Favorite Films: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

“What happened to the old bank? It was beautiful.”
“People kept robbing it.” “Small price to pay for beauty.”

Adapted from a screenplay by William Goldman, director George Roy Hill’s 1969 film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, opens with a line asserting that “most of what follows is true”. And indeed, with the occasional artistic embellishment, it is a true story of the end of the lives of notorious outlaws Robert Parker, alias Butch Cassidy, and Harry Longabaugh, known as the Sundance Kid. Cassidy was the leader of the Wild Bunch — here dubbed the “Hole-in-the-Wall Gang” after their hideout, to avoid confusion with Sam Peckinpah’s movie The Wild Bunch, which came out the same year — and Sundance was his long-time friend and partner.

Several different actors were considered for the roles. Dustin Hoffman as Butch. Marlon Brando as Sundance. Jack Lemmon as Sundance. Eventually Hill had his stars: Steve McQueen as the Sundance Kid, and Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy. The script, at the time, was titled The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy; when McQueen dropped out Newman and his character were given top billing and Robert Redford came on board as Sundance, a role that he would embrace so strongly he uses the name as his personal brand to this day. Though the casting went through several changes, the final pairing was perfect; though Redford and Newman had never worked together before, they got along famously on set, and the friendship had a visible impact on the film, making their characters’ on-screen friendship seem that much more authentic.

“I didn’t know you were the Sundance Kid when I said you were cheating. If I draw on you, you’ll kill me.” “There’s that possibility.”

The easy friendship was important for the portrayal of the characters. Though the film was not billed as a comedy, nearly every line fits into a form of comedic dialogue. Butch and Sundance trade smart remarks back and forth continually on screen. It’s rare that they say anything that is completely unworthy of a laugh. While not much is known of what the real Butch Cassidy may have said, this is in keeping with at least the spirit of the outlaw’s life; Cassidy was known to have been an unusually affable bank and train robber, and was not known to have shot anybody during his crime spree in the United States. In fact, despite Sundance’s reputation as a fast draw, he also was not known to have killed anybody before leaving the United States, though he was known to have wounded several men. It is sometimes speculated that his reputation for killing was due to confusion with fellow Wild Bunch member Kid Curry, who was known to have killed several men. Goldman’s script emphasizes the sympathetic nature of these outlaws by having them talk their way out of trouble as much as possible, such as in the card game that introduces Sundance. (Incidentally, if you pay attention, you’ll see Sam Elliott’s film debut as one of the card players.)

“Well you always said that anyone of us could challenge you Butch.”
“Well, that’s cause I figured no one would do it.” “Figured wrong, Butch.”

The film starts in 1898, and after a brief sepia-tone intro transitions into full color as Butch and Sundance head back to the Hole in the Wall to plan their next operation. Butch discusses going to Bolivia, where he thinks the pickings will be easy with gold mines and silver mines opening up everwhere; Sundance laughingly dismisses the idea, saying “You just keep thinkin’, Butch; that’s what you’re good at”. When they arrive at the Hole in the Wall, Butch finds his leadership is being threatened by gang member Harvey Logan (Ted Cassidy); Harvey Logan, incidentally, was an alias of Kid Curry, so it is unsurprising that the wildest of the Wild Bunch attempts a coup in the film. Butch’s defeat of Harvey is quick and hilarious, and shows a lot about Butch’s character. He leads primarily by his mouth, and he’s willing to cheat to win a fight. And he’s not above taking an idea from one of his henchmen if it, to his surprise, turns out to be a good idea. They rob the Union Pacific Overland Flyer, planning to hit it as it goes in each direction. After a successful heist, they split up and after a night on the town (including a hilarious scene in which they laugh at a marshal who fails to rouse a posse to go after them), they wind up at the home of Etta Place, Sundance’s lover, played by Katharine Ross.

