Guest post by Rachel McCabe.
When originally released in 1969, Roger Ebert claimed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid “must have looked like a natural on paper, but, alas, the completed film is slow and disappointing.” Paul Newman, the film’s star, had achieved critical success playing the rebel in Cool Hand Luke just two years earlier, but his name alone couldn’t carry the film. Butch Cassidy was seen by Ebert as a bizarre anachronism and a failed representation of the western as a genre. However, what Ebert and other critics missed was the film’s appeal not in spite of these strange genre-bending elements, but because of them. The blurred representation of the turn-of-the-century West combined with 1960s America created a space in which beautiful rebels failed at resisting the forces of capitalism and authority, just as their audience was experiencing at home.
The Vietnam War, waged from 1955 to 1975, quietly haunted Hollywood films. Rather than directly addressing the war (which would have been messy and polarizing at best), the misunderstood rebel waged war against “the man” in numerous films throughout this time. Butch Cassidy was one in a string of dramatic black comedies that explored dissatisfaction with authority and structure, including Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, The Graduate, Easy Rider, and Midnight Cowboy. The violence and sadness in these films, despite their aesthetic beauty, created a new genre which, according to critic Charles Hampton, “holds in mutual juxtaposition and mutual incompatibility. As pastoral it shows innocence in a new perspective of awkwardness and practical need: these lost boys must eat, have clothes, fall down and die. As gangster or detective story realism, we see the characters surrounded by the sympathetic effects of childhood, feel with them to a greater extent, suffer as they suffer. The sting is put back into death” (69).
Thus, in an era in which viewers were besieged by violence on television and in the newspaper, films like Butch Cassidy reflected this new world order back to viewers. As Andrew Sarris points out, “Violence is not only omnipresent, it has reshaped our perceptions of our immediate peril to such an extent that daily life has itself become a genre full of tactics for survival in a hostile environment” (42). Thus, Butch Cassidy was successful in part for its reflection of a world view already experienced by its audience. This new film genre, though not always critically successful, gained its importance, as Richard Corliss explains, “less as individual successes or failures than as indications of the force with which the changing face of America—hairier, angrier, less pretty and more real–is being reflected in our films” (3).
In addition to the bleak world view the film expresses, Butch Cassidy’s genre-bending elements also made it a success. As a point of critique, Ebert pointed out that “Goldman has his heroes saying such quick, witty and contemporary things that we’re distracted: it’s as if, in 1910, they were consciously speaking for the benefit of us clever 1969 types.” However, this bizarre combination of cowboy image and snarky ’60s dialogue highlights the rhetorical goal of the film: to put these two moments in conversation with one another.
This conversation is highlighted by the film’s music. Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” written for the film, plays as Butch and Etta goof around on a bicycle, making the scene timelessly romantic. The 1960s soundtrack, rather than making the film seem dated, makes its themes more easily relevant to viewers. Similarly, Bacharach and David’s song “South American Getaway” plays as Butch, the Sundance Kid, and Etta rob multiple banks in Bolivia. While their style of bank robbing is clearly set at the turn of the 20th century, the music makes the scene fun, light, and accessible—viewers are allowed to partake in the excitement of the gang’s escapades. As Dunne explains, “what Butch and Sundance have in common with the viewers is further complicated by what they do not have in common with the characters played by John Wayne and Randolph Scott” (Dunne). Unlike previous westerns in which the cowboy is an untouchable hero, Butch and Sundance have an everyman quality to them.
The film’s dialogue emphasizes this relationship by making Butch an advocate for the working class. In the train robbery scenes, Butch explains that he doesn’t want to hurt passengers, particularly Woodcock, who tries to stop Butch from taking his employer’s money. Michael Dunne explains that “[Butch’s] sense of solidarity with Woodcock the workingman against Harriman the plutocrat introduces into these scenes a kind of historical awareness totally absent from the traditional Western. The effect is confirmed later on in the film when Butch looks up at the night sky and screams at the absent Harriman, ‘You probably inherited every penny you got!’” Thus, William Goldman’s screenplay establishes Butch as a friend of the everyman, and it is this relationship that leads to his pursuit and death.
Though accused of serving as the “buddy-film” version of Bonnie and Clyde, the key difference between the two films is their final scenes. While Arthur Penn forces viewers to watch the authorities riddle Bonnie and Clyde’s bodies with bullets until they are beyond recognition, George Roy Hill allows us to preserve Butch and the Kid in a sepia-toned frozen frame even as we hear the gunshots that ultimately end their lives. Thus, Hill lets audiences walk away with their heroes preserved, even if only in a nostalgia-laced fantasy. Both Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Midnight Cowboy were released in 1969, and while both explore the death of the cowboy (as we’re reminded, Joe Buck isn’t a “f’real cowboy” but rather a prostitute trying to tap into the myth of the hypermasculine western figure), Butch Cassidy exposes why cowboys don’t exist anymore. Even when Butch and Sundance attempt to “go straight,” the violence in the world around them prevents their success. The flaws in law enforcement and government fail Butch and Sundance just as they failed many viewers in the 1960s. As a result, the film’s success can perhaps be attributed to both its ability to allow viewers to feel like they’re members of the Hole in the Wall Gang, as well as its assurance that cowboys, like so many other American myths, are exactly that.
Hampton, Charles C. “Movies That Play for Keeps.” Film Comment, vol. 6, no. 3, 1970, pp. 64–69.
Corliss, Richard. “Film: The Radicals Have Occupied the Asylum.” Members Newsletter (Museum of Modern Art), no. 7, 1969, pp. 3–4.
Dunne, Michael. “Mikhail Bakhtin and the Sundance Kid: generic dialogue in the Western.” Post Script, Winter-Spring 2004, p. 33+.
Ebert, Roger. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” 13 October 1969.
Sarris, Andrew. “Death of The Gunfighters: Fred Schepisi Writs ‘The End’ of the Western.” Film Comment, vol. 18, no. 2, 1982, pp. 40–42.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid will kick off this semester’s City Light Film Series at the IU Cinema on August 25. Other films this fall will include the bawdy Mae West comedy She Done Him Wrong, the iconic James Bond flick Goldfinger, and the haunting yet beautiful The Night of the Hunter (which will be shown at the IU Moving Image Archive Screening Room in Wells Library).
Rachel McCabe is a PhD Candidate in the English department at Indiana University Bloomington. Her work explores the productive capability of affective difficulty and the ways in which texts that defy reader and viewer expectations can produce nuanced rhetorical analysis for first-year writers.