Raphael Pour-Hashemi has reviewed the Region 1 release of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid.
An excellent hybrid of comedy/western/historical conventions, featuring a classic pairing of Robert Redford and Paul Newman and some worthy DVD extras.
The infamous bank robbing duo Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, who sparked national interest at the turn of the century due to their enormous criminal success, were clearly an interesting movie commodity. After the success of the slightly similar crime duo masterpiece Bonnie And Clyde, Fox studios knew the potential audience generation of loveable rogues presented on screen, especially if it’s a true story. Director George Roy Hill was brought in to film talented screenwriter William Goldman’s modernist treatment of the duo; and the big draws Paul Newman and Robert Redford were hired to play Butch and Sundance respectively, after Steve McQueen opted out of appearing alongside Newman over billing issues. Celebrated sixties composer Burt Bacharach, now legendary after writing world class pop efforts such as Walk On By, I Say A Little Prayer, Anyone Who Had A Heart and Magic Moments was hired to compose the film score, and visionary Conrad Hall was hired as cinematographer.
On the surface level, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is a light-hearted ‘Buddy’ movie in the greatest western tradition, but on closer inspection the film is highly symbolic of the transition between two conflicting eras. In a way, this transition is brought about by the introduction of technology and how it changes the inner machinery of what was originally deemed locked conventions. The film is also a story about man’s knowledge of his own redundancy, and the struggle to modify one’s own routine.
At the start of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, a message appears stating “Most Of What Follows Is True”. This isn’t a disclaimer about the film’s authenticity, but is actually more the case of the film attempting to suggest to the audience that the finer details don’t necessarily matter. Plot wise, the film follows the robbing exploits of Butch and Sundance, as they become infamous all over America. Soon it becomes apparent that their success at bank robbing is drying up, and so the pair uproot to Bolivia with Sundance’s love interest Etta (Katharine Ross) and restart their criminal schemes, despite their determination to go straight. Eventually, the same problems occur that did in the United States and an heir of tragedy looms over Butch and Sundance.
As a ‘buddy’ comedy vehicle, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid delivers wonderfully. Newman and Redford are clearly having fun, and they portray Butch and Sundance as kind-hearted comics who rob because society seems to have no other place for them. It’s almost as if their destiny was to be negatively idealised. Newman clearly throws a high portion of his own charisma into Butch, a man depicted on screen as affable, jokey and harmless. Redford’s Sundance places more emphasis on appearance as opposed to structure, and he gives Sundance a rather headstrong grunting persona. The two seem to fit each other like opposite jigsaw pieces, and it’s this balance that the film’s success hinges upon. Katharine Ross’s Etta is almost an extension of her Elaine Robinson character in The Graduate in the fact that both characters spontaneously chose to abandon conventional society in pursuit of some rebellious excitement.
The Oscar winning screenplay by William Goldman, who would later write classic, marketable scripts for films such as All The President’s Men, Marathon Man, The Stepford Wives and The Princess Bride, is superbly plotted, by virtue of the fact that he juggles plot strand in such a subtle way that the tone of the film is never compromised. For a western/bank robber film, the screen is devoid of killing until the final quarter, and the film is foremost a comedy. Yes, this is a ‘Buddy’ picture, but there are also secondary subplots devoted entirely to other causes. Firstly, the issue of technology is addressed. When Butch purchases a bicycle he claims it to be the ‘way of the future’, but when he feels it necessary to move to Bolivia with Sundance and Etta, he throws the bicycle away in disgust, shouting “The future’s all yours, ya lousy bicycle”. Butch throwing away the bicycle is Butch symbolically throwing away the new era of America that has no place for him. The increase in technology has made it increasingly difficult for Butch and Sundance to continue to be successful and greater communications and better safety measures have meant it possible for widespread knowledge of the infamous duo’s schemes. Etta remarks that the papers reported Sundance’s incorrect death even before he managed to return home, and this demonstrates the difficulty in continuing to stay one step ahead of the law, as information now has freer movement. Even when the duo decides to go straight and take jobs, they still instinctively turn to their old ways when outside situations force the issue. In essence, the pair’s fate are summed up by their friend Sheriff Bledsoe, who informs them that “It’s over! Don’t you get that?! Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody. And all you can do is choose where.”
The directing by George Roy Hill is visually indulgent whilst given the impression of being technically pedestrian. Hill employs many long, drawn out takes, with key elements in long shot, and there are many scenes in which very little actually occurs. However, Hill still seizes the opportunity to turn flashy, and this is particularly noticeable in the scenes involving Butch and Sundance fleeing their pursuers, where Hill turns on the camera tricks.
The unsung hero of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is director of photography Conrad Hall, who turns in a dazzling visual odyssey of a landscape without pandering to overt primary colours. His use of sepia tinted prints in certain scenes is the definite touch for the film, and helps corroborate the notion of transition between eras.
Also worthy of mention is the excellent musical score provided by Burt Bacharach, a man not known for his film contributions. Bacharach’s score, fuelled by the irrelevant Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head is perfect in tone if not perfect in fitting with the correct era. Bacharach employs unconventional techniques, such as scoring the South American getaway scene entirely with a doo-wap chorus, which is inspiring and extremely effective.
