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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
1969 - PG - 110 Mins.
Director: George Roy Hill
Producer: John Foreman
Written By: William Goldman
Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross, Strother Martin, Henry Jones
Review by: John Ulmer
   
Warning, this review contains some spoilers!

There is a wonderful scene in George Roy Hill's western classic "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969) that is particularly noteworthy: The ending of the film. It is one of the best climactic finales I have ever seen on film.

Instead of showing two men we have come to like throughout the course of the film get brutally killed on-screen, director Hill freeze-frames Butch (Paul Newman) and The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) as they flee their safe house in Bolivia. Indeed, had we been shown a bloodbath like so many other lesser directors might employ, the film's lasting effect on its audience would be somewhat dulled.

But Hill is smart enough to keep "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" sweet, tender, likable and thoroughly enjoyable. No unnecessary scenes are in this film--from beginning to end it is a heartfelt tale of two amiable criminals who rob banks and trains as part of their job. It's never a personal thing for them. It's just their job, and to show them go down in a haze of violent glory would be somewhat pointless and exploitive.

Now, I don't know if the real Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid were as nice as Newman and Redford portray them (Sundance's sister seemed to think so during the filming of the movie), but they have to be the most likable and nicest screen criminals I've ever seen. When faced with a scared, stubborn guard aboard a train, they treat him nicely and ask him to move out of the way as they blow apart the outside of a vault. How humorously ironic the movie is, and how joyful its tenderness towards its characters remains after all these years.

Everyone knows the story by now: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once ruled the west with their Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. But after a sort of mutiny within their gang, Butch and Sundance decide to split into a separate union and act out their unspeakable crimes on their own. We see them rob trains, banks, and so on. But that's not the point of the movie; the real point is their friendship and carefree manner, even in the heart of danger.

Yes, they were some of the most successful train and bank robbers in the history of the world. And yes, this story chronicles their lives as the law moves in on them and they move to Mexico, where they eventually went straight and tried to start their lives over. But the movie doesn't succeed in its narrative as much as it does in the chemistry between its two stars, Newman and Redford, who are arguably two of the best on-screen actors of all time. (Their names were so bankable at the time that they reunited four years later for "The Sting," which many people consider a superior movie.)

George Roy Hill's adaptation of Butch and Sundance's life is a novel one indeed. It is held together by Oscar-winner William Goldman's smart script. Goldman, undoubtedly a terrific screenwriter ("The Princess Bride," "Misery") seemed to have gone for a more lightweight, happy edge to the film, versus the hard one he might have employed. It works splendidly.

More than anything else, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" is a comedy as opposed to a western. Sure, there's the occasional heist or "stick-up," but the film's primary focus is on its characters and their humorous ironic adventures, which makes it funnier than most westerns and more exciting than most comedies. (The scene where we realize Sundance's amazing gun skills stands as one of American cinema's greatest-ever moments.)

The role of Butch, originally offered to Warren Beatty (who turned the role down for "The Only Game in Town," one of the biggest flops in the history of cinema), is a fine one; when Newman finally signed on, he was actually cast as Sundance and Redford accepted the role of Butch. But prior to filming Newman suggested they switch characters and the agreement was mutual. I think that they both knew early on they were meant for the roles that they would eventually make so famous.

The two actors are indeed cast perfectly, rising above the material and making us believe they are true pals till the end. Like Neal Page and Del Griffith or Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison, we can sense that these two men are true friends through the celluloid. That's always the indication of a truly amazing film.

"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" isn't exactly a western, but more of an adventure-packed comedy. It's an adventure about two guys who used to rule the west, and died after they tried to go straight. A film that takes a look at the lives of these two men and puts it on film. A great film told with style, wit, great acting and some terrific irony. And of all the lines in the history of American cinema, one stands out quite clearer than most, and not for any particular reason at all. It doesn't exactly relate to our lives like most famous passages. It isn't as witty as Orson Welles' cuckoo clock speech in "The Third Man." We just all like it, and we're not sure why.

"You keep thinkin', Butch. That's what you're good at."
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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