Given that I placed this particular film high on my recent Western post, one that was part of my AFI Top 10 arc, it inspired me to take in another time with the ageless work that is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (again, part of the Autry Museum’s film series). Besides being the initial platform for a legendary pairing of two one-of-a-kind actors, George Roy Hill‘s film embodied the classic theme of outlaws in changing times. Along with possessing some of the best and most quotable dialogue around, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid remains one of my all-time favorite films. Like Unforgiven, it doesn’t matter that it’s also a Western. I never tire of it. I consider this 1969 film as the unexpected bookend piece to another preferred western, one that come out a few months earlier: Sam Peckinpah‘s The Wild Bunch. Though quite different, most strikingly in their polar opposite use of humor and violence, in my opinion they’re forever linked in splendid execution, theme, and by their memorable finales.
Yes, they’re timeless “oaters”, but like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, each brought something familiar, but oh so different to this well-worn genre when they were released. Furthermore, they were clear reflections of their directors, screenwriters, and their period. A study in their contrasting natures would be well worth a read, I reckon. But, I’m going to concentrate on Butch & Sundance. The following are my thoughts on what made a handful of the specific movie elements, when added together, so special in such a great film. So, what are these unique, everlasting and special aspects in this western, you ask? For me, this film contains not one, not two or even three, but four scene/sequences that fit into what could almost be considered best of show categories — and I can’t think of any other film at the moment with this combination.
note: spoiler warning, I will discuss and cover segments in the film that reveal parts of the story, if you’re not seen this quintessential work.
Remember, this was the late ’60s. And director George Roy Hill is not James Cameron (I’ll leave it to you to argue if this is a good or bad thing). So, no CGI need apply. It’s pure analog stunt work or nothing. And we’re adults here, so we are all well aware those are not Paul Newman and Robert Redford standing in front of that exploding train car. However, two real stunt men did — with only unmanned, barricaded camera setups for company right behind them. And they took the full force of the blast, and those fast-moving wood shards/splinters with little protection. The fact that it’s balsa wood matters little since the force of the blast could injure you alone. And no one died, or at the very least badly hurt. UN… REAL.
Side note #1: I think many take this western for granted. The film’s use of humor throughout tends to overshadow the fact it still embodied “… the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier.”, to use AFI’s own definition of the genre. Over the years since its release, references and clips from the film have been shown over and over in the media and online. To the point it reached parody level. I distinctly remember a ’70s car commercial (though I can’t recall the auto maker at the moment) that used the next specific element I cite below as a selling point. But I guess, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Some have either forgotten it altogether, or are too young to have picked up on it and viewed or understood its caliber.
“Whatever they’re selling, I don’t want it.”
In my opinion, this is one of the best and surprising chase sequences in film history. And disarmingly, it followed the audacious stunt I cited above, that of the train car explosion. The scene immediately re-grouped and moved the lead characters from that high comedic and flabbergasting moment to one of serious dread. The fact that it entered by way of a black-smoke churning train (the symbol of frontier expansion and technological advance) signaled the beginning of the end for those hanging on to the fringes of the past — the cowboy and the outlaw.
Notice that the audience, along with the characters, never glimpse any of the locomotive’s crew. Its framing and staging are meant to represent the faceless, remorseless application of technology — of scientific knowledge corralled to a specific and deadly serious purpose. Even when its threatening payload is released, it’s without any human interaction, seemingly. Nor do you ever see close-ups of those deployed against our heroes. They are faceless men given a grim task for pay by those who own the new resources.
Merely cogs in the machinery. The entire chase sequence lasted for an unheard amount of 30 minutes in the film! This was one of the unanticipated, and best, things in this western. One filled with so many of them, and they didn’t even need a high-speed movie car rocketing the streets or CGI’d robots to accomplish it all.
Side note #2: As my good friend, and very much missed, fellow blogger Corey Wilde once noted, famed author and screenwriter William Goldman won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Material Not Previously Published or Produced for this. Meaning, it was original, and more than merely good. Which in my book, remains high praise indeed and a worthy accolade (especially since the U.S. film industry of late is risk-adverse and seemingly only wanting to promote previous successful foreign work in remakes). Besides winning for writing (and music), the contribution of another favorite of mine, cinematographer Conrad Hall (who I cited in my Tequila Sunrise guest post at Flixchatter last year) also took home a well-deserved Oscar for his work, here. Director George Roy Hill, though nominated, didn’t win for his helming of BCatSK (but would later for another awesome film). Still, that didn’t prevent him, along with Goldman and Hall, from having the grand impact they did in this film, cinematic history, and in the element I praise next.
“That settles it! This place gets no more of my business…”
You can absolutely nail all the technical aspects and deftly choreograph the staging in an action sequence, and that’ll merely make it good. Nonetheless, to make it great I believe it has to hit a higher, more rarefied, mark. The audience has to care about the outcome. I’m not talking about eliciting tears (though, they could be a byproduct when those on the screen mean something to you). No, those who’ve been watching have to picture themselves there in the scene; right in the very midst of it all. Somehow, catching their breath at a customary moment with the characters, and all within the actions occurring before them onscreen. Plus, most importantly, not losing their way while the characters are in motion. The director, stunt coordinator, cinematographer, and screenwriter (because dialogue can/does enhance the motion in play) have to be in-sync, completely, to pull this off in a grand manner.
