This is about the third time I’ve seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) over the years, and I loved every minute of it! The film is a classic, and it’s classic Paul Newman in arguably his most iconic, loveable anti-hero role.
No doubt, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a product of its times: from the obvious themes of “stickin’ it to the man,” rule breaking, and unconventional romance, this film almost screams 1960s! And if you missed it on TCM last week, you can find it on Amazon.
The film takes place in the 1890s, the last years of the American Wild West. The tone is immediately set when we see our two outlaw, anti-heroes, Butch (Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford), make it out of a couple of tough situations with guns, wit, and humor. There is endless teasing and banter between these two along the way. Our guys make trouble, and get into lots of trouble, but we shouldn’t take any of it too seriously because through it all, Butch and Sundance are having a blast.
Sundance is the fastest gun around, and Butch is a quick-thinker, so it’s a good combination of skills to have if your own gang tries to turn on you, or if you’re robbing a train and the employee guarding the safe is playing hard to get. Both of which happen.
Robbing Trains and Stickin' it to the Man
Butch and Sundance are best buds—they always have each other’s backs—and their respective talents compliment each other to perfection. They are handsome, charismatic, and constantly saying clever things, so we want to watch them.
Butch, Sundance, and the rest of the “Hole in the Wall Gang” are basically robbing Union Pacific trains left and right for the first bit of the film, with a break here and there to visit some ladies of the night, or Sundance’s schoolteacher girlfriend, Etta. Who incidentally seems to have some feelings for Butch and vice-versa. The bicycle scene!!!! Need I say more?
But Butch and Sundance run into some trouble with their crime spree when the Union Pacific Railroad hires a specialized posse to track them down and kill them as payback for all the money they have stolen. The longer the chase goes on, the more serious the boys realize the situation is: if they are caught, they are dead. As a sheriff friend of theirs tells Butch and Sundance while helping them stay on the down low:
“Your times is over, and you’re gonna die bloody. All you get to do is choose where.”
A little bit of tragic foreshadowing maybe????
Off to Bolivia
Butch and Sundance meet back up with Etta, and decide the smartest thing to do is to go to Bolivia. The boys ask Etta to come with them. Etta knows, and so do we, that whatever criminal success they have in Bolivia can’t last forever, and we get a little more tragic foreshadowing when Etta says,
“The only excitement I’ve known is here with me now [meaning Butch and Sundance], so I’ll go with you…I’ll do anything you ask of me except one thing. I won’t watch you die. I’ll miss that scene if you don’t mind.”
The threesome have a great run in Bolivia for a time, successfully robbing several banks despite their comical lack of Spanish. But we know the end is near when Etta says
“I might go back ahead of you.”
and leaves for the USA the next morning.
A Classic, Tragic Western Ending
Ultimately, it’s not the Union Pacific super posse who gets them, though the posse has followed Butch, Sundance, and Etta to Bolivia. It is the Bolivian army that eventually gets our guys, but not without a fight. Butch and Sundance don’t meet their bloody end until they have almost run out of ammo and are completely surrounded. And even then, Butch and Sundance still jump out of cover together, guns blazing and…that’s the end of the film.
We never see them more than slightly bloodied, and we never actually see Butch and Sundance die. It’s as if that would be too tragic, so the image of their death is left to our imaginations. Who knows, maybe they got away? (Ok, totally unrealistic, but we can dream, right?)
Butch and Sundance: An American Second Act
Cassidy scriptwriter William Goldman was a novelist, with such popular books as Marathon Man and The Princess Bride to his name (both of which were made into films). Goldman had been interested in the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid since the 1950s, and researched their lives for almost a decade before writing the Cassidy screenplay:
“The whole reason I wrote the…thing, there is that famous line that Scott Fitzgerald wrote, who was one of my heroes, ‘There are no seconds acts in American lives.’ When I read about Cassidy and Longbaugh [Sundance’s real name] and the superpossee coming after them—that’s phenomenal material. They ran to South America and lived there for eight years and that was what thrilled me: they had a second act. They were more legendary in South America than they had been in the Old West…It’s a great story…It just seems to me a wonderful piece of material.”
And thus the screenplay for one of American cinema’s most iconic films was born.
“John Wayne Don’t Run Away”
The problem was, none of the studios wanted to buy it! Can you imagine?! When Goldman peddled his script to the studios, the unanimous issue studio moguls had with it was that the protagonists run away to South America: Western heroes just don’t do that, they don’t run away. When Goldman argued that that was what really happened, one studio executive reportedly told him,
“I don’t give a sh– –. All I know is John Wayne don’t run away.”
