and Brokeback Mountain to its left: in the film that preceded Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) starring John Wayne as sheriff, there are camaraderie and affectionate humor among lawmen faced with criminal opposition in the wild west, and the film features a musical interlude sung by deputies Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson; and in the film that followed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), two cowboys whose lives are no longer wild or mythical find surprising but tragic love with each other. (I half-remember a joke about Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and homosexuality, in which Newman is supposed to have said, “As I told Bob Redford, it’s not gonna happen.”) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid does not have the austerity, the rigor, of older western films, nor the more pervasive irreverence (Blazing Saddles) or inclination to repudiation of form and ideals (Heaven’s Gate) of some of the films that followed it. Yet, in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the humor and bright friendship and inclination for personal safety that leads the two bank robbers to run from, rather than face, danger all mark the film as a transitional western, a new vision, one of rare beauty, dangerous charm, and lasting pleasure.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.