In 1969, two important westerns came out examining the end of the Wild West in very different ways. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch was a blood-soaked elegy to its aging protagonists who found themselves increasingly marginalized in a world that was passing them by. George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid also featured bank robbers finding it increasingly harder to ply their trade albeit in a lighter vein, emphasizing the undeniable chemistry between its two lead actors, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Screenwriter William Goldman and director Hill helped create a classic buddy action film that would shape and influence the genre for years to come.
Infamous outlaws Butch Cassidy (Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Redford) have spent their careers robbing banks with their Hole in the Wall Gang. Butch is the smart one who plans all the jobs they do while Sundance is the man of action. Sundance tells him, “You just keep thinking, Butch. That’s what you’re good at,” to which he responds, “Boy, I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” Times are changing, however, and it has become harder to be a criminal. Now that they are legends Butch and Sundance have become well known with the authorities. It is also getting tougher to rob banks as they now have more security.
Even one of the guys in their Hole in the Wall Gang challenges Butch’s leadership – a rather large, imposing man (Ted Cassidy). This scene sets the tone for the first half of the film and also tells us a lot about Butch and Sundance. The former keeps talking as a way of stalling until can figure out a way to beat his physically superior opponent. The latter simply stays quiet but his intense look implies that if Butch gets in any kind of real trouble he’ll step in as evident in the amusing exchange between them before the showdown. Butch tells Sundance, “Listen, I don’t mean to be a sore loser but, uh, when it’s done – if I’m dead – kill him,” to which Sundance replies, “Love to.” He then turns and gives Butch’s opponent a wave and flashes his iconic smile. It is this moment of levity before an action sequence that would be imitated most by subsequent buddy action movies.
After robbing the same train twice, Butch and Sundance are pursued by a posse of determined lawmen. Their introduction is a mythic one as we never get a clear, up-close view of these men but they are always in pursuit, killing off two of the Hole in the Wall gang members right away like an inhuman killing machine. Butch and Sundance are doggedly pursued over rugged terrain, desert, rivers, rocky ground and dangerous rapids, day and night for miles. It is downright spooky as we never lose sight of the posse. It is like they are in the background of every scene. They never stop and rest, even traveling at night with the aid of lanterns. Butch tries all kinds of ways to evade them but to no avail, which unnerves the unflappable outlaw. It is also unsettling for us because, up to this point in the film, we’ve see Butch and Sundance gleefully stick it to The Man but as this super posse continues their relentless pursuit, Butch actually looks worried. The posse are the literal embodiment of progress as the years of robbing banks has finally caught up to the film’s protagonists.
Chemistry is crucial in a film like this and Newman and Redford have it right from the get-go as evident when Butch tries to talk Sundance out of a showdown with a card player who accuses the latter of cheating. It looks like they are going to have it out with guns until Butch calls Sundance by name and the other man, realizing who they are, backs down. Newman and Redford’s comic timing is superb and they work so well together. They are believable as long-time friends in the way they banter and bicker with each other – courtesy of Goldman’s razor-sharp screenplay – like when they jump off a cliff into water to evade the posse. Sundance refuses as he can’t swim. Butch laughs and points out, “The fall’ll probably kill ya!” The comedic interplay between these two actors, coupled with the action-oriented misadventures they find themselves getting into would later become a very popular template for buddy action films in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The one jarring sequence that seems out of place in the film is when Butch and Sundance’s girlfriend Etta (Katharine Ross) ride around on a bicycle to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” a contemporary song written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach and recorded by B.J. Thomas. This whimsical song feels out of place in the film. There are already many comedic moments all of which are much better than this one. It feels like the filmmakers needed more scenes with Etta in it and came up with this scene but it comes across as unnecessary and wouldn’t be missed if it was taken out.
In the mid-1960s, William Goldman was a novelist making ends meet teaching creative writing at Princeton University. He was in-between projects and decided to write a screenplay about legendary outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, whom he had been interested in since the 1950s. He was taken with their adventures, the fact that Butch didn’t kill people and the rumor that the duo survived a shoot-out in Bolivia. What really crystallized things for him was the famous line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon – “There are no second acts in American lives.” Goldman’s research proved otherwise when it came to Butch and Sundance. According to the writer, the two men “ran to South America and lived there for eight years and that thrilled me: They had a second act.”
Goldman shopped his script around Hollywood with little success. He worked on it further and in the meantime, wrote the screenplay for the Paul Newman detective film Harper (1966). He visited the actor on location in Arizona while he was filming Hombre (1967) and told him about Butch and Sundance. Weeks later, fellow actor and friend Steve McQueen called Newman up in November 1967 raving about the script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and that they should make it together. Both men agreed to buy the script themselves but it had already been sold to 20th Century Fox. Newman figured that was it until studio chief Richard Zanuck asked him to star in it. The studio then hired George Roy Hill to direct. He was coming off the incredibly successful musical Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967).