Arguably one of the most interesting pieces of American cinema in the nineteen sixties, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is interesting as a historical western text because it strives to convey and not document the exploits of the pair. It doesn’t care if it’s historically accurate; it’s more concerned with embodying the feelings of the duo. It presents them as figures of a somewhat dying age, a comparison made in 1969 to the genre of westerns themselves. In fact, the film isn’t at its core a western in the spirit of The Wild Bunch or True Grit, since you could transplant Butch and Sundance into any time period. It’s more a quintessentially sixties film, with a sixties mentality and a sixties feel, as opposed to an anachronistic western. This, more than thirty years later, is what makes it all the more interesting.
Academy Awards 1969
Best Original Screenplay – William Goldman
Best Cinematography – Conrad Hall
Best Original Score – Burt Bacharach
Best Original Song – Burt Bacharach, Hal David – ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’
Academy Award Nominations 1969
Best Director – George Roy Hill
Best Sound – David Dockendorf, William E. Edmondson
On the whole, the picture quality of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is splendid. Presented at 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer contains a few noticeable dirt marks with no detrimental affect on the overall presentation. Colours are exotic looking despite the over-bearing use of a brown palette in the film, and Conrad Hall’s sepia tints appear to have been given a new lease of life.
Thankfully, Fox Video have resisted the temptation to mix the film into 5.1 and have instead preserved the original mono soundtrack, which given the film was made in 1969 is perfectly fine. Dialogue, sound effects and music are all filled with clarity, and the film feels no inferior with the absence of channel surrounds.
Menu: An excellent animated menu, complete with sepia colouring, which displays a pin-up board and a WANTED poster of the infamous duo. When an option is selected, bullets spray the board, and the menu zooms in through one of the bullet holes into another section. It’s always better when the menus are in keeping with overall tone of the actual film.
Packaging: A typical Fox amaray Region 1 layout, with silver borders donning the front cover with the letters SPECIAL EDITION being placed at the top. Contains a four-page booklet which contains details of chapter listings and a brief guide to the three stars of the film and George Roy Hill the director. The Region 2 version contains the same casing and artwork, but also incorporates a western-style cardboard outer slip-on dust-cover casing.
Audio Commentary By George Roy Hill, Robert Crawford, Conrad Hall, Hal David: An edited together commentary track pulled from four recorded separately participants. The commentators are director George Roy Hill, the associate producer/director of the 1970 ‘Making Of’ that is featured on the DVD, Robert Crawford, cinematographer Conrad Hall and lyricist Hal David, who collaborated with partner Burt Bacharach for the film’s score. Because the four have been recorded separately and edited together, the commentary track is rarely uninteresting, even if Robert Crawford seems to fill most of the track as he appears to remember the most detail. It is a shame the four couldn’t have sat together and produced a joint commentary, but for a film over thirty years old it’s a pleasure to still have four leading figures talking on the subject, even if Bacharach is notable by his absence.
1994 Interviews: A collection of interviews from the cast and crew shot in 1994. These are compelling viewing, as they contain each of the participants talking to camera about how they became involved in the film, without their thoughts being interrupted by an interviewer. Newman talks about how Steve McQueen became linked to the film and why he eventually pulled out. Redford describes how director Hill pushed the studios into hiring him, and also how Lulu Bentenson, Butch’s real-life sister, visited the crew on set. Katharine Ross, William Goldman and Burt Bacharach also feature, and they all have interesting perspectives. Interviews range from three minutes to fifteen minutes, and on the whole they are arguably more enjoyable than the 1970 ‘making of’ documentary also featured on the DVD. At the back end of the interviews are too amusing clips, titled ‘Maybe Some Of What Follows Is True’ and ‘All Of What Follows Is True’, and showing the stars disagreeing with each other’s memories of the production through the use of inter-cutting between their comments.
The Making Of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid – Documentary: A forty five minute documentary produced in 1970, and consisting of behind the scenes footage of the film’s production. Assembled by associate producer Robert Crawford, and featuring narration by the film’s cast and crew, this documentary is more interesting as a comparison to recent documentaries that suggest how techniques employed have become slicker and more audience-friendly. Even so, the documentary is very watchable, and cinematically historical as it contains contemporary footage from the film’s making, a quality that many sixties films lack. Also split-up into chapters for ease of navigation. Presented in 4:3 fullscreen.
Production Notes: Not the usual boring promotional production notes, but some gripping letters written at the time of the film’s pre-production, arguing over the proposed budgeting and cost elements. This is fascinating reading, and strange to see important filmmakers arguing through bureaucratic means. Also included, are elements of the script, and opinionated suggestions on the film’s faults by William Goldman.
Alternate Credit Role: For some reason, an alternative end-credit role was produced, supposedly to accompany the film’s re-release, as it is presented in a more conventional end-credit style, complete with Burt Bacharach score. Interesting to have, but not something you’ll want to watch.
3 Trailers: Three 1969 trailers for the film, edited differently in composition and tone, yet still maintaining the true spirit of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Presented in non-anamorphic widescreen.
The film is likeable, funny, technically brilliant and has much to say about the old west, so on that count it’s hard not to like Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. The sound and picture qualities of the DVD are excellent considering the thirty two year age of the film, and the extras are fantastic, and are definitely a case of quality over quantity. A classic ‘Buddy’ movie with Newman and Redford in their prime, the two men themselves remnants of a dying age of classic sixties cinema as it moved into the seventies.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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