100 Days, 100 Movies: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Day Two of my ongoing project to watch all +100 movies on the AFI 100 Years 100 movies list, which lists the greatest American films of all time (or up to 2007 at any rate).

Today we continue our adventure with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which placed #50 on the 1998 list and #73 on the 2007 list.

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Here’s the film’s IMDB page if you want more info. Here’s the synopsis from imdb, too: “Two Western bank/train robbers flee to Bolivia when the law gets too close.” Man, these synopses are terse…I mean, that IS the gist of the plot, but there’s also a romantic subplot and the bromance. The humor. Basically, there’s a lot more to this movie than that synopsis might suggest.

I adore the screenwriter of this film, William Goldman (who also wrote The Princess Bride) so this has been sitting in my Netflix queue for awhile. I’ve avoided watching it, though, because of the ending. (Which was why I avoided Casablanca too…are we sensing a pattern?). I recently read Goldman’s Adventure in the Screen Trade memoir where he talks in depth about making this film. That book bumped the movie up higher in my queue because I was curious. One thing Goldman talks about is wanting to make a different Western, and a different film in general. From the very beginning Goldman’s intention was to show these two guys are different, special. Their friendship is something different too. Having now watched the film I think Goldman definitely succeeded in this.

The word that kept occurring to me during this film was “control.” What I mean by that is: this film is really well put together. There’s no fat, no extraneous stuff. All the scenes and moments that are there are there with intent. It all needs to be there, it all pays out by the end. I think this is also the sort of film that doesn’t get made anymore, truly. For instance, the scene where Newman and Ross take a ride on the bicycle? I think nowadays the studio would want that scene cut, they wouldn’t see the point or they’d try to play up a love triangle. And that scene’s one of the most iconic moments from American cinema and a fantastic, tender moment for the characters. The quiet moment between chaos. It really helps emphasize what an oasis Etta’s presence is for both men.

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I really (and unsurprisingly) love the chemistry between Newman and Redford. Two grown men who bicker like an old married couple. Fabulous. I recently watched the Inside the Actors Studio episodes they each did (separately) and they both talked about how this film sparked a lifelong friendship between them. You can see the seeds of that in this film. Redford said he always need something “chemical” with a leading lady to really sell a romance onscreen. I think he obviously had something “chemical” with Newman, too.

Which isn’t to say the romance between Redford and Katharine Ross doesn’t get some great moments too. The scene where he makes her undress at gunpoint is one of the sexiest things I’ve seen in a long time. And that scene has no nudity at all, thank you very much. Less really is more and the most important aspect of a sex scene is the emotional one. This film is a whole exercise in that really: small, intimate moments and realizations are favored over huge shootouts and spectacle.

OK, so I talked about it at the beginning, how do I feel about the ending? Well, it’s the same thing as Casablanca. We’re told halfway through the film that they’re going to “die bloody.” They can only choose how. It would feel like a cheat to have them riding off safe into the sunset with Etta. It can’t happen. Not for these two. I think the way the film ends with a freeze frame on the two of them, guns drawn, fighting, together is perfect. We, like Etta, don’t have to watch them die. But we do get the closure. We know they die but we don’t have to see it. And, really, these two guys are so wry and sarcastic having to watch them do a real death scene would just be so bleak. Too bleak.

As a side note, I think Goldman in general likes the “unfinished”, an ending in motion. Take The Princess Bride: We don’t actually see them safe and sound. They’re on horses, riding away from danger. But will they make it? Humperdink’s not dead. Are they really safe? We don’t know. I think this is a pattern in his work.

Anyway, back to Butch and Sundance…

What did I learn from this movie? Less is more. Sometimes if you can really make the small, intimate moments pay out then you don’t need big bangs and shootouts. Make your characters stand out. Make them unique. Show the audience a dynamic they’ve never seen before.

Can I see why this movie has become a classic? Yes. It has a unique point of view, compelling characters, great plot, adventure, excitement, romance. Killer dialogue. Newman and Redford, two of the most gorgeous men EVER and this is them when they were both in their prime…I’d be more shocked if it wasn’t classic. It really does have everything going for it.

Favorite moment from the film? One of those quiet moments I’ve been rhapsodizing about. Butch and Sundance have spent the last several days on the run from the Super Posse. They jump off a cliff to evade pursuit (the famous “Oh shit!!!!” fall they always show from this movie.) They finally make it back to the relativity safety of the town where Sundance’s lover, Etta, lives. Butch goes inside to read the paper, leaving Sundance and Etta alone…

Etta Place: They said you were dead.

Sundance Kid: Don’t make a big thing out of it.

[She starts past him, he grabs her arm and pulls her back.]

Sundance Kid: No, make a big thing of it.

[They hold each other.]

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This bit’s good too:

[Butch just rode with Etta on his bicycle]

Sundance Kid: Hey, what are you doin’?

Butch Cassidy: Stealin’ your woman?

Sundance Kid: [pause] Take her.


Sundance Kid: Take her.

Butch Cassidy: Well, you’re a romantic bastard, I’ll give you that.

Really all the dialogue is pretty amazing. Goldman really is one talented son of a bitch.

Overall Rating: ***** (I loved it)

For tomorrow: The African Queen


2 thoughts on “100 Days, 100 Movies: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

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