Think ya used enough dynamite there, Butch?
For a film that is so famous (and rightly so) for its crackling verbal interplay and brilliant one-liners, there really isn’t a great deal of dialogue. Whole minutes, and groups of minutes, elapse without a word being spoken. It begins with a silent movie and ends with a freeze frame. In between there are three extended sections that break the conventions of the contemporary western circa 1969. The first, and perhaps the most celebrated, more closely resembles a music video than a scene from a movie, as Paul Newman and Katharine Ross enjoy the delights of a pastoral bike ride accompanied by the song, Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head. The second is a photo story montage of genuine shots of turn of the century New York interspersed with staged stills of Newman, Redford and Ross seemingly enjoying the delights of that city at that time; all to a ragtime score. The third is a second silent movie, but this time done in a sequence, of alternating long shots and close-ups, of the three settling into life as bank robbers in South America. All three are brilliantly done with memorable musical accompaniment (virtually the only music in an otherwise diegetic soundtrack) and all three have divided opinion as to how well they fit into the overall movie.
I’ve been on both sides of the argument in my time. I love the bicycle sequence but am unsure if it belongs in the film. I used to regard it as a pastoral interlude to lighten a storyline that otherwise might be a little bitter for a sixties family audience. (It is after all about two men who make their living by killing and robbing). George Roy Hill’s justification is that the movie needed some wholesome elaboration, or explanation, of the three way relationship between Sundance, Butch and Etta Place. Writer William Goldman also wanted to explain why Etta was close to both outlaws while being attached to just one of them. He was also aware of the little exploited fact that bicycles had been an enormous popular craze in the West during the 1890s. The scene has parallels with the roller skating scene from Heaven’s Gate. In both movies the film makers were being faithful with history in a way that surprised the audience while providing a musical highlight for each film.
The music, in the bicycling interlude, is perfect from the opening ukulele strums to the dance of the clowns that ends it. I’ve always had my doubts about the lyrics though. Hal David claims that the words relate directly to the character of Butch, who is a happy go lucky optimist to whom bad things keep happening. Thus the raindrops are a simple metaphor and they are falling on his head. All justifiable but that doesn’t stop the line about a guy who’s feet are too big for his bed jarring in more ways than one.
The ragtime music to the photographic sequence is faultless and dripping with a nostalgia for days which are gone yet still yearned for. I love this part of the film. It comes at the end of a half hour relentless chase and we’re ready for it. The three actors are completely believable and very beautiful in the sepia tinged shots. It’s much my favourite of the non-naturalistic parts of the film. Newman and Redford are even more attractive in the smart tweed suits and bowler hats than as cowboys and Katharine Ross’s Etta Place wins my heart every time with her photo-plate loveliness.
The acting and the cinematography of the South American bank robbing sequence is also close to perfect but the music is horribly dated, and horribly dated to a certain genre of sixties films which often involved sports cars, scarves and the empty mountain roads of the South of France. The problem is the use of the human voice as a solo instrument using only the dub a dibba vocalisation and the upper vocal register. It’s a very white version of scat singing that was inexplicably popular at the time. Even as great a composer as Burt Bacharach fell for the trend. The silent film it accompanies is good enough to carry the tune but it isn’t helped by it.
Taken separately the three sequences achieve different levels of success but taken in context they all work remarkably well and add to the overall specialness of the film. Such sequences were new in 1969. They’ve been tried many times since but never as memorably as in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Very few works of art are flawless and the greatness of many owe something to the beauty of the faults.
In choosing to film his story through alternating naturalistic and non-naturalistic scenes, George Roy Hill was breaking new ground. He was also drawing parallel lines with style and content. The film purports to be a true story yet plays around with what facts are known about the characters. The film seems to be taking us through a cinematic journey through the last years of their lives; from about 1895 to 1909 and yet it is played out to a soundtrack that includes a sixties country singer and a style of jazz that didn’t become popular until years after their apparent deaths. There is a degree of artistic licence, a degree of keeping onside with the censor and a fair smattering of altering the story to fit in with the anticipated tastes of 1969 cinemagoers.
One battle that director and writer fought throughout the process was one of getting the balance right between comedy (non-naturalistic) and history (naturalistic). Shakespeare’s plays are famously divided by scholars into histories, comedies, tragedies and problem plays. William Goldman (writer) and George Roy Hill (director) created a film that fits all four categories. And they were very successful at it. So much so that, though aspects of the film have been much imitated, nobody has ever tried to copy it.
At the beginning of the film a little notice appears which declares “Most of what follows is true.” First it sets the film up as a history with a tragic ending. The tone of the statement is deliberately flippant without being unduly so. The comic strand of the film is thus set going. The notice originally read “Not that it matters much but most of what follows is true”. In fact, this notice remained until George Roy Hill became worried that the preview audiences were simply roaring with laughter for most of the two hours before being brought to a juddering halt by the ending. The balance was deemed to be too far in favour of comedy. The editing out of “Not that it matters much” was not the only change that was made, but can be seen as a microcosm of the larger debate.
How true is the film?
Taken scene by scene, not very. Butch did lead a gang that was sometimes called The Hole in the Wall Gang. It did contain a man called Harvey Logan. He was better known in real life as Kid Curry. He didn’t look anything like Ted Cassidy (better known as Lurch from The Addams Family) and he never challenged Butch for leadership of the gang. They did rob The Union Pacific Train twice; both times using dynamite and the second time rather too much dynamite. The railway was owned and run by a Mr A H Harriman and the money on the train was guarded by a man called Woodcock. Harriman did appoint a super posse to bring Butch Cassidy to justice but as soon as he heard of this, Butch left the country. There was no knife fight for gang leadership and no long chase across sand, rock and canyon. Etta Place is portrayed as a school teacher in the film whereas she was probably a prostitute. They did go to Bolivia and may have been killed there. But they also went to Argentina and if you read accounts by relatives they returned to the USA in the 1920s and if you read Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, they stayed in Argentina for many years after they were supposed to have been killed.
The film is thus inaccurate as to many of the known facts and even more inaccurate to many of the disputed facts. And yet it could still be argued, and argued accurately, that most of what follows is true. Two American bank robbers were killed by the military in Bolivia in 1909 (or possibly 1911). No one knows who they were for sure. There were quite a number of American outlaws who decamped to South America once the railways, the telegraph, photography and organised detective agencies made it difficult for them to hide in the old West. It was actually a holiday humour trip into a Fort Worth photographers that spelt the end for the Hole in the Wall Gang. The photographer was so pleased with the image that he captured that he displayed it in his shop window, where it was spotted, the very next day, by a member of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Prior to this they had no real idea what Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid looked like. Within a week thousands of Wanted posters were on display all over their old stomping grounds with their own images on them.
To paraphrase the style of the film. The lives of Butch and Sundance, and of a real woman called Etta Place are portrayed in the film and if the events don’t correspond exactly with the known facts of their lives then they correspond with the known or unknown facts of some other people’s lives. It’s a remarkable piece of writing, acting, directing and cinematography. It’s an eternal delight. It never fails to please and I look forward to watching it many more times before I reach my own Bolivia. And they don’t even have to make me an officer.