Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: A film class analysis
What follows here is a genre-based analysis of the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, written for my American Cinema class. Like my previous piece on Terminator 2, this assignment required 2-3 citations from our textbook, and had a fairly strict cap on length. As such it is necessarily incomplete from the standpoint of either a review or a proper analysis, but I still thought it might be interesting to our readers here at A Nerd Occurrence. Please enjoy, but as always if you’re in a film class yourself, please don’t steal from me. Watch the movie, do the work. It’s a lot more fun that way. All citations are taken from the textbook American Cinema, American Culture, by John Belton. It’s a good read if you’re serious about film history and context, I recommend picking it up. Finally, I should warn you that if you’re concerned about spoilers for a 43-year-old movie, this article definitely has some of those.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the highest grossing film released in 1969: at over 100 million dollars it brought in more than the second and third films on the list (Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider) combined. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, and won four of them. It paired two major leading actors, starring Robert Redford as Sundance and Paul Newman–an absolute mega-star at the time–as Butch. It’s a great film, but one I would be unable to recommend to most Western fans without a caveat or two. The modern dialogue, contemporary pop songs featured on the soundtrack, and overall lighthearted nature make it unique within its genre.
In contrast with traditional westerns, the outlaws are the clear-cut good guys in this story. Butch Cassidy is a consummate dreamer, one minute thinking of relocating to Bolivia and the next considering enlisting in the Army. His partner Sundance is more of a traditional old-west gunman, with the exception that his skills are more often put to use with harmless displays of trick shooting. Although they are stick-up men, it’s never a moral issue; this is simply how they make a living. Butch at one point even remarks “If he’d just pay me what he’s spending to make me stop robbing him, I’d stop robbing him”. Sundance’s female companion is the schoolteacher Etta Place (Katharine Ross), who never seems to question the duo’s life of crime. Early on in the film there’s an extended sequence of Etta riding a bicycle with Butch, set to the cheery song “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”: hardly the typical outlaw setup for a Western.
Regardless of this role-reversal, the characters and events depicted here have deep roots in cinematic history: “The popularity of the silent Western began with The Great Train Robbery (1903), which reenacted a famous robbery by Butch Cassidy” (p242). And this film does feature train robberies, two of them in fact. Butch and his gang decide to rob the Union Pacific train twice in a row, something that’s never been attempted before. But since they are the good guys in this narrative, nobody gets hurt in the act–they pull off both without firing a shot. Even the liberal use of dynamite to get at the money leaves the unlucky man tasked with guarding it relatively unharmed. Everything goes along smoothly until Butch and Sundance discover the man in charge at Union Pacific was none too thrilled to get robbed the first time around. Another train arrives during the second heist, bearing a single car which opens to unleash five men on horseback: a posse tasked with bringing Butch and his gang to justice.
“The Western is defined, in large part, in terms of its setting” (p253). As Butch and Sundance flee their pursuers across forests, plains, mountains, canyons, and rivers, the film is at once closest to and furthest from the traditional cinematic Western. The on-location shots are incredible, and rival the mood-setting landscapes of anything else in the genre. On the other hand, these cross-country pursuits are typically seen from the lawman’s point of view. Westerns are filled with expert trackers, able to read every broken twig and hoof print. Here the trackers are rarely more than blurry shapes in the distance, their tracking prowess unexplained to the point of being almost supernatural. At one point Butch looks back on their pursuers, asking the question we’re all thinking during these scenes: “I couldn’t do that. Could you do that? How can they do it? Who are these guys?”.
The posse of trackers is so inescapable that after several failed attempts to elude them, Butch and Sundance have no choice but to flee with Etta to Bolivia, acting on a plan that Butch posited earlier in the film. Once there, they of course resume stealing money in an entertaining and harmless fashion. Their first attempt is foiled when they realize that they don’t know how to rob a bank in Spanish, which is followed by an entertaining collection of scenes in which Etta teaches them a series of robbery-specific lines. The language lessons work (although Butch still uses a cheat-sheet), and the two soon become as notorious in Bolivia as they were in America.
This notoriety leads them to seek work in a less populated locale, and in an ironic turn of events they take jobs protecting payroll deliveries. The payroll is stolen, leading Butch and Sundance to finally perform their first act of on-screen violence. After the two gun down a group of Bolivian bandits, Sundance remarks “Well, we’ve gone straight. What do we try now?”. In cinematic Westerns, “the hero was quite frequently identified with the violent world against which he was pitted” (p248). But in this film of role-reversals and contradictions, it is not until the criminals take on legitimate work that they are forced into violence.
As the film draws to a close, Butch and Sundance are holed up inside a building, low on ammo and surrounded by Bolivian law enforcement, who have finally caught up to them in force. They succeed in holding off the police, but when the military show up they have no choice but to step outside and meet their fate in a hail of gunfire. I hesitate to single out the ending of an otherwise good film as a negative point, respecting that good writers and directors have their reasons for ending things the way they do. But here the ending is a singularly unsatisfying moment cribbed entirely from 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. It may have historical truth, but in the context of a film that has done nothing but set up the main characters as heroes, it seems incredibly out of place.