When Newman first read Goldman’s screenplay he loved it and envisioned playing the role of Sundance. The writer had always imagined Jack Lemmon for the role of Butch but he was no longer a right fit for the film. Hill assumed Newman would play Butch but when they first met the actor went on about Sundance – his motives and changes to lines in the script. A confused Hill told Newman that he was to play Butch. The actor disagreed and then re-read the script that night and realized, “the parts are really equal and they’re both great parts. So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll be Butch.’”
Warren Beatty heard about the script and wanted to do the film but when he heard that Newman was going to play Butch he wanted to play the character. He even claimed he could get Marlon Brando to play Sundance but when he got the script the actor wanted to play Butch as well! McQueen still wanted to play Sundance. He liked the script but was unhappy that Newman, the bigger earner and more impressive filmography, would receive top billing. When told of McQueen’s issue with billing, Newman refused to relinquish first star billing.
This cleared the deck for Robert Redford, who, at the time, was a rising star thanks to guest spots on television shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, and was coming off the critically and commercially successful Barefoot in the Park (1967). He was acting on Broadway when he got the script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and was wary as he suspected that he was being used to lure a bigger co-star for Newman. Redford’s agent, Goldman and others kept after him to read the script and meet Newman, which he did. They talked about everything but the film and Redford said, “We didn’t really need to, because right away there seemed to be this understanding that I would make the picture.”
Redford, Newman, Katharine Ross, Goldman, and Hill got together for two weeks of rehearsals in September 1968, which Newman loved. “What George did from the rehearsals onward was allow us to run with the script, to just go nuts, then nurse the whole shebang in the direction he wanted, which was original and visionary.” Filming began on September 16 in Durango, Colorado. Right from the start there was a brotherly relationship between Newman and Redford with the former playing on the difference in experience between them to create memorable moments that weren’t in the script. Hill said, “I played off Newman’s history and Redford’s newness. Up till then, Paul was known as the hard rebel loner of Hud or Cool Hand Luke. Bob was a blank sheet of paper. For the movie we made them goofballs, and because that was so fresh in context of what we were doing, it won over the audience.” During filming in Mexico, Redford and Newman bonded over drinks and playing Ping-Pong. They also played practical jokes on each other and engaged in good-natured trash-talk.
When the production relocated to Los Angeles to film the bicycle-riding scene that Hill added at the last minute to create a love triangle between Butch, Sundance and Etta, the director hired a stuntman and they argued that the vintage bike wouldn’t withstand the trick riding. While they argued Newman rode by standing on the bicycle seat, his hands on the handlebars. The stuntman was fired and Newman did his own riding in the scene.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did not fare well with critics of the day. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby said it had “gnawing emptiness,” while Pauline Kael complained that it left her “depressed…and rather offended.” Time magazine felt that Redford and Newman were "afflicted with cinematic schizophrenia. One moment they are sinewy, battered remnants of a discarded tradition. The next they are low comedians whose chaffing relationship—and dialogue—could have been lifted from a Batman and Robin episode.” Even Roger Ebert felt it was “slow and disappointing.” Regardless, it performed very well at the box office, grossing $102 million and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning four: Best Original Screenplay, Original Song, Original Score and Cinematography.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came along at just the right time. 1969 was a year of change. People were still reeling from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy as well as the Manson family murders during the summer of ’69 with Altamont just around the corner, all of which helped put an end to the Flower Power Generation and the idealism of the ‘60s. People wanted to feel good about something again and this film offered them a brief respite from what Hunter S. Thompson called, “the grim meat-hook realities” in his book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid laments the loss of an era with the Wild West acting as a metaphor for the ’60s. In some respects, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the brother film to Easy Rider (1969), which also signaled the end of an era where the two main characters meet a violent end. They were a product of and defined by the times in which they were made. Butch and Sundance’s refusal to go quietly spoke to audiences. Their end was a more palatable version of Easy Rider for mainstream audiences that weren’t ready for the radical nature of that film or their two lead actors. Redford and Newman, on the other hand, were clean-cut all-American actors that the public knew they’d be safe going to see as opposed to the “damn dirty hippies” that Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda represented.
At one point, Butch says to Sundance, “Every day, you get older. Now that’s the law.”
They represent a dying breed: outlaw cowboys who find it increasingly harder to ply their trade. They are getting older and aren’t as fast and as tough as they used to be. And they are starting to feel it. Times are changing. Banks are getting harder to rob. Butch’s solution is to keep outrunning progress but eventually it catches it up to them at the end of the film. After the Summer of Love in ’67, the Hippies tried to hold on to it but time keeps moving on and you can’t stop it.
Feeney Callan, Michael. Robert Redford: The Biography. Vintage. 2012.
Levy, Shawn. Paul Newman: A Life. Three Rivers Press. 2009.
“The Making of a Movie Classic.” Life magazine. September 2019.