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BUTCH CASSIDY and the Sundance Kid is just barely a Western. It wavers between a New Yorker cartoon version of the Old West and an anti-hero extravaganza for a high school audience. Like a Charlie Chaplin movie, it serves up heaps of comedy and mayhem. The result is mostly successful. Director George Roy Hill has taken a tired theme (the outlaw as folk hero) and maintained it on a very high level of slapstick.
"Not that it matters, but most of it is true," proclaims one subtitle. In fact, most of it is impossibly farcical. The difficulties begin precisely when the film tries to be "true" to the historical characters. On the way to a nice spoof of Bonnie and Clyde, the plot is forced into a serious vein in order to relate the demise of the real Butch and Sundance.
Their troubles seem unreal alongside the slapstick that went before. Instead of a jolting contrast between violence and comedy, as in Bonnie and Clyde, we have an annoying contrast between soap opera and farce. Violence may be akin to farce, but too much violence is confusing. The glorification of the outlaw's life, only partly tongue-in-check, also weakens the humor. The film subtly encourages the puerile anti-hero-worship it meant to spoof.
Western parodies are nothing new, but this film derives unique strength from the comic gifts of its two stars. Paul Newman is ingratiating as Butch Cassidy, the dubious "brains" of the team. In the past, no matter how hard he has tried, Paul Newman has ended up in Paul Newman roles. He always seems larger and more laconic than life. This time he does better by playing a slightly inept chatterbox, not very tough and not very mean. Aside from his affability and formidable name, Butch Cassidy might have escaped from a Woody Allen monologue. Polite and considerate, he would rather kick a man in the groin than start a fight with him.
Robert Redford, by contrast, glowers like Hud in the role of the Sundance Kid. As a cold-blooded killer, he bears little resemblance to the whining husband of Barefoot in the Park. His moustache droops, for one thing. He grunts, bites bullets, and shoots people (mostly Bolivians) with laughable accuracy. Both Newman and Redford bring sharp comic timing to the title roles, but Sundance is the more remarkable creation. He's chilling and funny at the same time.
SUNDANCE and Butch labor in the barren vineyards of fin de siecle West. It's 1898 and times are changing. Townspeople have traded in their shooting irons for vests and gold watch chains, the Spanish-American War has begun, and the bicycle appears in a cameo role as the supplanter of the horse. (Mercifully, the automobile doesn't appear; it would have been too poignant.) Outlawing has meanwhile become a depressed industry. A railroad baron hires bounty hunters to drive Butch and Sundance out of business. Butch is willing to be bought out, but not rubbed out. So there ensues a lengthy chase sequence through a brothel, across a prairie, and over a cliff. (Asks Newman, "Who are those guys?" A hilarious born loser, that Newman-if only he changed his name to Ziggy and did something about his eves.)
It's hard to say where the spoof ends and the soap opera starts. After Butch and Sundance flee to Bolivia, a sterile melodrama sets in. The script now embraces such weighty matters as the alienation of the cowboy from modern society, the alienation of the outlaw from repressive society, and various other alienations. In other words, alienation-a good theme, but a little too ponderously applied to this wisp of a comedy.
By this time, the attempts at humor have become forced. The gringos maraud their way through Bolivia just for laughs, but we are already hoping for a cease-fire and unilateral withdrawal. The difficulties of robbing a bank in a foreign language provide the only light touches that do not seem strained.
The original comic flair reappears briefly, and ironically, at the end of the film. Badly wounded and half-choked on their own blood. Butch and Sundance still keep up the banter and prepare to shoot it out with the local constabulary. They do not yet know that the Bolivian army, not a few policemen, are moving into position around their shelter. They blithely step outside into the volleys of hundreds of rifles. It makes for a macabre but funny death scene-not so maudlin as we were led to expect-and satirizes a similar scene from Bonnie and Clyde.
The movie ends abruptly here. Director Hill has too much affection for Butch and Sundance to slobber over their death agonies. He has partly compensated for the dreary pacing which prevailed earlier. Yet the awkward, and frequent, overlay of farce and social comment has marred an otherwise excellent spoof.
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