Let me state right now that "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" is one of the greatest westerns of all time. It even deserves its place in the top 100 of America's best movies (#73). This writer even rated the film nine stars. It deserves all of them. On the other hand, its heroes are really anti-heroes. Yes they are the criminals, but because they are good-looking and likable and charming and humorous we root for them. But this is not the message of the traditional westerns that were about the noble guys who won in the end (played by William S. Hart, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, John Wayne, etc.) and the dastardly dudes who got what they deserved (real folks like Bill Longley, Black Jack Ketchum, John Wesley Hardin, Ike Clanton, etc.). These bad guys were so unabashedly immoral that people booed them in movie theaters. But for several years before 1969, the framework of the original American Western was transforming. Perhaps movie audiences became bored with the good guys winning. Then there were the attitudes of the counter-culture. So characters of ambiguous morality began to become central; if they still lost at film's end, they at least got sympathy.
Our movie is about the "Wild Bunch," last of the outlaw gangs of the old American West. Its specialty was robbing banks and trains on horseback. But the frontier had closed in 1890, and even the remaining wild western pockets were becoming less of a haven. Not only was the telegraph expanding, but the telephone and automobile were already invented. Civilization and technology were making the old time gunslingers obsolete. The Pinkerton detectives and the Union Pacific Railroad were becoming more resourceful. There were less and less places of refuge, although Butch Cassidy's band did well enough at Hole-in-the-Wall pass (north of Casper in Wyoming).
The feature is finely crafted, although it probably gathers more from the legend rather than from historical fact. There are many wonderful things to enjoy: The gorgeous cinematography of Conrad Hall (filmed in USA/Mexico) and fine Western settings, the music by Burt Bacharach, the script by William Goldman, the direction of George Roy Hill. The film gathered four Academy awards: Cinematography, score, song ("Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head"), and original screenplay. There are quite a few memorable scenes: Opening Thomas Edison Company silent movie that features The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, fancy gun-work by the Sundance Kid in the sepia-toned vignette, Butch and Logan in the knife fight during the gang rebellion, the blown-up express car with flying dollar bills, continuous posse chases, the Newman-Ross bicycle scene, an angry bull, the cliff jump on horseback, the near-botched bank robbery in Bolivia where the two men clumsily attempt to speak Spanish, the ending freeze frame shootout. Although folks get shot in this film, we are spared the endless gore that characterized some filmmakers, like Sam Peckinpah.
The Chemistry between Paul Newman, already a big star, and upcoming Robert Redford is masterful. Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) is the talker, the planner, the brains of the outfit; the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) is silent and brooding, but also quick with a gun. Wittily the two leads play off against one another in a sardonic manner. A third important lead, the lovely Katherine Ross (Etta Place), plays a delightful foil between the two men. By the way, two surviving photographs confirm that the real Etta (Ethel) Place was one of the most attractive females of the Old West. Some of the real gang members are also characters: Harvey Logan (Ted Cassidy), Flat-Nose Curry (Charles Dierkop), and News Carver (Timothy Scott).
Bonus Information: Butch Cassidy (née Robert Leroy Parker), born in 1866, called his gang "The Wild Bunch," not "The-Hole-in-the-Wall Gang." As befitting the grandson of a Mormon bishop, he was affable and eschewed excessive gunplay. "I have never killed a man," he claimed. Butch Cassidy really did blow up a United Pacific railroad express car to smithereens near Wilcox, Wyoming on 2 June 1899. (Employee E.C. Woodcock was staggered, but survived.) Pinkerton agent Charles Angelo Siringo was already hot on the trail. Siringo's name was not used in the movie. Instead we hear Lord Baltimore and Joe Lefors and the United Pacific posse. But it was Charlie Siringo (Siringo knew Lefors) who trailed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (née Harry Alonzo Longabaugh) for 25,000 miles, as he wrote in one of his books. Because of an error by another, Siringo just missed capturing Butch and Sundance. (By the way, Siringo tracked desperadoes from Alaska to Mexico.) In 1900 an attempt at amnesty between Butch and Utah Governor Wells failed. Nevertheless, the Old West was dying, and Butch, Sundance, and Etta Place, after visiting New York City (1901), "relocated" to South America in Argentina. Sundance may have married Etta in December 1900. More than once Sundance and Etta returned to the USA; apparently they attended the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. Pinkerton agent Frank Di Maio, who took over from Charlie Siringo in Argentina, had discovered the exact location of Sundance and Etta, but either a tip or the rainy season ruined his chances of capture. Etta Place returned to the USA for good in 1906/1907; her subsequent history is largely unknown. Butch and Sundance met their eventual demise at San Vincente, Bolivia in November 1908 or at Montevideo, Uruguay in 1912. Flat- Nose Curry, News Carver, and Harvey Logan were already dead. Curry was shot to death by a sheriff in 1900; Carver was killed by lawmen in 1901. To escape capture in 1904 after he had escaped from jail, Logan shot himself. Not mentioned in the movie was William Ellsworth "Elzy" Lay, last of the Wild Bunch. Although he was captured, tried, and sent to prison in 1899, he did a very good deed in jail. So he was pardoned by New Mexico Governor Otero in 1906. Thereafter Lay went straight for the rest of his life; he died in 1934.
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