Last night, our Western group gathered in Santa Fe to watch and discuss more Western films. In attendance with me were Johnny D. Boggs, who recently won his seventh Spur Award for his excellent novel, RETURN TO RED RIVER, David Morrel, award-winning thriller author of MURDER AS A FINE ART, and Robert Nott, a reporter for the Santa Fe New Mexican and a writer of several books about classic Western actors, and also a memoir with Max Evans about Sam Peckinpah. Our fifth member, Kirk Ellis, Emmy-winning screenwriter of the miniseries, JOHN ADAMS, was out of town.
It was my turn to select the films. First up was the pilot episode of the TV series THE REBEL (1959-1960) created by Andrew J. Fenady. It told the story of ex-Rebel Johnny Yuma (Nick Adams) returning home to Texas a year after the end of the Civil War only to find his father, the sheriff, dead, and the town in the clutches of corrupt businessman Dan Blocker (before Bonanza). A solid beginning for the series.
The main feature is still one of my favorites, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID released in 1969, featuring Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the title roles as two of the most amiable and charming outlaws in cinematic history. The Oscar-winning screenplay by William Goldman reinvents the Western with a playful sense of how it could have been. George Roy Hill, the film’s director, wanted to bring a different sensibility to the Western, something fresh.
Goldman has said that what attracted him to the story of Butch and Sundance was that “they had a second act.” With the law in unremitting pursuit, the outlaws left the American West for Bolivia and took up robbing banks there.
Paul Newman had reservations about the humor in the script. He told George Roy Hill that he was not a comic actor. Hill told him not to worry, to play it straight and let the comedy take care of itself. Newman also believed Hill had a great eye for truth and was unafraid to try something new.
Some of those new things included placing a song in the middle of the picture, namely “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” While Goldman’s script did call for a musical moment at that point of the film, Hill came up with the idea of a song and conceived and designed the staging with Newman clowning on a bicycle while Etta Place, Sundance’s girlfriend, played by Katherine Ross, watches. It was undeniably something new and unexpected. I thought it a little corny. But perhaps the point was that these “raindrops” wereintended to show us that theyare as out of place as Butch and Sundance had become.
The film possesses the Western scope, the vistas, the real-life characters as inspiration, and a quality of freshness that worked for a lot of people, but not all. Many critics hated it. Chicago Sun critic Roger Ebert called Goldman’s script “constantly too cute, and never gets up the nerve, by God, to call itself a Western.” Writing in the New York Times, Vincent Canby said there was a “gnawing emptiness” at the heart of the film.
Word of mouth sold the movie. Lines formed around theaters. Audiences loved it. I saw it three times in its first couple of weeks of release.
About half way through the film, Sheriff Bledsoe (played by Jeff Corey) tells Butch and Sundance, “You’re two-bit outlaws on the dodge … Your times is over and you’re going to die bloody, and all you can do is choose where.” The film ends with those haunting words coming true. After a shoot-out with local police in a Bolivian village, Butch and Sundance lay wounded and bleeding, and believe they can still get away. They run out of the cantina, unaware that a hundred Bolivian soldiers are waiting on the rooftops with rifles ready. Hill freezes the frame showing these two friends, their guns drawn and shooting, while the sound of rifle volleys fire over and over. It still feels as sad and poignant as it did the first time I saw it. The West had ended.
Is it Sam Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH that was released earlier that same year? No. But nothing is like Peckinpah’s masterpiece. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID is a Western about two affable outlaws, and you just plain like them. It’s revisionist, funny, romantic, and action-filled. And it’s probably one of the most entertaining Westerns ever made.