“Raindrops keep falling on my head…”

The famous bicycle sequence was largely unscripted, and was put in to get more use out of Ross, whose character did not have as many lines in the script as her costars. Paul Newman ad-libbed and performed most of the bicycle stunts himself, except for the final one where he crashes into a bullpen. The sequence was shot by the second unit director, Michael D. Moore, who decided to shoot the sequence through items such as fences and bushes when possible to give a sense of the surroundings. The actors made jokes about it, with Newman making a mask out of a bush in a behind-the-scenes still, but the scene was a favorite of Ross’s, who appreciated the ability to work without director Hill being present. While Newman and Redford both worked well with Hill, who sometimes heeded their suggestions, the director’s relationship with Ross was more acrimonious. After Ross assisted with one of the cameras in the first train robbery scene, at the direction of a camera operator but without Hill’s permission, Hill banned her from the set at any time she wasn’t being filmed.

“But that doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turning red…”

The song used in the scene, “Raindrops Keep Falling My Head”, has become one of the most recognized movie songs. It won a Best Original Song Academy Award for songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and Bacharach also won an Oscar and a Grammy for Best Motion Picture Score. This is particularly impressive as the movie is mostly unscored. There are only four sequences in the film that have musical scores: the bicycle sequence, the good times montage as the trio leave for New York, the Bolivian robbery montage, and the scene in which Etta decides to leave Butch and Sundance. The rest of the film was deliberately left without a musical soundtrack.

“Hey, what are you doin’?” “Stealin’ your woman.” “Take her… take her.”
“Well, you’re a romantic bastard, I’ll give you that.”

Very little is known about the real-life Etta Place, including what her actual name was; the name Etta Place was settled on by the Pinkerton Agency based on several varying aliases she used while traveling with the Sundance Kid. It is not known what happened to her after she left the duo, nor is it known for certain just who she was before she met up with them. The two most common theories are that she was a schoolteacher or a prostitute; screenwriter William Goldman chose the former for his film, and though director George Roy Hill has stated he thought the latter was more likely, he went along with Goldman. Regardless of the truth behind the real person, her role in the film is to act as a gentling factor on Butch and Sundance, reminding them of the simpler pleasures they’re trying to work for, and acting as a more level head than either of the two men. Ross plays well off of both Newman and Redford, and by the time her character departs the film, she has served to make the two main characters seem even more inseparable.

“Think ya used enough dynamite there, Butch?”

The plot is started off in earnest with the second attempt at robbing the Overland Flyer. Though Butch and Sundance meet only minimal opposition initially — in the form of the friendly-but-determined payroll clerk Woodcock (George Furth) — they are soon set upon by a “super posse” consisting of lawmen and trackers that the railroad owner has hired to track down and kill Butch and Sundance. The scene required a special railroad car to be constructed so the posse could ride out from the car without breaking their necks. The next sequence consists of an extended chase sequence, filmed at locations that Hill specifically chose to showcase their cinematic appeal. Meanwhile, the “super posse”, of whom only two members are ever named — Indian tracker Lord Baltimore and lawman Joe Lefors — is shown only in the distance, making them seem even more superhuman in their persistence.

“Who are those guys?”

Butch and Sundance try any number of tricks and stratagems to elude their pursuers. The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang splits up… but the posse focuses solely on Butch and Sundance. They ditch one of their horses, sending it off alone, but the posse isn’t fooled. They hide out in a town, they are caught out. They try for an amnesty from a local sheriff, but are denied. No matter what they try, they can’t seem to escape. Finally they conclude that the only way they’re going to get out with their lives is if they can give them the slip long enough to completely lose them. As Butch says, “the next time I say ‘Let’s go to someplace like Bolivia’, let’s go someplace like Bolivia!” Diving off a cliff into a river, they finally manage to put enough distance between them and their pursuers to make their getaway.

“I can’t swim.” “Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.”

