The Western is a genre which is somewhat unique in the way it can be both serious and fun, often at the same time. While some works are defiantly one or the other, The Searchers is a film for which “fun” is essentially absent for instance, they are wish-fulfillment films which also get a sense of the profound. Looking at Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid from the outside, it would be easy to think that the film is entirely light-hearted, indeed even the tagline proudly exclaims “Just For The Fun Of It!” but on this first watch, it struck me just how much the film feels like an ode to realising that at a certain point in life you have to either accept what’s coming, and eventually what comes to everyone, or die in a stubborn bid to prove that you can always live at your highest.
This is something the structure of the film bears out well. William Goldman’s pretty much perfect screenplay is all snappy, smart, frequently hilarious dialogue at the beginning before getting slower and more contemplative while still keeping the edge which keeps you on-side with Butch & Sundance even when they aren’t people you should really be getting behind at all. When you have lines such as ”Boy, I’ve got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals” and Butch’s brilliant exchanges with the defiant Woodcock, among myriad other pleasures, you’re always going to be on-board though.
This all helps in making what happens in the second half of the film all the more effecting though. Unlike many Western characters who essentially realise that they’re too old for this shit, Butch tries to kick-start his glory days in Bolivia and while things go well for a spell, there’s always the sense that their luck is catching up with them, climaxing with a terrific last scene which rather has its cake and eats it, allowing Butch & Sundance their chance to bow out in a sepia toned final shot making their legend while also showing just how out of chances they are.
All of this would be ever so depressing were it not for the presence of both Paul Newman and Robert Redford pulling off a matey chemistry throughout as if they had been childhood friends. What is key to their relationship however is their differences, be it their different backgrounds or in a telling sequence, their approach to women. The rather startling scene of Sundance making Katherine Ross’ Etta strip shows off his raw sexual charisma at the time but also his callow, full of machismo and prideful self whereas Butch’s more playful, whimsical encounters with Etta make you wonder just who Etta should be with just before she herself ponders this out loud. While Etta herself is somewhat under-developed she helps bring out the differences in our two leads and makes them a more three-dimensional prospect as a result.
Saying all this though, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid isn’t quite the instant 5-star classic for me that it is for many people. Despite being far short of 2 hours, there’s a sense of padding to the film at times which makes things a little more langourious than they need to be and this especially hurts the more reflective second half. While some of the montages are very well staged, the sepia toned photos showing the threesome’s time in New York is original and visually dynamic for sure, the extended sequences showing the boys having fun robbing people feel a little too much like pandering to the whims of showing off Newman and Redford in their “these guys are STARS” glory more than anything else.
Still though, with exceptional cinematography by Conrad Hall, the opening in particular further evoking the “print the legend” feel to the whole tale, a playful score by Burt Bacarach which knows when to be used and when to keep quiet, and a colourful cast of supporting characters, this is a film which tells an entertaining story which becomes more reflective and in the end, more powerful than it might otherwise have been. Still a very worthwhile watch nearly 45 years on.