Saturday, March 24, 2012

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)  It is probably for sure that Butch and Sundance were not as entertaining (or as well-scrubbed, with feathered hair) as Newman and Redford, nor that they rode bicycles to Burt Bacharach songs.  But then the originals didn't have William Goldman writing for them, either, and though the script starts by saying "Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true" you can bet that much more of it isn't.  As it is, it's not a history lesson.  It's a grittier version of the previous season's Cat Ballou (which had garnered Lee Marvin his Best Actor Oscar).

And, point of fact, I have a hard time thinking of it as a Western, despite the desert settings, the horse-chases, the posses, the train robberies, the clapboard houses, all the traditional acoutrements of the classic westerns, but done coyly, cutely, and with an eye towards having a good punch-line (but not much point).

Where it does bear the stamp of a traditional western is its through-line of Butch and the Kid being temporary things, caught in the period between the Civil War and the Industrial Age, where the "old ways," with their easily slipped-through dependence on civilization (and the inherent difficulties achieving it in a frontier environment), are replaced by organization, technology, and machine-like precision that are a threat to outliers, dependent on improvisation and fast getaways.  The advancements of the 20th Century—bicycles and streets and (gulp!) dynamite—while all well and good, are an impending threat to scraping out an existence on the land, even if the way you do it is scraping other people's existence.  And as much as Butch and Sundance try to adapt ("Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?"), it ends up blowing up in their faces.   It's why Butch's oft-repeated line (that always falls like a lead ballooon and a quizzically raised audience eyebrow) "I've got vision and the rest of the world needs bifocals!" only works in that context, and cluelessly ironically, at that.

No wonder they go to Bolivia.  It's still the Wild West down South, while the U.S. becomes gentrified and outgrows outlaws.  There's a serious thought in there amongst the yuck-lines and the counter-intuitive Bacharach bubba-bubba choruses glossing over action sequences.  As much as Hill, Goldman and Bacharach try to make it larky and fun, it's still doom-laden, without the inherent triumph of civilization over chaos that invigorates—and makes hopeful—most Western films. 

Though never arrested, the Hole-in-the-Wall gang are products of arrested development—a better name might be the "Stuck-in-the-Mud" gang—making the whole enterprise an exercise in feeling sorry for the kids who never grew up, or wised up, making the whole show a pitiable "Peter Pan" picture.

Entertaining?  Maybe.  But kinda dumb, too.

Next week: the story continues in a forgotten, better 2011 film

1 comment:

Gerry Dooley said...

You have absolutely no knowledge of this film. It is beautifully photographed by Oscar winner Conrad Hall and the acting by Newman and Redford is superb.The film was written by William Goldman ,one of the most successful screenwriters of the twentieth centuryl . This is one of the most entertaining films I have ever seen.