Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
20th Century Fox
Review by: Larry Thomas
Some legendary movie teams gain legendary fame with a minimum of effort. Mae West and W.C. Fields only made one film together, but their names are forever linked because of My Little Chickadee. Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell are recalled as one of the 50s torrid screen teams, although they only made two films as a duo. And it’s difficult to separate the names of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, despite being in only two films as well.
Today, October 24th, is the fortieth anniversary of the general release of their first: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It was a comedy-western-adventure film that epitomized the “buddy” genre. Despite having gone through rewrites, recasting, and post-filming editing, 20th Century Fox still didn’t have a lot of confidence in the film being successful. In Cincinnati, instead of opening the film in one of the prestigious downtown or suburban theatres for a lengthy exclusive run, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid premiered at the 20th Century Theatre in Oakley, the Ferguson Hills Drive-In on the West Side, and the Jolly Roger Drive-In in Sharonville.
But it was a smash hit for three major reasons: the teaming of Newman and Redford were irresistible to both male and female patrons; the hit song “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” written for the film, although it is likely the most annoying part of the entire production; and the most unbeatable form of advertising…sensational word-of-mouth. Everyone was telling friend, relative, and neighbor that Butch Cassidy was a must-see movie.
The original plan was to co-star Newman with Steve McQueen, but they could not come to an agreement as to who would get top billing. Newman then offered the role to Jack Lemmon, who had produced Newman’s big hit Cool Hand Luke, but Lemmon passed because he was not particularly fond of horses. The studio was then rumored to favor pairing Marlon Brando with Newman. However, director George Roy Hill was partial to, and insisted upon, Robert Redford in what was to be his career-building role. The original script by William Goldman was titled The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy, and each actor was scheduled to play the other’s role. But after flipping the title and the casting assignments, production began. After completion, Hill re-edited the film because it was “too funny.” Not something that would likely happen these days.
Naturally, the historical accuracy of this, as well as any other film, is subject to “dramatic license,” and there were enough changes made to the truth to make appealing characters, with some terrific dialogue and action sequences, that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid became one of 1969’s biggest hits, and continued to play well into 1970 and beyond.
George Roy Hill learned his craft on live television in the 1950s, and although his film resume contains only fourteen titles, several are memorable. In addition to doing Butch Cassidy and the Oscar-winning The Sting with Newman and Redford, he also made good films with each separately. Redford’s The Great Walso Pepper was an excellent film about barnstorming daredevil aviators in the 1920s, and Newman joined with Hill for one of the all-time great sports movies, Slap Shot, about minor league hockey in Pennsylvania. George Roy Hill also made an outstanding film version of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five.
Newman used the gang’s name, the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, for his Hole in the Wall Camp for disadvantaged children. The origin of the name of Redford’s Sundance Institute and annual film festival is obvious.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid will not likely appear on any film buff’s “top five” list of Best Westerns ever made. And there’s still that annoying, and anachronistic, pop tune to contend with. But it has enough of what’s necessary: charismatic performers, quotable lines, excellent action, and the ability to remain in viewer’s memories some forty years hence. If you’ve never seen it, you should. And it’s still worth a re-visit on DVD if it’s been a while for you.
Happy anniversary to Butch, Sundance, Paul, Robert, George, and everyone else involved in the making of a film that will be remembered when many others are long forgotten.