While the revisionist Western had been around since the 1950s (starting, according to some, with Winchester ’73), it wasn’t until the late 1960s and the break-up of the studio system that it really got a major overhaul. With super-violent, anti-hero characters in Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood movies, devastating satires such as Blazing Saddles, Support Your Local Sheriff, and Cat Ballou, the Western became something quite different from the early simple “white hat/black hat” tales.
Then there is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Written by William Goldman, who worked on the script for over a decade, it was rejected by nearly every studio. One demanded he change the part where the real-life outlaws run from a Pinkerton posse to South America because “John Wayne don’t run away.” Protestations that this was historically accurate fell on deaf ears.
When it was finally bought, Jack Lemmon was initially sought out to play Sundance (I know, that shocked me, too). He turned down the film because he didn’t like riding horses. Warren Beatty also turned it down. Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were set to play the two leads but McQueen dropped out over disagreements with Newman. Eventually the role of the Sundance Kid went to Robert Redford, up to then an actor who mostly played romantic leads.
Thus was born not only one of the great cinematic duos of all time, but one of the most enduring Hollywood friendships. To this day, Redford credits Newman with his rise to stardom. Since Newman’s death, Redford reportedly remains close to his widow Joanne Woodward and their children.
The film received a lukewarm reception (even Roger Ebert gave it only a mediocre review). While satire has long been a sub-genre of the Western, this film is less a satire and more a unique melding of action, humor, and ultimate tragedy. Critics were befuddled by the long chase sequence in the middle of the film (now a classic sequence with the famous leap off a cliff by the reluctant Sundance) and dinged director George Roy Hill for squandering the film’s promising beginning. They also complained for years afterwards that the film gave birth to the modern concept of the “buddy” film, which resulted in many movies over the next couple of decades teaming up two male stars.
Of course, there had been many buddy films before Butch Cassidy. But it was fairly unusual at the time for a film to focus so much on a friendship between two male characters. I think it also aggravated (mostly male) critics that two such handsome men were more interested in each other than the female lead (Katherine Ross, as Sundance’s girlfriend Etta Place).
The chemistry between Newman and Redford has rarely been matched since, their comic timing is impeccable. The dialogue by Goldman is, well, GOLD:
Butch: I don’t want to sound like a sore loser, but when it’s over, if I’m dead, kill him.
Sundance Kid: I can’t swim. [to Butch]
Butch: replies: Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.
Butch Cassidy: Jeesh, all Bolivia can’t look like this.
Sundance Kid: How do you know? This might be the garden spot of the whole country. People may travel hundreds of miles just to get to this spot where we’re standing now. This might be the Atlantic City, New Jersey of all Bolivia for all you know.
Butch: Look, I know a lot more about Bolivia than you know about Atlantic City, New Jersey, I can tell you that!
Sundance Kid: Aha! You do, huh? I was born there!
In spite of the unenthusiastic reviews, the film won Goldman the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, and is now considered one of the best films of the 1960s. Newman and Redford would team up again a few years later in The Sting (again directed by George Roy Hill), which won the Oscar that year for Best Film.
Newman and Redford considered reteaming again after The Sting, but nothing ever came of it. Perhaps that’s a good thing. This is one instance where lightning struck twice. Trying for a third strike might have been pushing it.