After its release in 1969 “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” made a lot of money and garnered a lot of critical praise. It’s been called the ultimate buddy movie and some give it credit for reinventing the Western genre for a new generation. It received a total of seven Academy Award nominations, winning four of the golden statues and it has been lauded by many as a bonafide classic. But over the years there have been a few critics who have looked at the film through a more critical lens. Could it be that “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” hasn’t aged well or are there some legitimate issues that have always been there?
For me “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is a terribly uneven film in several ways. It features several great and truly memorable moments but it also has stretches of redundancy which grinds things to a halt. Then there are lines of dialogue that are crisp and snappy but others that are glaringly lame or simply don’t feel like they belong in a western of its time. This movie rides a tonal roller coaster which made it feel a bit scattered and difficult to take seriously.
Paul Newman was a megastar at the time and he was intended to be the centerpiece playing Butch Cassidy. This annoyed Steve McQueen who was set to play Sundance. After a disagreement over who got top billing, McQueen said adios which opened the door for a young Robert Redford. This turned out to be Redford’s star-making role and his performance was the standout. Newman is obviously a fine actor but surprisingly I didn’t see the usual charisma he brings to a role. Newman certainly has his moments but I feel he could have offered more especially considering the substantial investment in him.
Things certainly start off on a high note. We get a great scene showing Sundance being accused of cheating at a card game (a scene which features Sam Elliot’s big screen debut). There’s also a fun bit where Butch and Sundance return to their gang’s hideout and face a small mutiny (In the movie they were called The Hole in the Wall Gang because Cassidy’s real gang name The Wild Bunch was the title of the Sam Peckinpah film also due out that year). After squelching the uprising, the gang takes to holding up trains. The first robbery goes well but after botching their second attempt in a hysterical sequence, Butch and Sundance find themselves being pursued by an über-posse put together by a wealthy railroad tycoon.
Up to this point everything is popping. The movie sets itself up well and with the exception of the well-known bicycle scene filmed to B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” (which I feel is overly long and oddly out of place), it’s impossible not to be taken in by the story. But then the movie hits a wall. We get a long, drawn out series of shots features the pair on the run from the posse of all posses. We see them riding across the Badlands, running up rocky cliffs, and then stopping to see if they have lost their pursuers. With a near mystical-like presence, the posse is always in the distance. We go through this cycle several times before finally moving in a new direction.
Realizing the severity of their wanted status, Butch and Sundance round-up Etta (played by Katharine Ross), a young lady with an unusual relationship with the boys, and the three head to Bolivia. Once there the story follows almost the same blueprint as the first half – some really funny moments, some memorable scenes, and a dull stretch. And that is what makes “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” such a hard film to score. It has those times where it’s an absolute blast. It has its funny moments and the chemistry between Newman and Redford shines at certain points. Conrad Hall’s Oscar-winning cinematography is outstanding and it’s hard not to be smitten by the look of the film as a whole.
Unfortunately it’s hard for me to overlook the inconsistencies found in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. There are some obvious missteps which make me question how this film can be considered an all-time classic. But it certainly isn’t a terrible movie and I definitely recommend seeing it. Redford’s star launched from this flick and it still made a significant mark on movie history. It’s just not a movie that will find its way into my pantheon of all-time favorites.