The cliff diving scene was shot in two locations. The river was not deep enough for the stuntmen to jump into it, so Hill had Newman and Redford jump off onto a mattress just under the ledge. A glass screen was matte-painted to look like the same canyon, and the rest of the scene was shot on a ranch, with the stuntmen jumping from a crane. The screen was used to make the two shots appear to be the same area.

After washing down the river for a ways, Butch and Sundance are able to lose their pursuers. They meet up with Etta, and convince her to go to Bolivia with them. She speaks Spanish, so she will be able to assist them in planning their robberies down there.

“I’ll do anything you ask of me except one thing. I won’t watch you die. I’ll miss that scene if you don’t mind.”

Before they go to Bolivia, there’s a montage of the trio’s activities in New York. Like the bicycle sequence, this was not precisely part of the script. The original script had called for a regular sequence of events with dialogue during this section, and director Hill had planned to use the sets for the film Hello, Dolly! (filmed at the same time) for the New York scenes. However, the studio denied him permission. Instead, Hill had his stars pose on the sets for still pictures, which were then cut out and pasted onto genuine photos from the turn of the century, and then filmed in sepia tone for the montage.

“Manos arriba!” “They got ’em up!”

Once in Bolivia, with some initial missteps due to their inability to grasp the Spanish language, Butch and Sundance carry on their robberies, becoming known as the Bandidos Yanquis (Yankee Bandits). Etta even helps them directly on some of the jobs, and there’s another musical montage as the trio carry on robbery after robbery, with the Bolivian officers unable to put a stop to them. But the happy times soon come to a halt as Butch and Sundance think they spy a familiar white hat in the crowd one day. Amazingly, Joe Lefors has apparently tracked them down to Bolivia and come after them. Though it’s well outside of his jurisdiction, they conclude he is there to kill them, not bring them back to justice. Butch hits upon an idea: If Lefors is really there, and is waiting for them to strike again… why not just call it quits? Let him wait forever as they go straight. Looking for work, Butch and Sundance hire on as bodyguards for a mining company, protecting the payroll from the very kind of outlaws they themselves used to be.

“Morons. I’ve got morons on my team. Nobody is going to rob us going down the mountain. We have got no money going down the mountain.”

Strother Martin plays their employer, Percy Garris, based on Percy Seibert, the mining engineer for whom the real life Butch and Sundance worked for while in Chile (in real life, the two traveled to several South American nations before ending up in Bolivia.) In the film, Butch and Sundance fail as guards, as Percy is fatally shot on the return trip up the mountain. In real life, Seibert survived meeting the pair without incident. The diversion from reality, however, serves an important dramatic purpose in the film. Tracking down the bandits and recovering the payroll, Butch Cassidy is finally forced to actually kill somebody, something he never had to do while acting outside of the law. In a tragic irony, going straight leads to him doing the one thing he never wanted to do, and as a result he and Sundance give up on the idea and resume their lives of crime. Etta leaves soon after, showing that she believes they won’t live much longer in that kind of life. Her intuition is proven correct when Butch and Sundance find themselves beset by an entire regiment of the Bolivian Army.

“Is that what you call giving cover?”
“Is that what you call running? If I knew you were going to stroll…”

George Roy Hill was reluctant to use the Bolivian Army, because he feared that the audience might not be able to believe it. He decided to do it anyway, because that was what happened in reality. In 1908, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were shot and killed during a shoot-out with the Bolivian Army. At least, that is the most common belief; there is some debate on the topic. It is known that two bandits were killed in such a shootout, but the bodies were buried in unmarked graves, leaving confirmation of their identities difficult to obtain. While some have stated it was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, including Percy Seibert, who affirmed having identified the bodies for the coroner, others have stated one or both of Butch and Sundance were alive afterward. Among those making such a claim was Lula Parker Betenson — Robert “Butch Cassidy” Parker’s own sister — who claimed that he reunited with her, their brother and father in 1925, 17 years after his alleged death. Betenson was still alive at the time of filming (the youngest of the 13 siblings of which Butch was eldest, she would die in 1980 at age 96), and frequently visited the set. She approved of the script and Paul Newman’s performance, and after some persuasion from Redford gave her official endorsement to the film. Regardless of her claims, however, Goldman and Hill wrote their movie with the Bolivian Army ending. It was the natural way to end the movie.

