VOD film review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Simon Kinnear | On 08, Jul 2015
Director: George Roy Hill
Cast: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross
Watch Butch Cassidy online in the UK: Disney+ / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Apple TV (iTunes) / Google Play
By rights, it shouldn’t have worked. When Hollywood makes something as in vogue as Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid was in 1969, with its recasting of Wild West myth as knockabout counter-cultural comedy, its Burt Bacharach soundtrack and its blue-eyed A-list stars, it should be insufferable. Yet you can’t knock a mainstream film this bursting with such nonchalant invention – sometimes, ‘now’ lasts forever.
George Roy Hill’s direction has a canny sense of marrying the late 1960s to the turn-of-the-century heyday of Butch and Sundance… and, by extension, the history of the Western on film. It is full of old-fashioned visual trickery: the silent movie of the Hole in the Gang that opens the film; the initial use of sepia-tinged cinematography; the photo montage… Each has the alluring pull of nostalgia but without the pomposity; every gimmick is cheekily done, even as Conrad Hall’s sun-kissed cinematography infuses events with genuine romanticism.
Similarly, William Goldman’s screenplay is almost blasphemous in its reprinting of the old John Ford legend, as it fuses extensive historical research (yes, they really did go to Bolivia) with a wry, contemporary ‘benefit of hindsight’ viewpoint. There are no John Wayne heroics here; just two scoundrels looking no further than the next score, surviving on charisma alone. The film tries to pretend that time has overtaken them, their outlaw ways a thing of the past – and yet as written they are years ahead of their time, cynical city folk whose troubles tend to happen when they’re out in the wild.
One way of reading the film’s extended mid-section is that the posse on their trail – “Who are those guys?” – are a Fordian supergroup come to reclaim their genre, in which case Butch and Sundance’s survival marks the transition to the age of the buddy movie, where whipsmart banter replaces the gun as weapon of choice. It’s here that Newman and Redford come into their own, playboys so unruffled by their plight that they prefer to throw wry barbs at one another than risk facing their foes. It’s a casual saunter of a film; as Sundance remarks in one of Goldman’s ace lines, “Is that what you call running? If I knew you were going to stroll…”
What’s really remarkable, though, is how similar this is to The Wild Bunch, the other film of 1969 in which a gang is hunted down, forced to head abroad and is then outgunned in a massacre – and, ironically, named after Cassidy’s real-life gang. Sam Peckinpah had the sense of honour to play his chosen genre by its own rules; its innovations are an evolution of the American Western. But Hill and Goldman show that there is more than one way to rob a bank. It’s a rare occasion when taking the cosy route – from slapstick bicycle shenanigans to freeze-frame preservation – actually feels like the radical artistic choice. Thematically, this is superficial, but its insouciance is its raison d’être, a reminder that it takes nerve to find fresh ways of entertaining people.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is available on Disney+ UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.