NOT THAT IT MATTERS, BUT MOST OF IT IS TRUE!
In 1969, fledgling movie star Robert Redford bought land in Utah that had been used for skiing since 1944. There he created a year-round resort that he named Sundance, a place that would also become the home of the Sundance Film Festival, a January fixture since 1978. The original Sundance Kid had a town in Wyoming named after him, but there’s no question that Redford’s fictional Sundance Kid has had a greater influence on the public mind.
In the early 1900s, we see movie audiences watching the legendary Hole in the Wall gang and their most charismatic members, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Paul Newman, Redford), in silent newsreels. We’re subsequently transported to the “real-life” adventures of these two heroes. Heroes? They are certainly criminals, robbing banks and trains, but in the vision laid out by director George Roy Hill and screenwriter William Goldman, Butch and the Kid are kind to women and the victims they rob. Heart’s in the right place and any outlaw that doesn’t share their sunny outlook on life had better watch out.
Life is good for Butch and the Kid (who has fallen in love with a schoolteacher, Etta Place (Katharine Ross)), but when a train robbery goes wrong and they’re confronted by a specially skilled posse hired by the head of Union Pacific, they have to run. The end goal is Bolivia, but the posse turns out to be a stubborn crew…
Equally smitten with both men
The story was based on real events, although no one knows for sure how things finally went down in South America – and that ambiguity is brilliantly conveyed in the now-classic last scene of the film, where Butch and the Kid face their demons, so to speak. Actually, that’s not a bad word; Hill lends the Union Pacific posse virtually supernatural traits as we rarely see their faces, only ghostly shadows always on the heels of our heroes, no matter if they’re in Utah or Bolivia. This mounting sense of dread (“who are those guys?”) is deeply disturbing to Butch and the Kid and effectively builds tension.
The two men always seem to balance somewhere between black and white, good and bad. Later in the film, they try to make a living in Bolivia as both criminals and men of the law and they could pass for both. Watching them, we’re equally smitten with both men – and so is Etta Place. She may sleep with the Kid, but as stated early on the romantic relationship could just as easily have been with Butch. A simple and heartfelt arrangement, it may seem, but possibly a more complex three-way than the filmmakers choose to depict. Ross is not terribly memorable as Etta, but Newman and Redford are stupefyingly well-matched, one of cinema’s greatest couples. There’s a special dynamic in having the older guy come across as the intense, rash, talkative one and the younger seem calm, contemplative and intelligent. They complete each other in a beautiful way.
Director Hill frames the story as a fantasy along the lines of classic big screen adventures; since Butch and the Kid were active at the birth of cinema, the silent newsreel opening is a smart touch. But it also breaks with traditional Hollywood westerns (just like the same year’s Wild Bunch) by using a charmingly offbeat Burt Bacharach score and a more contemporary song, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”, in a wonderful scene where Butch takes Etta on a bike ride.
Exceptionally well directed, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid still looks modern. It was part of the revolution that changed Hollywood and it is certainly fitting to see a festival that aims to offer American cinema fresh perspectives every year derive its name from it.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 1969-U.S. 112 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by John Foreman. Directed by George Roy Hill. Screenplay: William Goldman. Cinematography: Conrad Hall. Music: Burt Bacharach. Song:”Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” (Burt Bacharach, Hal David). Cast: Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy), Robert Redford (Sundance Kid), Katharine Ross (Etta Place), Strother Martin, Henry Jones, Jeff Corey… Cloris Leachman, Christopher Lloyd, Sam Elliott, Kenneth Mars.
Trivia: Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty were allegedly offered the part of the Sundance Kid; Dustin Hoffman as Butch. Followed by Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979). Ross played Etta Place again in a TV movie, Wanted: The Sundance Woman (1976).
Oscars: Best Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Score, Original Song. BAFTA: Best Film, Director, Actor (Redford), Actress (Ross), Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Music, Film Editing, Sound Track. Golden Globe: Best Original Score.
Last word: “When we got killed [by the critics], we were just crushed. So George [Roy Hill] and I walked over to a theatre at 57th and 3rd and we asked to see the manager. He came out and when we asked how the film was doing, he said, ‘We’re selling out all the shows and the audiences love it.’ Still, we thought it might only be doing well in that theatre. So he volunteered to phone the manager at a theatre in Times Square – can you imagine anyone doing that today? – and he said the same thing. George turned to me and said: ‘Well, maybe it’s not a disaster after all.'” (Goldman, The Guardian)