It does not take a historian to note how malnourished and jagged the late 1960s were in American society, or to point out the cataclysm that was the destruction of a nation whose identity had for centuries been predicated on turning the other cheek and smoothing over tension with a facade of nationalist fervor and small-town boot-strap pulling. Things erupted in the late ’60s, the nation fell apart, and film went with it, using that dislocation and terror to create a new breed of films that felt bruised and alienated and hurting from that social apprehension down to their very bones.
Many of these films filtered their newly-fractured Americana through the Western genre, a decision that was both fruitful and important. The Western, after all, had been the focal point of American traditionalism in the film world, calling for machismo and the glory of yore and above all centering the all-important idea of the individual so central to American culture. Over the years, the genre became a push-pull battleground for American exceptionalism and social critique that resulted in some fascinatingly confused, torn-to-pieces works of Western moralism like John Ford’s The Searchers, eventually giving way to a corpus of revisionist works like Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller at the crux of the New Hollywood American New Wave. These works took the Western to task in bold, brash, even brutal new ways and refused to give in to the genre’s hifalutin dreams of a supposed “simpler life”.
In the midst of this battle-ground, something like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid feels naïve in its classical Hollywood swagger and actorly gee-whiz cool. To put it simply, pop cinema was on the way out in the early ’70s, and this 1969 film was already beginning to feel like a relic of a by-gone era when it was released. Positioned as little more than a “star vehicle” for new bad boys about town Paul Newman and Robert Redford and directed by a craftsperson whose idea of filmmaking was to get it on the screen and entertain without necessarily disrupting the social order of things, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid didn’t have much to offer the turn of the 1970s, did it?
That depends on your perspective, I suppose. On one hand, it did not, nor did it want to, revolutionize the medium like The Wild Bunch, for instance, and it is not as good nor as important as Sam Peckinpah’s nervous concrete-slab blast of sheer filmic force and energy. It doesn’t feel rebellious, largely because its lightly mischievous, inexorable take on social rebellion is largely safe and even non-chalant. It is not a work with a desire to subvert or challenge, but to entertain. Which is itself a challenge to the late 1960s and a reminder of a time when film served the primary purpose of not explaining something about human society but helping that human society through difficult times. It is easy to call this immoral and it is easy to call it moral, but it is more likely “amoral” in that it rejects theme and intention for craft, something that serves at once to help the late ’60s rest a little with a work of escapism and also fails to do much to actually stoke the fires of social critique. Arguably, Butch and Sundance are out of place in their release year, playing like a relic of older times with little, too little, to say about the state of things.
Things are further complicated by the film’s position as a “Western”, that most conservative of genres. Hill does throw a wrench into the social-order-first stakes of most older Westerns by falling in love with two do-it-yourself Americans who are labelled criminals by the man, a very real insertion of the late ’60s socially rebellious streak into the film. This film is quick to remind that, when you get down to it, our fetishization of “the individual succeeding against the society” is at odds with our desires to penalize and criminalize actions of certain individuals who are seen as social diseases rather than manifestations and victims of that inegalitarian society in the first place. It is an outlaw Western, an attempt to introduce the social outcast into that lasting tradition of American individuals but not an attempt to necessarily critique that tradition per-se; it simply asks why we are so quick to penalize individuals for turning to crime in opportunities where no other options exist except crime while we elsewhere faun over the idea of the “individual” overcoming the odds society has put before them.
This too is complicated, however, by the white-male nature of the protagonists; it is questionable whether audiences who fell in love with Butch and Sundance, just like they fell in love with the Wild Bunch, would treat a black criminal in the 1970s in the same way, and it is questionable whether that film would have been made. If it is amoral, then, we must remember that a film that wishes to be amoral still has moral implications for the society that produces it, and it still says something about who we allow to be outlaws in our cinematic society. And in our real society, for that matter.
So Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid is a mixed bad morally, but its existence at the intersection of the fluffy pop of the 1960s and the hard-won caustic social critique of the early 1970s necessitates that; it feels like a confused film in the broad strokes, but something about its easy-going resistance to over-arching statements fascinates and compels nonetheless. Some of this has to go to director George Roy Hill, whose slight treatment of the material skirts the edge of irony and satire, taking William Goldman’s loopy, charismatically slight script and giving it a shaggy-dog episodic formlessness that goes right up to the point of open-faced artifice. The way it moves from beat to beat without ever really selling us on the narrative almost seems like a greatest hits show of the Old West rather than a full-fledged behemoth of Western reality, and the showy, deliberate cinematography by Conrad Hall deals in none of the rough-hewn sand and weary emptiness we might expect from Westerns of the late 1960s. Everything has an air of pageantry, of show, even of theater (take the Burt Bacharach music, utterly nonsensical in the story, but exciting in how artificial it is and how little it should fit into the Western genre).
Which says nothing of stars Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy) and Robert Redford (The Sundance Kid), who essay two deliberately modern figures who want nothing to do with the ways of the classic West, damn near staring at the screen when they read their lines. The way the camera gazes at the two with the zeal of a paparazzi doesn’t so much introduce them to the Western mythos as treat them like modern-day movie stars; Redfords’ leathery skin is less beaten-down here than glimmering and golden. Which is itself a commentary on the Western myth. The overwhelming sense of the film is not that the Western is a good vision of a truth but a parade of slight bedtime stories about folk heroes who, for all their charm and guile, will always necessarily be fake. At some level then, this is a pop critique of popular Westerns for acting like the Old West was ever a real place we ought to relish and look to for a moral vision of the world. The Old West, the film says, is nothing but the domain of cinema, and as fun as that cinema may be, it can never be a calling card for how to build a society.
In its own way then, Butch and Sundance are iconographic characters in the same vein as The Wild Bunch themselves, with Hill doing as much as Peckinpah to expose the fictional qualities of the Old West. Of course, Hill was no Peckinpah. He was no angry young director, and thus his film isn’t per-se a criticism of this fiction. Hill is obviously at play in material he loves, and something about the spirit of the film resists criticizing the Western; but then, that is the difference between critique and criticism, and both have their value. Hill’s film exposes the West for fiction, but it very obviously wishes to imbibe in this fiction and have a boatload of mocking, self-conscious fun with that fiction, which is a sort of middle-way between genuinely reprimanding the genre and loving it for its morality, but not a middle-way that thoroughly resists the genre entirely.
The cheeky opening credits about the two outlaws in the 1890s, shown over an early cinema clip from when the medium was still getting its feet off the ground, literalizes this subtext. At the end of the day, it says, all this fiction and fluff is just fiction and fluff. Wonderful fiction and fluff, but nothing more than a free-wheeling populist work of audience-feeding designed to make a buck and have fun while at it. How much you enjoy the film will depend on your ability to give in to its fluff, but, at the least, Hill and all involved do their best to get us there (the film is an impeccable work of sheer craft at the nuts and bolts level of filmmaking).
The critics, frankly, were right. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid didn’t quite belong around the turn of 1970, and its “new age of society stamping out the old” theme, borrowed from The Wild Bunch, says as much about the 20th century as it did the 19th. When that famous ending hits like a bullet and Butch and Sundance are stamped, themselves, into the Western landscape forever as bygone relics of a lost time, the film is sending the Westerns of Old off into the sun and making way for the new order of things. Which is a statement that applies, in its own way, to any time period in flux and any period of social dislocation that plays home to the rejected and the dislocated in society. Like those more challenging works from the likes of Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman, this story of Butch and Sundance always on the run from the law feels timeless. It isn’t at all savage, but it is savagely fun, and in its own lithe way, savagely deconstructionist.