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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - A Review

Old movies are a rather new thing for me. Sure I’ve seen a fair few in my time, and by “Old” I mean anything pre-1981 when I was only just becoming consciously aware of the strange medium of film. But now as a thirty three year old movie goer with years of experience absorbing most of what Hollywood has thrown at my generation I find myself wanting something different – something more than the magic formulas of CGI and plots that seem to have come from the multiple stomachs of a cow, regurgitated only to be eaten and regurgitated again.

Put bluntly I’m sick of the same old thing, which is ironic because the same old thing is meant to be what’s new on the big screen these days…

Which is why I’ve begun to cast my eye on the good old golden era of film when the story, the characters and the actors who played them were everything or the movie was nothing. So what better place to start than an old film about the olden days?

The 1969 Classic - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

First things first, don’t judge a movie by its title, it has nothing to do with a bearded woman named Butch and her experiences overcoming prejudice with her dance partner on Dancing with the Stars! Nope, this is a Cowboy movie starring Paul Newman as Butch, that’s right you might remember him from shopping areas such as the Mayonnaise Lane and the Caesar Salad Shelf, but believe it or not before he was famous in the supermarket he was one of the coolest male actors to hit the screen since, well, Paul Newman! Co-starring is the pretty boy of my parent’s generation, Robert Redford, the guy who might never have made a hit in a salad bowl but boy could he act (and still can apparently).

Usually I would have avoided this sort of thing, I am after all a Doctor Who loving, light saber wielding, beam me up Scotty type and will usually only experience cinematic cathexis when the Frodo of a story sets out on the quest to end all quests or, I hate to admit it, but when the guy finally kisses the girl in a Nicholas Sparks movie – cowboys and Indians have never been my cup of tea.

Nevertheless this one sang to me from the shelf as I browsed the DVD shop’s tiny collection of so called Classics. Maybe it was because of the news that Robert Redford will be returning to the Big Screen soon in the new run of Avengers flicks? Or maybe I just love salad dressing? Either way there was something about the DVD cover, two staunch manly Cowboys looking as cool as Johnny Cash, reminded me of a time when my mother would stick plastic cowboys on my birthday cakes, which were of course lined with chocolate fingers to represent a fort, reinforcing my gender role and installing in me a desire for good old fashioned rugged living… and chocolate fingers.

But I’m digressing…

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a character based tale of two nice guys on the wrong side of the law. They’re the kind of criminals who will stick a gun in your face, take all your money and then ask you if you’re ok before riding off into the sunset, and while you might feel down about having lost all your money you might be tempted to give them directions before they go because they’re just so neat.

Butch originally leads a gang of baddies, called the Hole in the Wall Gang, in a train robbery when the banks are beginning to prove a bit too tough for an honest crook to make a living. But after their first attempt at robbing a train goes surprisingly well their second try sees them busted by the catalyst for the film - a posse of professional lawmen determined to bring down Butch and his boys.

For me this is where the film really got interesting, as Butch and the Sundance Kid are tracked across the majestic wilderness of the Mid-West by these relentless men of Justice. For a while there I could almost imagine that Robert Patrick’s T-1000 Terminator was on their trail asking everyone he meets, “Have you seen this cowboy?”

The clever thing about this part of the movie is you never really see their pursuers, beyond their horses kicking up the dust in the distance and the tense sense of urgency as the two outlaws run for their lives through the barren lands of cowboy country makes you kind of cringe in suspense, while at the same time appreciating what an incredible feat police work must have been in the days when photography was still new and there were no police helicopters or CCTV to help you along the way. Failing all the gadgetry it came down to the basic and brutal Find’em, chase’em, kill’em mentality that in this instance has you almost on the edge of your seat.

Whether they get caught or not I’ll never tell but to lose their tracker’s trail, and after reading in the newspaper the finer details about their pursuers, the two men team up with Sundance’s 26 year old school teaching girlfriend Etta and flee to Bolivia where Butch has read somewhere that the grass is much greener for men like them.

The movie kind of cuts there into a bizarre photographic slide show of sepia stained moments as the three protagonists travel, in style no less, to their destination, waving goodbye to the land of liberty to gain liberty. For a moment there it was like the opening credits of Cheers and I was having flash backs to when, as a kid, I had to desperately fly across the living room to change the channel because I hated that show.

Once in South America they set out to establish themselves as bank robbers only to discover that the language barrier is going to be a problem, so they take some Spanish lessons.

I can’t say much more without giving too much away, but the irony is beautiful as the two even try to straighten themselves out by joining the workforce only to become the guys at the other end of another robber’s gun.

Director George Roy Hill captured the hard West in a way that resonated with me, not because I have any idea what the nineteenth century was like for Midwestern America but because as I watched this film I couldn’t help wondering where I could get a corduroy jacket as cool as the one Robert Redford was wearing.

But all that aside there were some pretty creative film techniques which made the story far less boring than it might have been, namely the sepia intro of a silent movie depicting a 1920’s style re-enactment of the Hole in the Wall Gang getting sprung while the opening credits rolled. Then the actual film begins, still in red and brown tones which remain just long enough for you to think to yourself, “Oh darn it, I’ve got out a brown and white movie!” But really it just helps to create an atmosphere which says, “Hey, this is the olden days, ok? Got that? Good, now let’s switch to colour.” And then the film opens into a vista of hues which unveil the wild rugged environment of the cowboy days.

The other thing that jumps out is the amazingly curious choice of music throughout the film, whether it be a montage establishing Butch and Etta’s sexually charged and yet apparently neutral relationship with a bicycle to B.J. Thomas singing Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head or the threesome’s spate of bank robberies to, gee I don’t know what kind of music that was but it sure blew apart my preconceptions about Western’s having a lot of harmonicas, banjos and strong whistlers. I guess the “modern” take on the music in this film made the characters somewhat relatable, you could accept that this was 150 years ago but the characters were no less flesh and blood than you or I.

And as a point of fact, this movie was loosely based on true events.

I don’t really have anything bad to say about this film, except that the story kind of lost it for me when they went to Bolivia, especially considering the tension and suspense that I was accruing during the chase sequences as they fled the mysterious dispensers of justice.  Had I been director I would have ran with that to the bitter end, but then again this film wasn’t really about that, it was about the mateship of two guys caught on the wrong side of the tracks, who stick by each other… to the bitter end.

Not having anything to compare this film to, seeing as Western’s and me are like paperclips and cheese, it’s hard to give it a rating, especially because I kept wondering when a mysterious Time Traveller was going to appear or whether they would meet Yul Brunner in Michael Crichton’s West World… but there’s always the simple question, “Did I enjoy this film?” to which I would reply, “Yes, indeed I did.”

You’ve got to go see, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

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