Friday, October 24, 2014

Butch and the Sundance Kid: A Product of Its Time

"Who are those guys?"

Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman)

I have long thought that "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," which premiered on this day in 1969, was a product of its times.

It told the story of a different time and place — the Old West in the 19th century — but from a decidedly contemporary point of view.

The movie came out in the year of the first moonwalk, which involved many kinds of people working together and eschewing individuality to an extent, but it was also a time of nonconformity, of thumbing one's nose at the establishment.

It was hardly surprising that, in such an atmosphere, a movie that glorified the exploits of two outlaws, nonconformists of their day, should be as successful as "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

Roger Ebert had his own take on the movie: It "must have looked like a natural on paper," he wrote, "but, alas, the completed film is slow and disappointing."

I guess that kind of depends on your point of view.

Ebert's point of view was that there were two problems with the movie: "First, the investment in superstar Paul Newman apparently inspired a bloated production that destroys the pacing. Second, William Goldman's script is constantly too cute and never gets up the nerve, by God, to admit it's a Western."

I disagree with both points — to different extents, I guess. I thoroughly disagree with the first point. I disagree with the second point, too — but not entirely, not unreservedly. Yes, there were times when the script was too cute, but most of the time I thought it was clever and funny.

Like the time when Butch and Sundance and Etta (Katharine Ross) arrived in Bolivia, and their destination turned out to be little more than a farm with livestock wandering around. Butch remarked that the whole country couldn't look like that.

"How do you know?" Sundance asked. "This might be the garden spot of the whole country. People may travel hundreds of miles just to get to this spot where we're standing now. This might be the Atlantic City, New Jersey, of all Bolivia, for all you know."

And I still laugh when Sundance refuses to jump from the cliff into the water below because he can't swim.

"Are you crazy?" Butch replies. "The fall will probably kill you."

It's hard to argue with logic like that.

Ross, not too far removed from her appearance in "The Graduate," was their sidekick, and she delivered what I thought was the best monologue in the movie when the subject of whether she would accompany Butch and Sundance to South America came up.

"I'm 26, and I'm single and a school teacher, and that's the bottom of the pit," she said. "And the only excitement I've known is here with me now. I'll go with you, and I won't whine, and I'll sew your socks, and I'll stitch you when you're wounded, and 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."

And she didn't watch them die.

That, of course, came at the end of the movie. But even the audience didn't watch them die, just saw them running into a hail of gunfire.

In spite of Ebert's assessment, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" received seven Oscar nominations and won four. Goldman, by the way, took home one of those Oscars for his screenplay.

Goldman won another Oscar a few years later for his screenplay in another Robert Redford movie, "All the President's Men."