WolfmanOz at the Movies #60

Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true

Was the original disclaimer written by legendary screenwriter William Goldman at the beginning of the 1969 western classic Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid although the director George Roy Hill deleted the first five words when he noticed in previews that the caption was generating laughs.

When the film hit the screens 54 years ago, cinema was still relatively squeaky clean. Not only did heroes, especially in Westerns, play fair, they were on the right side of law and order, not professional outlaws like Butch and Sundance. This was a movie that changed all the rules overnight, and did so with such panache that it became a box-office sensation and embedded itself in the public’s affections forever.

Despite initial hiccups, it was clear from very early on that the film was going to be special. It started as the pet project of screenwriter and novelist William Goldman, who by chance come across the story of Robert Parker aka Butch Cassidy and Harry ‘Sundance Kid’ Longabaugh, who had both become famous in the days of the Wild West but were not well-known to the contemporary public. Goldman was intrigued by the pair because their non-killing approach to their robberies had made them popular with the people and because the resurrection of their activities in South America after they’d been hounded out of their native country.

It wasn’t too surprising that Paul Newman, a star since the mid-50s and currently riding high for his acclaimed performances in Hombre and Cool Hand Luke, was invited to be in the film, not least because he’d recently appeared in the Goldman-scripted Harper. However, Newman was under the impression that he was being asked to play Sundance and had to be corrected by director George Roy Hill. “I went back and read the script that night and thought, hell, the parts are really about equal and they’re both great parts.” Newman recalled. “So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll be Butch.’

We all now know the man destined to play his partner in crime but 20th Century Fox didn’t originally want Robert Redford in the picture because he was a not a major star. However, Newman insisted, and a new superstar emerged.

The film mocked western conventions as much as it celebrated them, nowhere more so than the scene where the duo evaded the posse on their trail. In their stomach-churning jump off a cliff into a river below, the pair, far from being heroic, were scared and undignified.

Something else that made us feel the picture had an edgy and contemporary feel was the razor sharp dialogue. Although the two protagonists were intensely loyal to one another, that didn’t rule out a constant call-and-response of sniping and bitching. “Is that what you call cover?”, “Is that what you call running?”. Up until the film was released, audiences had only been used to such repartee from stand-up comedians.

Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid presented us with a catalogue of superb and instantly memorable scenes. All these passages have subsequently become iconic. Most iconic of all is the poignant finale. Cornered by the authorities, the pair determined to start a new life in Australia once they’ve escaped, unaware of the fact that an entire army regiment lay in wait for them. As Butch and Sundance charge their opponents, the scene was freeze-framed, then darkened to sepia as the soldiers’ volleys resounded . . .

For all its edginess, the movie contained no gore, nudity or profanity (unless we count the never-completed expletive during the descent into the river).

The film actually got off to a shaky commercial start. Several key reviewers derided it. However, any concern on the part of its participants soon lifted when it became clear that the film was becoming a word-of-mouth sensation. It proceeded to achieve the status of the year’s top-grossing movie in the USA, doing more than twice the business of nearest competitors Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider. The critics must have been even more irate when his screenplay garnered Goldman an Oscar for Original Screenplay. The film also won Academy Awards for Cinematography, Music and Song (the unforgettable Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head). Unfortunately it missed out on Best Picture which IMO it should have won.

Redford later recalled that he had no idea of what a game-changer Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid would be. “None of us felt we were making the landmark western of the late Sixties,” he observed. “But the ground did move. On Butch Cassidy, I remember laughing a lot and thinking, ‘This is just too much fun, which means it’s either shit or gold.'”


and the tease for next weeks post (dead easy) . . . They call me Mr. Tibbs !