Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) — No such thing as too much dynamite

“You just keep thinkin’, Butch. That’s what yer good at.”

Sitting Duck’s rating: Nine out of ten sticks of dynamite in excess of what’s needed.

Sitting Duck’s review: The 1970s and early 1980s were a bad time for Westerns (for my purposes, I’m not counting genre parodies like Blazing Saddles). Many reasons for this have been offered, ranging from the onset of Vietnam War-era cynicism to true masters of the genre (like John Ford and Howard Hawks) no longer being active. Even the aforementioned Blazing Saddles has been seen as part of the problem, making it difficult to take all but the most raw and downbeat Westerns seriously.

Whatever the case, what Westerns that did get released were dominated by Grimdark Edgelord thinking, where it seemed every major character had to be a trigger-happy sociopath to prove how “serious” and “mature” it is. There was also a sort of neo-Calvinist mindset that regarded any sense of joy or fun in a Western with suspicion if not outright hostility. Thus, we were saddled with pointless death marches like Big Jake, pure tedium like The Shootist, and heavy-handed sanctimoniousness like Heaven’s Gate.

So while doing some research, I found it galling that John Boorman is alleged to have claimed that the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid kicked off the decline of the Western. Mind you, we should probably take the opinion of someone who would inflict Zardoz and Exorcist 2: Heretical Boogaloo on an unsuspecting public with at least a shaker of salt. Because if anything, Butch and Sundance was defiantly standing against the encroaching Bolivian army of gloom and woe with a convivial ambience that was so valuable due to its increasing scarcity.

The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang is known for being the terror of Wyoming. Led by Robert Leroy Parker AKA Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and backed by his loyal pard Harry “Sundance Kid” Longbaugh (Robert Redford), they rob banks and trains with impunity in part thanks to the impotence of the local law.

But the times, they are a-changin’, and the West has become a little less wild. Improved security systems are making robberies harder to pull off. And at the end of the day, Butch and his gang are nothing but a bunch of two-bit outlaws whose time is nearly over. This gets hammered in when Union Pacific boss E. H. Harriman, sick of having his trains robbed all the time, hires the best trackers and lawmen money can buy. Their job is to pursue Butch and Sundance and run them down like dawgs until they’re DEAD DEAD DEAD! No trick seems to throw them off the trail for long. They continue their pursuit, never slowing or even speeding up, like some old-timey slasher flick villain.

Butch and Sundance finally get a reprieve when they fake their deaths by jumping off a cliff. However, they realize this is only a temporary measure. So Butch, Sundance, and Sundance’s paramour Etta Place (Katharine Ross) move to Bolivia. With all the mineral wealth in the region being pulled out of the ground, there’s plenty of loot to be had. For a while, the hardest thing for these banditos yanquis is remembering how to say, “This is a robbery,” in Spanish without using a cheat sheet. But can this second lease on a criminal life really last forever?

Director George Roy Hill was reportedly upset when, during a preview screening, the audience just wouldn’t stop laughing at his grand tragedy. And certainly the tale of the slow yet inevitable doom of these two outlaws can be seen as one. But you know what? Most of the great tragedies are known for being as hilarious as even the upper tier comedies. If nothing else, it provides a contrast to all the downbeat moments. And it’s no surprise that the Oscar-winning screenplay was written by William Goldman, who would later gift the world with The Princess Bride.

But what really makes it such a joy is the camaraderie between our title characters in spite of (or perhaps because of) their wildly different personalities. Indeed, without one, the other would probably be pretty helpless. Butch is an affable smooth talker who, despite his profession, has never had to fire a gun in his life. But there are times when words can’t diffuse a hairy situation. In such cases, the loyalty of a stone-cold killer like Sundance can be a real lifesaver. Meanwhile, Sundance is an incredible shot in a gunfight. But without Butch to handle the thinking aspects of a life of crime, he’d likely be just a wandering thug who would have met a long ladder and a short rope some time ago.

There is however one flaw that keeps the movie from getting full marks, and that’s the soundtrack. Through most of the film there’s no background music, and that’s where it’s at its best. Of the three sequences which are scored, two are montages which by their nature require music. The one of them living it up in New York City before departing to South America features a ragtime score which is inoffensive. More grating is the Swingle Singers knock-off group that performs during the Bolivian crime spree montage. I’ve never cared for the a cappella scatting style of the Swingle Singers, and these imitators turn a sequence that already drags a bit into an all-out slog.

The true offender however is a song called “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” The tune and lyrics are bad enough. However, it accompanies this bizarre scene which is a better fit for a Z-grade musical. And if my father is to be believed, that’s kind of the point. He tells me that when he saw it in a theater Back in the Day, the audience was howling with laughter precisely because it was out of place and inappropriate. We’ll just have to chalk it up to the sequence aging like a pop culture reference to a property that gets forgotten in less than a year in a Dreamworks animated film.

Misbegotten joke scene aside, the mere idea that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid caused the decline of the Western is a ludicrous slander. If anything, it was more akin to an allegory for a degeneration that was already occurring which it railed against, however futile the effort may have been.

Didja notice?

  • This story is only mostly true.
  • Going for the nuts isn’t just a girl move.
  • When you have a surname like Woodcock, it’s over for you.
  • Nothing worse than having your attempt to form a posse get undercut by a bicycle sales pitch.
  • What manner of bribery and coercion resulted in “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” winning the Best Song Oscar? Or was the competition just that bad?
  • The New York montage consisted of a mix of vintage photos from the turn of the century and pictures of Newman, Redford, and Ross on the Hello, Dolly! set.

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