“We get out of here alive, we go to Australia. Goodbye, Bolivia. Hello to Australia.”

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid grossed over $100 million at the box office, making it the most successful film of its year, and adjusted for inflation, one of the 100 highest-grossing films ever. It met with more than box office success, however. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and took home four — Original Score, Original Song, Original Screenplay, and Cinematography. It did even better across the Atlantic, being nominated for ten BAFTA Film Awards, and taking home nine, which is still the record for a film. Those include all the major awards; Best Film, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay, etc. The only reason it didn’t manage all ten is that both Redford and Newman were nominated for Best Actor; Redford won out over Newman. History has been kind to it as well. In 2003, it was selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry. The American Film Institute ranks it as #7 on their list of the greatest westerns of all time, and #73 on their 2007 list of the greatest movies of all time.

It’s masterfully and painstakingly filmed. It has two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, at their peak, playing off of each other. It’s exciting. It’s funny. It’s just plain fun. And it’s one of my favorite films.

“You didn’t see Lefors out there, did you?” “Lefors? No.”
“Oh, good. For a moment there I thought we were in trouble.”

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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24 Responses to Favorite Films: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

  1. le0pard13 says:

    As you know, we’re on the same wavelength in regard to this film, Morgan. Wonderful piece on a truly stellar film. Thanks.

  2. Can you imagine how different this would have been if it had been McQueen/Newman? I think the comedy would have gone away…

    Another great post. Seriously, this is a great series and everytime I see that one of MY favorite movies is being covered, I get excited to read. Then, by the time I’m finished, I always wind up pissed… because what’s left to say in an MTESS? LOL. 😀

    Awesome post, this movie lends itself well to research, and you incorporate it in excellently, buddy.

    Top notch.

    • Yeah, I can see it being a lot more intense if it was McQueen with Newman. Though who knows, McQueen in a comedy might have worked out pretty well.

      I hear you on the MTESS / FF collisions. There have been a few films where I’ve held off an FF post to put some time between them and your MTESS. I’m pretty sure there’s always room for both, though — a lot of what makes these great films is that there is so much to discuss, you know?

  3. vinnieh says:

    Great post, haven’t seen this one in ages.

  4. One of my favorites as well, easily Top 5, and probably one of the most quotable movies of all time.There will never be another like it, and the continuing possibility of a remake chills my blood.

    Even so, I still love it when I see characters in other shows and movies good-naturedly bitching at each other. They never pull it off quite the way Newman & Redford did, but I like to see people still trying to recreate that dynamic.

    • Highly quotable. Just about every exchange between the two is gold, and you’re right that nobody quite pulls it off like the combination Newman and Redford. Which is why a remake would never work, no matter how much Hollywood thinks they can drop any two random stars in it.

      Fortunately, I tend to think that any time something has been discussed as “a possibility” for ten years or so, it’s probably so thoroughly mired in development hell that it’ll take a really determined push to get it out, and I can’t see anybody being that determined to do it, since it’s not something they can franchise. If anything, I think they would be more successful trying to tell a different story of the duo (though Butch and Sundance: the Early Years isn’t highly regarded from what I understand.)

  5. Eric says:

    Fantastic piece on a great film, Morgan. Just saw this for the first time earlier this year and I really enjoyed it. Had no idea that McQueen was set to star in this either. I’m kind of glad he didn’t, simply because Newman and Redford had such terrific chemistry together. Plus we may have never got The Sting, another classic film.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Eric. I agree, Newman and Redford had such great camaraderie that it really elevated the movie. And The Sting was great as well (and was another George Roy Hill film, of course.)

