Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

This 1969 film, the first deconstructionist Western, set the tone for future buddy comedies, helped revive the Western film genre, and made a superstar out of Robert Redford, whose Sundance Institute has become the major supporter of independent films. Also starring Paul Newman as Butch and Katherine Ross as Etta Place, and directed by George Roy Hill, this lighthearted, "contemporary" Western paved the way for modern Westerns such as Young Guns and The Long Riders.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was based on the lives of two actual Old West outlaws—Robert Leroy Parker (Butch) and Harry Longabaugh (Sundance). By the 1890s, Butch was the head of the largest and most successful outlaw gang in the West, known as both the Wild Bunch and the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. Butch was chosen leader based solely on his personality; he was a poor shot who never killed anyone until later in life. Sundance, who got his nickname from spending eighteen months in jail in Sundance, Wyoming, was a gang member and a phenomenal gunman who, incidentally, did not know how to swim (a fact yielding the film's best joke). Based at their hideout at Hole-in-the-Wall near Kaycee, Wyoming, the gang members robbed banks and trains throughout the West. When the railroads hired the Pinkerton Agency to catch the gang and the agency formed a relentless superposse, Butch, Sundance, and female companion Etta Place moved to South America and bought a ranch in Argentina. They tried to make an honest living but eventually began robbing banks in several South American countries. It is believed they were killed after being trapped by troops in Bolivia—although some maintain that Butch and Sundance spread the story after another pair of outlaws was gunned down by Bolivian troops.

Screenwriter William Goldman first came across the Butch Cassidy story in the late 1950s, and he researched it on and off for the next eight years. An established novelist, Goldman decided to turn the story into a screenplay for the simple reason "I don't like horses." He didn't like anything dealing with the realities of the Old West. A screenplay would be simpler to write and wouldn't involve all the research necessary to write a believable Western novel. From the outset, this screenplay established itself as more contemporary than the typical Western or buddy film. In the film, Butch and Sundance do what typical Western movie heroes never do, such as run away halfway through the story or kick a rival gang member in the groin rather than fight with knives or guns. While there had been buddy films in the past, including those starring Abbott and Costello, and Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, those films were joke factories, variations on old vaudeville routines. Part of the challenge for Goldman was to write dialogue that was funny without being too funny; nonstop jokes abruptly interrupted by a hail of gunfire would be too great a transition to expect an audience to make. Goldman found the right tone, a kind of glib professionalism emphasizing chemistry over jokes, and it is the chemistry between Newman and Redford that made the film such a success.

This glib professional tone since has been put to good use in a number of other films and television shows, as in the 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon films. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid also led to the sequel, Wanted: The Sundance Woman, and the prequel, Butch and Sundance—The Early Years; and Newman and Redford successfully teamed up again for The Sting (1973).

—Bob Sullivan

Further Reading:

Goldman, William. Adventures in the Screen Trade. New York, Warner Books, 1983.

——. Four Screenplays with Essays. New York, Applause Books, 1995.

Wukovits, John. Butch Cassidy. New York, Chelsea House Publishing, 1997.

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

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