Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Review
One of the most brilliantly executed films ever produced, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is absolutely pitch perfect from beginning to end, and stands as a bench mark for buddy movies decades before the term ‘bromance’ was ever invented.
In the very first frames of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid the audience is sucked into a long ago world where the two famed outlaws are already legend. Playing in the corner of the darkened screen is a turn of the 20th century silent film mythologizing the Hole in the Wall gang on one of their daring heists. The fictitious reenactment thus sets the atmosphere for the rest of the film and its own reenactments, making the transitional title card “Most of what follows is true” a tongue in cheek indicator that what follows probably isn’t true at all.
The emphasis on mythology and fiction is carried through the first few scenes by the use of sepia tone photography, which is the traditional look of silent movies. Not until the establishment of the two main characters (Paul Newman as Butch and Robert Redford as Sundance) does the film transition into the gorgeous color cinematography to be used for the rest of the story. The scenes are so absorbing and thoroughly entertaining you may not even notice the exact point where that happens – it’s stunningly seamless. It’s absolutely brilliant how cinematographer Conrad Hall executes the change without calling attention to it or missing a beat. The moment is a simple depiction of two horsemen riding out of the darkness of night into the colorfulness of dawn. MILD SPOILER ALERT: As you might expect, this imagery will make a complete circle.
Hall’s Academy Award winning work on this film is well suited to acclaimed screenwriter William Goldman’s Oscar winning script. Each scene is so well crafted the viewer is carried effortlessly from one scene to the next. Of course nominated director George Roy Hill had something to do with that, as well as the two incredibly charismatic leading men. Everything comes together here so nicely you really can’t watch just one scene without sticking around for the next, and then the next. I know. I’ve tried, but every time this film pops up on cable or wherever, I swear I’m just going to watch for a minute or two, maybe just a favorite scene, and the next thing I know I’ve watched the entire film. That’s because every single scene is a favorite scene.
The film is just that good. It actually boggles my mind that it didn’t win for Best Picture of 1969. That’s not to take anything a way from the year’s winner, Midnight Cowboy, but still, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid really did deserve to win. And it might have except for bearing the stigma of being a Western. It’s hard to imagine now, but for many years the genre was considered a less than honorable format upon which awards were bestowed, let alone nominated. It was, after all, 60 years between the Western’s first Oscar winner, Cimmaron and its next, Dances with Wolves. Sadly, the Western’s popularity was its own demise. With the proliferation of cheap shoot-em-ups throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s the style had relegated itself to the lowly status of “B” pictures. Thanks to films like Unforgiven, Brokeback Mountain, There Will Be Blood, and the remake of True Grit Westerns are now more likely to be nominated for major awards than a dramatic epic.
Awards aside, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is undoubtedly a timeless classic, one that established the standard by which all other ‘buddy pictures’ are measured. A standard that cannot be matched, but rather, only aspired to for two simple reasons: Newman and Redford. I really should say one reason since I refer to the pair as a whole. I don’t care what anyone says, Redford has never been as good as he was when he was with Newman. And Newman was never as adorably carefree as he was with Redford. Oh, he was good, even very good, but with Redford playing the more serious and straightforward character that Newman was usually assigned to, Newman was free to be the lovable goof ball. He had been cast sparingly in similar roles in the past, but he never had Redford to bounce off of before. The combination of the two superstars together is simply magic.
No wonder everyone wanted to recapture that magic four years later with The Sting. And by all accounts Newman and Redford would have liked to work together again and again, but alas, never found another script they liked enough. Of course, the times were changing and buddy movies fell out of favor for a while. But I guess it’s just as well. I mean who’s to say if they could have done it again, and it would have been a shame if they had tried and failed. Instead, we get to enjoy the rarity of the on screen partnership of two outrageously handsome actors made all the more appealing by their natural, even tangible, chemistry. I can’t think of any other two male movie stars who ever made each other look so good by being on the screen at the same time.