“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“You should have let yourself get killed a long time ago when you had the chance.”
Recently, I read the awesome book by William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting. Covering his long and successful career writing novels and movies, Goldman has a lot to proud of, like All the President’s Men and The Princess Bride. But reading his career memoir, I got the feeling that one screenplay sticks out above the others as something he’s extra proud of. A passion project based on real life characters that Goldman was almost obsessed with, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a movie where that obsession is infectious.
It might the turn of the 20th century, but it’s still the old west in all the ways that matter for a movie. After casing a bank for his next heist, Butch (Paul Newman) finds his right hand man, Sundance (Robert Redford), being accused of cheating at cards in a local saloon. These opening minutes tell us everything we need to know. Butch is the brains, Sundance is the gun slinging muscle, and their friendship will outweigh any other force in their world. Including an attempt to usurp Butch as their leader by another member of their Hole in the Wall Gang.
While that rebellion is quickly and easily quashed, Butch and Sundance start to realise that their time is almost up. They have reached a level of notoriety where the authorities will stop at nothing to take them down. It’s now a matter of pride, which greatly outweighs the monetary value of the heists they pull. With the girlfriend of Sundance in tow (Katherine Ross as Etta), they decide it’s time to get south of the border. Way south, to Bolivia.
I’d seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid twice before this viewing. And I don’t know if I was in a particularly bad mood on the last two occasions, or an especially good mood this time around, but I don’t remember it being as funny on previous viewings. Goldman’s script, and the delivery of the central two, especially Redford, is so perfectly dry, I can’t believe the humor didn’t stand out more when I thought about this movie in the past.
Watching this time, I realised something else this movie gets really, really right. When you’re best friends the way Butch and Sundance are, you spend inordinate amounts of time together. When you spend that sort of time together, you get on each other’s nerves. But when you’re such good friends, you don’t feel obliged to hide it when the other is on your nerves. So many other movies would play that frustration as an end of act two red herring to break the key duo up before they reunite for the climax. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid realises that it’s portrayed their friendship as too strong to be broken by any of this trivial shit. Instead, it plays it for constant laughs. These two characters know each other’s flaws and have accepted them long ago, regardless of how infuriating they may be in the moment.
It’s incredible to think that this came out within only a few months of The Wild Bunch. Both do so much to reinvent the genre of the western, but in completely different ways. John Wayne accused The Wild Bunch of destroying the myth of the Western. While director Charlie Boreman said that the success of Butch and Sundance began the decline of the western genre. I think its reactions like those that now, in 2015, show how necessary these new takes on the genre were.
I’ve always really liked this movie, bit something about this 2015 viewing has made me love it on a whole new level. Maybe it’s my new appreciation of the humour, or maybe it’s my new appreciate of the Butch and Sundance dynamic. Whatever it is, the fact that it has risen from a great movie to a sensational one is more than enough justification for going through this AFI 100 and rewatching all kinds of movies I might not have ever got around to again for a long time, if ever.
Best Picture (nominated, lost to Midnight Cowboy)
Best Director (Hill nominated, lost to John Schlesinger for Midnight Cowboy)
Best Original Screenplay – Goldman