Paul Newman? I can't say I'm not curious to see how that would have turned out, but it's hard to picture anyone but Newman and Robert Redford in the classic 1969 western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Say anything you want about this movie, but I've yet to find anyone who can't appreciate the chemistry between Newman and Redford. It's a change of pace for a western released in the late 1960s, a mix of comedy and action with a big dollop of the buddy movie thrown in. It doesn't go as far as revising the old west, but it certainly is a more romantic portrayal of a time that was really anything but romantic. Director George Roy Hill tells the story of two real outlaws though, and he picked the right two historical bandits. Yes, they robbed banks and trains, rustled cattle, and lived outside of the law, but all sorts of records exist that in real life these two men were actually pretty affable guys. That's the movie. If there are two better characters, more likable characters in a movie, I'm hard-pressed to think of them.
It's the first few years of the 1900s, and the wild west is dying out as civilization, technology, and the future are taking over. Leading the Hole in the Wall gang, outlaws Butch Cassidy (Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Redford) hang on to the last gasps of the life they know, robbing banks and trains for the easy pickings. But the window is closing on the outlaw life as the railroad company hires a super-posse to hunt them down and kill them. So along with Sundance's girlfriend, Etta Place (Katharine Ross), the outlaw duo travel to Bolivia to avoid being caught. But no matter what they do, it doesn't seem to work for them, and it's only a matter of time before the door completely closes on them.
Reviewing this movie, it's hard to describe the plot because there isn't much of a plot. And as I read back over, that review is much darker than the actual tone of the movie. However, whether you know the real life history of Butch and Sundance or not, at a certain point you can predict how this movie is going to end. It is a western that deals with the closing days of the west, and the men who refuse to change with the times. 'B and S' doesn't go down the dark route that The Wild Bunch does, but that doesn't take away from the still-moving ending (but more on that later). The tone here is light and comedic, only building to a darker conclusion because it is the natural course of things. There's no way to change the ending without seriously handicapping the rest of the movie.
For starters, Newman and Redford are two of the most likable Hollywood stars to ever star in a movie. Then throw in this great script from William Goldman that allows them to have these great dialogue exchanges full of great comedic one-liners, and you've got this perfect storm of acting and writing. Read IMDB's Memorable Quotes for an idea of some of the phenomenal writing, which even out of context is still priceless. Newman as the affable, joking Butch and Redford as the more serious Sundance have this banter down to an art with a chemistry that hasn't been duplicated in westerns or action movies since. The best test is the end though after a gunfight goes horrifically wrong and both men -- gravely wounded -- continue to bitch and moan at each other. Staring death in the face (whether they know it or not), they still argue back and forth. Outlaws yes, and maybe a bit more romantically portrayed than actual wild west outlaws, but my all-time favorite teaming of two actors.
With a virtually plotless story, the movie allows Newman and Redford to experiment with their parts, and certain parts resonate more than others. Burt Bacharach's Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head is very much a sign of the times the movie it was made, but it isn't as bad as some critics make it out. It's all part of the generally light-hearted, comedic tone of the movie. A great extended sequence that runs almost a full half hour as Butch and Sundance running from a faceless posse we never seen in close-up, continually asking 'Who are those guys?, leading up to the infamous, hysterical cliff exchange (watch HERE). But for all the comedy, there's emotion here, including one of my favorites as the duo takes jobs as payroll guards and are forced to shoot it out with a gang of Bolivian bandits. Sundance's softly delivered line 'We went straight...now what?" says it all, and leads into the frustratingly depressing ending.
Stop reading if you don't want to know the ending SPOILERS Forced back to a life of robbing and stealing, Butch and Sundance get cornered in a small Bolivian mountain village. Facing Bolivian police, they make a desperate grab for more ammunition only to have a company of Bolivian cavalry arrive to help the police. With nowhere to go and not knowing what awaits them outside, Butch and Sundance go out in a blaze of glory, charging into a wall of gunfire. I've read that their deaths were actually filmed (or so I've heard), but thankfully Goldman uses a freeze frame instead, and it's a wise decision. As a viewer, we like these characters too much to see them go out like Bonnie and Clyde or The Wild Bunch. The gunfight leading up to the finale is a doozy (watch it HERE) and worth mentioning in its own right. The ending of course isn't a happy one, but it's a necessary one. Still, it's hard either way. There's a moment where Sundance steps out into the open over a wounded Butch to protect him that says everything about these two men. Friends till the end.
So can you tell I like this movie? Yeah, me neither. As a western fan, I'm a sucker for just about anything, but Butch and Sundance is a step above. Newman and Redford have never been better, and together they are perfect. In the supporting cast look for Strother Martin as Percy Garrett, a "colorful" mine owner, Jeff Corey as a sheriff who delivers a speech that predicts what awaits Butch and Sundance, and Cloris Leachman as Dolores, a hooker with an eye on Butch. I don't say it often, but one of those few perfect movies.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid <---trailer (1969): ****/****