  6. kbrown2225 says:

    I have watched very, very closely and neither of the two “card players” look or sound anything like Sam Elliot. Which card player is supposed to be Sam Elliot at the beginning of the movie????

    • He’s the one that accuses Sundance of cheating before he realizes he’s Sundance. Remember, he’s a lot younger in this film; it would be a few years before he got famous, and a few more before he went grey. Look at his nose and jawline to really see him. To make it easier, here are a few images from the web: first one is from Butch & Sundance, second is from Roadhouse, and third is from The Big Lebowski. With Roadhouse in between, you should be able to see the progression of his aging fairly easily.

      • kbrown2225 says:

        Morgan, thank you so much for the response. The pictures do show the resemblance, but even in those pictures it is still hard to believe that is Sam Elliot. The other thing is the voice is so much different. Then again, as you point out, he was very young at the time, around 25, so that could explain the difference. I really appreciate your help on this one. It was driving me crazy. By the way, great write up on the film, it has always been one of my favorites also!

        • Believe me, I understand the difficulty. My ears and eyes kept giving me just enough hints that I thought he was familiar, but I couldn’t place him either until I looked it up.

          Looking at older movies a lot has really given me a sense of just how much people can change over time. I saw a film (Please Murder Me) from the 1950s that had a young Angela Lansbury in a starring role, and it was pretty hard to reconcile the twenty-something actress as being the same woman who starred in Murder She Wrote.

        • kbrown2225 says:

          Very true. Angela Lansbury was incredibly hot as Semadar in 1949’s “Samson and Delilah.” Hard to believe she is the same actress we all know from “Murder She Wrote.”

          As a film buff I love spotting the people in smaller roles who later became big stars (for instance Cloris Leachman as one of the prostitutes in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”)

          I suppose Sam Elliott is the ultimate winner here, since he is the one who eventually married Katherine Ross in real life…and they are still together!

        • PammyK says:

          Sorry, that’s NOT Sam Elliott. Sam said in an interview he wasn’t much more than a shadow on the wall and the only reason he got a credit was because he was under studio contract at the time. The guy above is named Donnelly Rhodes.

        • Sorry, you’re right. I got confused (hazard of coming back to it after a long time and just skimming things.) Elliott is indeed one of the non-speaking and unnamed card players, while Rhodes plays Macon, the one who accuses Sundance of cheating. Thanks for the correction.

      • zacal says:

        You’re mistaken, sorry. The actor pictured is Donnelly Rhodes.(He’s playing “Mr. Macon”, owner of the saloon.) He does look similar to Sam Elliott but it isn’t him. Mr. Elliott’s role must have been cut.

  7. kbrown2225 says:

    Donnelly Rhodes, wasn’t he the guy who played the convict “Dutch” back in the old “Soap” series in the 1970’s? He is listed in the credits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as “Macon.” I don’t remember them ever using the card players name in the movie.

    That would make the older fellow we see playing cards (Paul Bryar in the credits) “Card Player #1 and Sam Elliott (a shadow on the wall) as Card Player #2.

    I just looked up pictures of Donnelly Rhodes and it includes the above picture from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (not that it makes it conclusive), but you definately see the resemblance in his other pictures. Also the voice seems to be that of Rhodes, because it sure doesn’t seem to be the distinctive voice of Sam Elliott.

    Pammy, I think you called this one. Morgan, what do you think?

  8. Justin says:

    I think I figured out where Sam Elliott is. As Butch and Sundance are walking out of the bar, Sam can be seen to the bartender’s left – almost against the far wall. Bryar is to the far right in the scene, against the wall. Newman, Redford and Rhodes are at center.

    • kbrown2225 says:

      I think you are correct..If you look at the scene (here is a youtube link) and stop it at 2:40 it certainly appears to be Sam Elliott standing between the bartender and Robert Redford. Good call!

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