But Goldman stuck to his guns. He kept the fleeing to South America storyline, and merely changed a few pages in the script before taking it back to the studios for a second look. And all the sudden everyone wanted to buy Goldman’s script! In the end, it went to 20thCentury-Fox.
Newman Would be Sundance
Paul Newman was immediately interested in the Cassidy script. He saw a good story, good characters, and just knew the script in front of him was something special. But it wasn’t Butch Cassidy that Newman was interested in playing.
Newman agreed to do the film, assuming he would play the Sundance Kid, with maybe Jack Lemmon taking the Butch Cassidy role. (Jack Lemmon. CAN YOU IMAGINE???!!!! Seems total miscasting to me, but maybe it made sense at the time?!?) Eventually, Cassidy director George Roy Hill broke the news to Newman that he was expected to play Butch. After some back and forth arguing (remember, Paul Newman was nothing if not tenacious!), Newman sat down and re-read the script:
“I went back and read the script that night, and thought, hell, the parts are really about equal and they’re both great parts. So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll be Butch.’”
So Who Would be Sundance?
With Newman now slated to play Butch Cassidy, the search for the perfect Sundance Kid began. Warren Beatty wanted in on the film, as did Marlon Brando. But the studio wasn’t sold on either of these guys. What the studio was interested in was getting the other “King of Cool” in the film, and so Steve McQueen was courted for the role of Sundance. It really looked like it was going to work out—McQueen was interested, and negotiations began.
But then ego got in the way! McQueen reportedly felt a sort of rivalry with Newman, though the two did enjoy a bit of a surface friendship and shared similar interests. When McQueen found out that Newman would get top billing, he said no way. Newman was by far the more established and greater star at the time, so billing was basically non-negotiable. Which meant McQueen was out.
Joanne Saves the Day
You may be surprised to learn that it was Mrs. Paul Newman, the lovely Joanne Woodward, who brought up the name of Robert Redford for the Sundance Kid. Joanne had an eye for talent, had seen Redford’s work, and thought he would be the ideal Sundance. And when Joanne spoke, her husband listened!
As we all know, Robert Redford got the role! Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the film that made Redford a star. (Despite the fact that he had been in several films and even a hit Broadway play (Barefoot in the Park), Redford was not a name to be reckoned with until after Cassidy.)
The casting of Newman and Redford was absolute perfection, (thanks, Joanne!) and no doubt a huge reason why the film did so well and became such a classic. After their pairing in Cassidy, the public would forever clamor for more Newman/Redford films. (Unfortunately it only happened once more, in 1973’s The Sting. Which is also an awesome film, and you should see it!) On the personal level, the Newman/Redford teaming in Cassidy was also a huge success: the film marked the beginning of a great friendship that would last until Newman’s passing in 2008.
The Bicycle Scene!
I know this post is getting long, but I can’t wrap it up without sharing one last thing I found super interesting about the making of the film. The famous bicycle scene, where Katharine Ross and Newman ride the old fashion bike to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head,” was actually a very last minute addition to the film.
Director George Roy Hill decided to add the scene to give the film a little bit more romance, and to better emphasize the love triangle between Butch, Etta, and Sundance. Thank heavens he did! The bicycle scene is one of the highlights of the film. Well, in my opinion. Some thought the scene—especially the song—was out of place. Robert Redford hated it, and B.J. Thomas’ agent regretted ever allowing him to record “Raindrops” for the film, so sure was he that it would spell the end of Thomas’ career. (Boy, was he wrong!)
Director Hill had initially hired a stuntman to do the bike riding for Newman in the scene: it was an old bike, and he didn’t want his star to get hurt pulling stunts! Understandable. But the stuntman was not about to do some of the tricks Hill asked him to do on that old bike, and they argued about it incessantly.
While Hill and the stuntman were having one of their bicycle arguments, Paul Newman breezily rode by, feet on the bike seat, hands on the bars, riding that old bike like it was the easiest thing in the world. As you can probably guess, the stuntman was fired, and Newman did all his own stunts and riding in the scene. (Except for the part where Butch backs the bike into the bull ring. No way was Hill going to let his star get that close to a huge, angry animal!)
Ok, ok, I’m done.
Did any of you watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Did you enjoy it? What parts of the film seemed particularly indicative of 1960s culture to you?
Don’t forget to check out the TCM film schedule for showtimes during this, our last week of Paul Newman films.