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‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’

by Courtney Lanning | June 9, 2023 at 1:50 a.m.
(no cutline needed — lobby card for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)

I think sometimes, maybe especially in modern films, writers and directors tend to underestimate the value of a simple story with compelling leads. There's plenty of room in Hollywood for Christopher Nolans and Denis Villeneuves. I'll happily watch "Oppenheimer" and "Dune: Part Two."

But here's the thing: I just finished watching "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" for the first time, and it reminds me of why I'm such a sap for Westerns. They don't tend to be overly complex in plot, leaving intricacy for the characters to suss out in quiet moments.

That's what I loved about this movie. The story is 54 years old at this point (this fictional account, anyway), so I don't believe I'm spoiling it for anybody. A pair of outlaws with more charisma than bullets run up against their limits, both in what they can extract from the world around them and what the "civilized" people in that world are willing to tolerate.

Paul Newman plays smooth-talker Butch Cassidy, and Robert Redford plays sharpshooter the Sundance Kid. And between them is a woman with more brains than the two outlaws put together. Katharine Ross plays Etta, a woman as beautiful as the landscapes behind our stars in every scene.

Butch and Sundance lead a gang of train and bank robbers. And after hitting the same train too many times, they incur the wrath of the man who owns it, E.H. Harriman. He hires a posse to stick with them until they're dead.

With the world around them growing smaller, and the usual tricks not working, Butch, Sundance, and Etta move to Bolivia and start robbing banks there until their confidence is shattered. Unable to "go straight," the outlaws face a grim future.

Etta returns to America as she mentioned before they left the one thing she would not do is watch the men in her life die. And when their luck finally runs out, that's exactly what happens to Sundance and Butch. They get surrounded and then gunned down by the Bolivian Army in a photographic ending that leaves the brutality of it all to the imagination of the viewers.

I don't think that trick would fly today. It worked for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "Rocky III." But do I believe for a second the MCU or a Bond film could end that way today without audiences blowing a gasket? Not a chance.

But that gets back to what I love about Westerns. Director George Roy Hill didn't need a hefty plot. The entire movie is essentially a giant chase, after all. Sometimes it's lawmen chasing Butch and Sundance. Other times, it's simply their paranoia and the consequences of their actions. And yet, it's still a nearly two-hour chase.

Of course, simplicity in a story places more of a burden on the characters to impress the audience. And man alive did Newman and Redford charm me to kingdom come. I firmly believe that in every scene, just before the camera started recording, they were drenched in a bucket of charisma. Whether they're being funny or dramatic or bickering, these guys come off as two men who love each other to death (maybe literally).

Perhaps what I find most fascinating is what appears to be the depiction of a polyamorous relationship between Etta, Sundance and Butch. And in a time where making movies with nontraditional relationships still somehow seems risky to Hollywood, I'm amazed that a Western from the '60s had this triad front and center.

In more ways than one, this simple story leaves complexity and nuance to its characters. They do the heavy lifting, and they look great doing it among a sea of creative cinematography from Conrad Hall.

"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" offers so much within its runtime. There are plenty of great laughs, like the woman who gets off the train and scolds the outlaws, not taking one ounce of crap from them. And the realization that they can't rob banks in Bolivia if they don't speak enough Spanish to give demands to their hostages.

But there's also a thematic thread of looking down the barrel of a gun that represents the future, the "taming of the West," and "civilization," and simply refusing to move before the trigger is pulled. I think the theme of two men who would rather die horribly in their old ways rather than learn something new is as relevant in 2023 as it was in 1969.

Were it anyone else than Butch and Sundance, I'd call them damn fools. But it's these two, fictionalized outlaws from the romantic (also fictionalized) West. They crack jokes and try not to kill people. So we get to be extra empathetic and long for a spirit that's half as strong as theirs.

I wanted them to go to Australia, but I'd played enough "Red Dead Redemption" to know that was never in the cards. For a film with such a bittersweet ending, I sure did laugh and smile a lot. And I think that's a good accomplishment, then and now, regardless of genre.

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