The Friendship Flick | Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid At 50

“Seeing that reminds me of my good friend Paul and the sadness I feel at his loss.” – Robert Redford

Fifty years has passed since George Roy Hill’s (The World According to Garp) multi-award winning Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The movie is a retelling of the lives of actual figures from history, a pair of outlaws Robert LeRoy Parker (Butch Cassidy) and his partner Harry Longabaugh (Sundance Kid). In the movie the dialogue at times is flat, becoming increasingly unbelievable as the film rolls out. The premise is unlike any other spaghetti western from the time, quite simply it is a story of running away, not cowardice as such, but on a level of self-preservation. As the movie follows the outlaws after a robbery which sees the law hot on their trail, instead of standing their ground they take flight to Bolivia to ‘go-straight’. This twist was at the time a point which garnered a lot of negative critical attention. Of course the end of the movie takes a further twist as only at that point do the protagonists face overwhelming odds and death.

On the surface the movie should not work, should not be remembered fondly except for the three undeniably sublime factors which exist within Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The first two factors are the lead actors, Robert Redford (Sundance), and Paul Newman (Butch). Both actors have a chemistry which is effervescent throughout the movie and translates to the audience. Making what very well could be a mundane outing into a work of memorable brilliance. The third factor is that soundtrack by the sixties maestro Burt Bacharach, which forms the perfect background to the character’s adventures. Music which displays perfectly the camaraderie between the actors, and at times an innocence which is lost in outings of the same caliber.

As the movie unfolds, the likable qualities of both characters stand out. In reality, Butch Cassidy Aand the Sundance Kid combined the already popular spaghetti western genre and injecting it with the subgenre of the ‘buddy comedy’. How the movie would fare without Redford is debatable as that aforementioned chemistry may not have translated with such an impact. Although Paul Newman was enthusiastically cast early on, the search for a co-star did not happen overnight. At one time Dustin Hoffman and even the A-listed Steve McQueen were touted for the project. However, McQueen was a non-runner, without the conditional top billing it was never going to happen, and allegedly that is why his people turned it down. Newman, meanwhile, was at the top of the Hollywood food chain, flying high on the back of successful outings such as The Hustler (1961) and Cool Hand Luke (1967). By all accounts he was more than satisfied with his second billing to the relatively unknown Redford. On set the two quickly became friends. When Redford wanted to do his own stunts (which he did), such as the scene when Sundance jumps onto a moving locomotive, racing across the tops of the moving cars, Newman interjected for his safety. And the fact that both blue-eyed idols drank together, after a day’s shooting, was where the lifelong friendship was forged.

With both the tension and the camaraderie throughout the film, it veered extremely close to a comedy movie. From very early on, the film, which was to be shot as amusing, and not farcical, required edit after edit to tone down the humor. The work of Hill to capture the tones of the wild west and the hardships of the frontier was softened in this outing. Still, even fans who steered away from the genre of the spaghetti western was perfectly captured by the charm of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A fact shown as it did become the biggest grossing movie of the year, and won credited acclaim with four Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Song for Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and Best Original Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Sound while writer William Goldman won the BAFTA Award for Best Screenplay.

There would be a further movie, a prequel ten-years later, Butch and Sundance: The Early Days(Richard Lester), though it would not include either actor. Also, a spin-off television series modeled on the movie, taking that character portrayal and developing it with Alias Smith and Jones (1973). However, the pair of Newman and Redford did appear again in a movie by George Roy Hill, the smash hit, 1973 movie The Sting. That chemistry which was successfully executed in their last movie, became even more pronounced here. Within a twisting film which contained an even more complicated story line the film became a joy, again with a ragtime soundtrack which became memorable, and a nostalgic reminder of a simpler time.

On a final note, perhaps a further legacy, and reminder comes from both actors as Paul Newman’s charity for children with serious medical conditions is named Hole in the Wall Camp after the name of their gang in the movie. Meanwhile, Robert Redford acquired an area of land in Utah towards the end of the sixties. He would turn it into a year-round resort, and name it Sundance as a mark to his character from the movie. It was here that the independent Sundance Film Festival would come to prominence. Since 1978, with Redford as chairman, the festival became the launch pad for many of today’s modern movie makers, from Tarantino to Steven Soderbergh and Kevin Smith, many got their first showcase there.

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