Sunday, September 4, 2016
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
This 1969 film, directed by George Roy Hill and nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, addresses a theme writers have wrestled with in a great deal of American literature, including The Great Gatsby, which is the vanishing western frontier, and the idealistic romanticism associated with it.
We see the opening credits next to old footage of the real Butch Cassidy and his Hole in the Wall gang which included the Sundance Kid, with the notation that these outlaws once ruled the West. This sequence immediately makes the point that these men existed long ago, at the beginning of the twentieth century, and they are now a part of history, faded projections on a wall. The entire movie shows the two main characters caught between either dealing with or denying how modern times was eclipsing their world. The first scene has Butch (Paul Newman) checking out a bank, which has been modernized with new reinforced bars and shutters, state-of-the-art vault, and numerous guards. We hear the cold metallic sound of the sealing up of the building as it closes for the day. Butch wants to know what happened to the old bank. After being told it kept getting robbed, Butch’s response is that it is a “small price to pay for beauty.” Whatever historic character that existed in the bank has been replaced by modern inartistic practicality.
Butch is the central character in that he is the one caught in the tension between the world of the past and the one of the future. He keeps coming up with ideas to keep his and Sundance’s outlaw life rolling forward. He realizes that the uncivilized American frontier, which the cinematography shows in its untouched beauty, is threatened, so he suggests that he and Sundance (Robert Redford) head for a new type of “West” in Bolivia, despite the fact that he knows nothing about this land, and isn’t sure if the country is in Central of South America. Sundance laughs at his outlandish schemes, saying sarcastically, “You keep thinkin’ Butch. That’s what you’re good at.” Butch’s response is that, “I’ve got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” Butch seems to be trying to move ahead so he does not become obsolete. He voices to Sundance that he may be over the hill and it could happen to the Kid, too. Sundance on the one hand wants to dismiss this notion so he can live in denial of change. After all, his shooting is still amazing at the card game after a player asks how fast he is, which leads to Butch jokingly repeating the “over the hill” comment. But, Sundance’s attitude may also indicate that he is more resigned to his lot in life than is his partner.
When the two return to the hiding place of their gang, Butch at first wants to keep to the old ways of robbing banks, instead of stealing from the railroad. As he says, banks are easier because they don’t move, which may signify his desire to stay put in time. But his alternate wanting to adapt to change to survive allows him to accept the new plan. After the first train robbery, Butch and Sundance are at the town’s bordello and talk of the Spanish-American War. Butch raises the possibility of joining the military and says, “I always thought I’d grow up to be a hero.” To which Sundance immediately responds, “Well, it’s too late now.” Butch is upset how his partner quickly deflates this ideal dream of his with the truth of his current illegal life.
They look down from the balcony and there is a man trying to sell a bicycle, which he says represents “the future.” We then see Butch riding one at the home of Sundance’s girlfriend, the schoolteacher, Etta (Katharine Ross). The sequence that follows is visual and musical, and it contains facets of the main theme. Butch is quite adept at riding the bike at the beginning, which implies he is capable of dealing with the “future” as represented by the bicycle. However, he rides backwards on it, and crashes it into the fence, illustrating that in the end he may not be able to handle the symbol’s implications. Also, the camera shoots Butch riding with Etta sitting on the handlebars through slats in a fence, simulating the look, like the opening, of an old film strip. This choice again emphasizes that Butch’s world is over and all we have are pictures of this era. Also, from a literary perspective, the West was thought of as the new Eden. But, Etta plucks an apple off of a tree while riding with Butch, suggesting that this new Garden of Paradise is already fallen, and the bicycle is the serpent. We have B. J. Thomas singing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” which implies that despite adversity, Butch maintains a sense of optimism, or is he just being in denial?
At the second train robbery they have to deal with a more modern, fortified safe. Butch uses way too much dynamite, exploding the entire car, causing the money to float into the sky, as if the riches of the future are out of reach. Butch’s overuse of the explosive also stresses his inability to cope with the new changes thwarting his outdated outlaw style. After the explosion another railroad engine and car approach. We see quick shots of the metallic machine, emphasizing its inhuman heft and power, the steam billowing out of its smokestack. When the whistle blows, it is a warning signal for Butch and his gang that they won’t be able to escape their future demises. A posse of men on horses emerge from the car, and Butch and Sundance immediately sense the danger to them. The hunters immediately shoot a few of their gang. Butch uses all sorts of strategies to thwart those looking for them: traveling over water; riding over rock; splitting up. They all fail. They make it back to town, but even the amazingly deceptive Sweetface who Butch admits is so good a liar, he says, “I swear if old Sweetface told me that I rode out of town ten minutes ago, I’d believe him,” can’t save them. The posse’s horses show no typical behavior as they don’t run away when Butch yells at them. They visit an old friend, Sheriff Bledsoe (Jeff Corey), to say they will give themselves up and enlist and fight the Spanish. Bledsoe is astonished at Butch’s lack of insight into the outlaw’s situation. He lectures them about how stupid they are to think the government will forget all about their thievery. He sees Sundance looking out the window, and says to him there’s something out there that scares him. It is the end of their way of life, and they are overdue for giving it up. Bledsoe sums up Butch and Sundance’s plight when he says, “You should have let yourself get killed long ago when you had the chance … It’s over, don’t you get that? Your times is over and your gonna die bloody, and all you can do is choose where.” No matter how far they run they can’t stop being overtaken by their eventual extinction.