And, all of this was done wonderfully so in BCatSK’s best action sequence that was the final shootout. Observe, in this climatic portion of the film, it was the one foreshadowed by Sheriff Bledsoe’s (Jeff Corey) judgement earlier in the picture. By the way, if this is not a real historical person, then it is a very deft name-play by the wordsmith Goldman. I’m just sayin’. Unexpectedly funny, tension-filled, and ultimately poignant, the sequence makes great use of the act of physically reloading a six-shooter. Those natural pauses in the goings-on only had the effect of heightening the scene’s suspense. Also, bear in mind what the film editors (John C. Howard and Richard C. Meyer) accomplished with this segment. As good as it was all around in pacing, they culminated the excerpt brilliantly with the rhythmical use of gun reports to cap it. The result is an action sequence that is simply memorable.
Side note #3: As I begin to close out this article on my admiration for the classic 1969 western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it really does seem like it was only yesterday when I saw this first run at a theater. That October (the month of its U.S. release), I was barely a first year sophomore in high school (which at that time for L.A. City schools was a three-year stint for students). And seemingly, everybody then was talking about the pairing of the old pro (Paul Newman) and the up-and-comer (Robert Redford) — at least that’s how it appeared in the central train station of family life that was my grandmother’s home. None of my mother’s siblings ever missed a film with Newman in it. Looking back at it now, it does seem presumptuous to think at the then age of 44, the old pro had reached a plateau (or worst, the start of a decline).
Perhaps, some thought he couldn’t have a better character than that of Cool Hand Luke (or reminded themselves that The Hustler was now eight years removed). You see, Hollywood’s obsession with youth is decades old. Little did those folk know, some of Newman’s best work lay ahead of him (Sometimes a Great Notion, Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Sting, Slap Shot, and certainly The Verdict), and started right here.
Equally, those same pre-judging sentiments pigeon-holed Robert Redford (as they did Newman earlier in his career) because of his good looks. Keep in mind, Redford got this role when Steve McQueen dropped out due to a top-billing issue. Still, he was always a better actor than he was given credit for up to that time, and he made the most out of this opportunity. Plus, it was in this pairing in BCatSK that opened more people’s eyes to that fact.
While Redford would rise in status and become a ‘bankable’ star afterward (Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, The Sting, Three Days of the Condor, etc.), the film also made clear that Newman had yet reached a respite. With the Men in Black series back in theaters this summer, it reminds me of Men in Black II‘s Agent J trying to school his mentor K about “the new hotness” (versus his “old and busted”). I can imagine what my mother and her sisters would say about Paul Newman during this span, if not stating the obvious:
Old, busted hotness.
Freeze Frame Ending
I don’t know if the filmmakers knew what they faced in bringing this tale to a close when they filmed it. In outliving their era, in true outlaw fashion, the classic changing times theme dictated all things must pass. By this time, we certainly knew how Peckinpah would do it. But this was not the last of the hard men ensemble from The Wild Bunch. How then for these two — the pair the audience laughed, fretted, and suffered with? Here again, writer William Goldman foreshadowed it all. As I mentioned previously, early on the Bledsoe persona predicted the sequence of how it would end for Butch and Sundance. But, it’s the character of Etta Place (Katharine Ross) who was the harbinger for how it would come to a close on the big screen — for her and the audience that cared for these rogues:
“I’m 26, and I’m single, and a school teacher, and that’s the bottom of the pit. 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.”
“The alternate ending actually shows us their gruesome deaths and their bodies being dragged away-which somewhat undercuts the brilliant blaze-of-glory ending. Less is so much more.” ~ Movieseum
And so the film ends, with emphasis on those last two sentences, and one of the most remembered freeze frame finales in modern film history. The key facet here is the fact the audience misses that scene (though we all know and can imagine what happens as we hear the staccato of rifle volleys as they echo and fade out as it all comes to a close). In film terms, it’s crucial to realize what a freeze frame denotes,
“… the illusion of a still photograph in which the action has ceased; often used at the end of a film to indicate death or ambiguity, and to provide an iconic lasting image”
You might as well add, refer to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And when you go searching for this image on the web, the one above is what you typically find as representing this classic moment in cinema (it’s on the movie poster at the top of the post, and later DVD/BD covers, too). But, that’s really not that actual frame from the film. I reckon this photo had to be part of released publicity stills for the movie (since the angle and the aspect ratio are all wrong). Although, Filmsite.org does have the real shot, it’s way too small. So for this article, I grabbed it off of my computer screen to give it justice:
And, in reality it’s not just one shot, it is actually three. This screen cap is only the initial (color) version of that frame.
The frozen image then transitions into sepia tone, which recalls how the movie all began…
… and finally, it deceptively pulls back to reveal itself quite simply for what it is. The entire scene, like the film, is only a small part of a much larger picture.