I’m not really sure what I was expecting when I sat down to watch this movie, but I have to say it was a delightful surprise. Most westerns from this era have a serious, mythic tone that’s honored here but also deconstructed to really great effect. It takes the idea of the legendary western bandit and shrinks it down to the size of men. This is probably how things really were, the movie wants to say. These criminal masterminds have no more idea what they’re doing than the rest of us.
The movie begins by telling us that at one time Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ruled the West, and then moving into that most classic of Western staples the saloon poker game. Sundance is accused of cheating, a tense stand-off ensues, and the only thing that saves them from a bloodbath is the fear inspired by their reputation. The scene is shot in sepia-tone, to emphasize just how iconic the situation — and its players — are. When they get themselves out of that scrape, they ride off into full-color fields and the real world of their situation.
From there, it’s one trouble after another. First, a member of their Hole-In-The-Wall Gang tries to take over the crew and needs to be put down. Then, an ambitious train robbery brings a little too much heat on them. The tycoon whose wealth their pilfering doesn’t take kindly to being ‘picked on’, and sends an all-star team of trackers and law men after them. Both Butch and Sundance try everything to throw them off the scent, but their reputation catches up with them before too long. I won’t say more than that, but the ending is both surprising and completely logical given what comes before it.
Newman and Redford made their careers with this movie, and it’s easy to see why. Redford is ruggedly handsome as the stoic Sundance Kid, and he serves as a template for what it means to be a self-sufficient man. Newman is instantly, consistently likeable as Butch Cassidy, and even when he makes a mistake (and he makes many mistakes) you forgive him immediately. He’s always one good idea away from being on top again, and he makes it easy to believe that his next one is just what’ll do the trick. They have a chemistry together that’s easy, organic and just sublime; it helps that William Goldman’s screenplay walks this great tightrope of tones, bouncing from great, broad humor to dialogue with a great sense of character to situations that point to the ominous tightening of a noose around our boys. What’s impressive is that even when the situation grows darker the tone remains light. Butch and Sundance never give up, even in the face of shrinking options.
Katherine Ross is pretty good as Etta Place, Sundance’s girlfriend and Butch’s confidant. She serves as something of an alarm clock, making sure the boys stick to their decision once they’ve made it. When they decide to move to Bolivia and rob banks there, she makes sure they know enough of the local language to pull it off. When they decide to do something else, she’s right there to make sure they actually do it. When they bounce back to robbing banks, she finally tires of their indecision. It’s surprising how much her presence is missed during the final part of the movie — she’s a great example of a strong, feminine supporting character with her own ideals. Yet she’s tied up inextricably in the story of these two men without being diminished by it.
When you take a step back to think about the movie as a whole, you see how incredibly lost and almost aimless these two are. They’re both unsure of who they are and what they really want to do, and generally they’re pulled along by what fate does with them. When you get right down to it, they’re fairly reactionary heroes. While it’s true that the narrative is jump-started by Butch’s first bad decision, everything else that happens in the film is a reaction to the consequences. It’s interesting that the film remains so engaging despite that, and I think it’s a testament to Goldman’s writing as well as the wonderful, warm performances from Redford and Newman.
I think the film’s ultimate meaning is that the people who inhabit the stories we tell — especially culled from history — are just people. They may have done extraordinary things, or lasted through extraordinary circumstances, but when you get right down to it they’re just us. They’re confused, scared, shiftless sometimes. They’re also smart, full of life, fun and have the capacity for love. Our greatest heroes — George Washington, Charles Darwin, the Buddha — had lives just as messy as ours. We clean them up for the sake of narrative, and that’s just fine. But it would do us well to remember that. Our mythic, real-life heroes have a lot in their stories that aren’t heroic, or villainous. Just mundane, stupid, quietly sweet like the rest of us.
The movie opens up with an iconic, sepia-toned scene, and it ends with the same sepia-toned image that conforms to our understanding of the western criminal. And make no mistake, all that might have happened. But the reality happened between those old photographs that we make our myths with. Knowing and understanding that enriches our grasp of our myths, and makes people out of them.