Butch Cassidy versus the Accountants

I watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid recently. I first saw it in 1969 and it had a big effect on me, as did many films of that time. However, most of those films are deservedly forgotten or they were so of their time that they are now unwatchable or they were simply very bad. I was much easier to please in those days. Butch Cassidy is still as good now as it was then, perhaps in many ways, better. One would think that with the terrific technological advances made it would seem dated. That is not the case. It helps that it is a western; there are no outfits or hairstyles to go out-of-date. Films now date very quickly with phones and computers becoming obsolete practically overnight. But really, there is little about this film that shows it was made 45 years ago. It is timeless.

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The only lack from a spectator’s point of view would be the lack of moving cameras. Perhaps some long shots could have been improved, but only very little. The 27 minute chase scene never gives a close up of the pursuers; in some of the long distance shots you can barely see them, so maybe a slightly closer view would help, but I don’t think it matters. The fact that the pursuers are barely visible makes the whole situation slightly more sinister; it adds mystery.

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The three main leads are impossibly attractive and do not seem dated in the slightest. The whole film is full of humour; even the death scene at the end is humorous; you know it’s coming, Butch and Sundance know they are going to die, but they face the inevitable with the same attitude they faced their whole lives with. The film is a celebration of life. Butch is more intelligent than the average outlaw; he spends the whole film running away, not something the average cowboy did – they usually stood, fought and died. Butch and Sundance do their best to find more banks or trains to rob; their day is done but they keep trying. Ten seconds before they die they are planning a trip to Australia. Their pursuers are never really seen: they are the enemy; we identify totally with Butch and Sundance. The last scene was accurate: they faced about 200 soldiers as they made their last stand. All those people to kill two bandits.

I had forgotten how slowly the film starts. I cannot remember if I was bored at the time, but once the chase begins the film is gripping. The chemistry between Newman and Redford makes the film; brilliant lines that everyone remembers:

‘Who are those guys?’

‘Hell, the fall will probably kill you’

and many more. The film is a paean to friendship, friendship to the end. It is wonderful. Remember also that the film was made before a pubic hair had been seen on the screen or a swear word uttered.

 

George Roy Hill ‘shot’ the film with beautiful scenery and colour, perfect teamwork between the main actors and a great script. The late Paul Newman, speaking on the twenty fifth anniversary of the film in 1994, said:

‘In those days they shot films. Now they shoot schedules, budgets, someone’s bonus or a release date, but that film was shot. That may be why it worked. There was a lot of pressure at the end on George Roy Hill to hurry up the distribution because some southern distributor said he could get a million one out of Texas and Arizona. George lived in someone’s dressing room so that he wouldn’t waste 20 minutes driving to and from the set.’

Robert Redford said that George Roy Hill created space for behaviour and character. He had discipline and knew exactly what he wanted to do. Redford believed the critics missed the core of the movie: bonding and friendship. Actors worked on days off and didn’t let ego get in the way of the film. Redford said that it was

‘The most fun on any film I’ve had.’

I can’t hep but feel that this is analogous to our times, 45 years on. There are too many people managing who don’t know what they’re doing. They are taking an awful lot of money for telling people who do know what they’re doing what to do: in education, health and finance – they are everywhere, but especially in films. With the massive advances in technology, cameras can do anything and most directors overdo the scene switches and close ups. Until about ten years ago only one or two people could edit a film; it was a skilled job. Now anybody can do it and many talentless studio executives do edit films because they don’t like the ending or because, possessing a massive ego and little else, they think they know best. Writing appears to count for very little: we’ll just make up for it with special effects. Writers have rarely been given credit in film, now, in most cases, particularly in the US, they are obsolete or just provide conveyor belt stuff.

 

Forty five years ago executives tried to interfere with George Roy Hill’s vision for Butch Cassidy. They failed. With technology as it is and a perverse political correctness holding sway, the money men have taken over. Hollywood does still produce some good stuff but it is rare. I would rather watch a Latin American, Scandinavian or French film, costing pennies but showing a little intelligence, than most of what is churned out today.

 

And if you haven’t seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, watch it now. And if you have seen it, watch it again. As Paul Newman said:

‘The film was about the delight of the film maker. All the ingredients have to work. We had a terrific time.’

 

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