Despite all the gloom and doom surrounding this pair, William Goldman’s Oscar-winning script is full of humor ironically delivered in the midst of danger. For instance, when they are cornered by the posse and Butch considers their hunters’ options, Sundance adds, “They could surrender to us, but I wouldn’t count on that.” When Sundance asks Butch which way they should go to avoid their pursuers, Butch says, “It doesn’t matter. I don’t know where we’ve been and I’ve just been there.” The humor is an attempt to deal with their fear of this group of men who seem supernatural. They are individuals that have been bought out by the corrupt East, which is run by companies plundering the land for profit. Even the Native American tracker is called Lord Baltimore, to show how he has sold out his western heritage. The lawman, who we only know by an object, his straw hat, not by any human attributes, is called Lefors, which sounds like “The Force,” suggesting a power that is beyond human limitations. Butch comments on the posse’s Industrial Age mechanistic qualities: “Don’t they get tired? Don’t they get hungry? … Why don’t they slow up? Hell, they could even go faster, at least that’d be a change. They don’t even break formation.” They keep asking, “Who are those guys?” For Butch and Sundance, this group represents the inexorable march of time bent on obliterating the past.
They temporarily escape their hunters by making an almost suicidal jump from a cliff into a river’s rapids. They pack up for Bolivia and leave with Etta. This decision to look for a new frontier is sort of an escape, a running away from their destiny’s inevitability. Butch’s hope is to reverse time to find a place where their outside-the-law ways once flourished. Before they leave, he ditches the bicycle, showing his desire for the good old days by saying, “The future’s all yours, you lousy bicycle.” Director Hill then gives us another series of no dialogue, music accompanied pictures, this time still, aged shots of the trio on their trip first to New York and then on the cruise to South America. This sequence has the same effect as the previous ones of emphasizing we are watching scenes from long ago resembling fading memories.
The difficulty the outlaws have with the Spanish language at first shows an initial rejection by the new host country to these transplanted Americans. But, they start to adapt, and are successful robbing several banks. Of course, their overzealous notoriety draws attention, and they believe they see Lefors’ straw hat in a crowd. He has no jurisdiction to arrest them in Bolivia, so they assume he is just there to kill them. Butch says they will go straight, since the lawman would have to catch them in the act of robbery. The two become payroll guards. The ex-thieves themselves are robbed by Bolivian outlaws. Butch and Sundance get the drop on them after the duo give up the payroll. They must shoot these men to retrieve the money. In a strange loss of innocence, it is the first time Butch, although an outlaw, has ever killed another person. It is ironic that the first act of violence we see from Butch and Sundance occurs while they are enforcing the law. Sundance says, “Well, we’ve gone straight. What do we try now?” They return to their old ways, being outlaws.
Despite their attempts to avoid their situation, they know things can’t end well for them. Etta said before leaving for Bolivia that she would not stick around to watch them die. She offers other ways of going straight such as farming or raising cattle, but Butch and Sundance dismiss these options since they either don’t have the expertise or that they are too laborious. In a way they seal their own destiny. She now says she will be leaving for home, which is the sign that she knows that the end is near. Soon after, Butch and Sundance attack a payroll mule train. When they enter the town of San Vicente, a boy recognizes the brand on the duo’s stolen mule. What follows is an extended gunfight, but the Bolivians bring to bear not only numerous policemen but also the military. Butch and Sundance are at first only wounded and take shelter in an empty building. The depth of the denial of the gravity of their situation is shown as Butch says their next stop is Australia, where the people at least speak English, and there is plenty of land in which to hide out. They pretend that things will work out right up until their end when Butch asks if Sundance saw Lefors outside. When the Kid answers in the negative, Butch says, “Oh good. For a moment there I thought we were in trouble.”
They run out and amid volleys of gunfire, the picture freezes, and we get a still shot of the two outlaws, their action now ended, as we, the audience, return to our time, as Butch and Sundance, and their time in American history, transform into a sepia photographic memory.
The next film is Fargo.