“”Cooperation means ‘Do as I say, and do it damn quick.'”
— Attributed to E.H. Harriman
“There are no rules in a knife fight.”
— (Ted Cassidy) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
“I don’t give a shit. All I know is John Wayne don’t run away.”
— Attributed to a studio executive, by William Goldman
Fifty years ago the film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, premiered and became a success despite being generally panned by critics.
Due in no small part to the absurdly handsome leads, the film was then and continues to be another generational touchstone.
As with “Patton” the film is on the surface a classic type – a “Western” with all the usual hallmarks of the genre – bank robbers, a posse, local houses of ill repute, and the wide open vistas of both the authentic West and its meta-fictional mirror.
But, as with “Patton” and Little Big Man and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (and Bonnie and Clyde and Chinatown) Butch and Sundance was part of a genre wide deconstruction that in turn was part of a Kulturkampf involving the war in Vietnam, the noxious politics of the era, and a vast generational schism that has only recently begun to lose its edge as the once younger radicals fade (mostly) into retirement or eternity.
All of those issues are filtered through the prism of the film.
Newman and Redford’s movie star good looks serve to both draw the audience in but also act (sic!) to subvert the expectations of the form.
Precisely because they are so good looking, it goes against type to have them act cynically or ambiguously let alone as bad guys – even though all of that is true.
They are bank robbers; outlaws stealing from “the man” – the omni-present but never seen E.H. Harriman – a real-life rail baron, and thus, a criminal.
This Robber-Baron (a vast corporate entity who is not a thief, because he says he’s not, but is) represents the ubiquitous corporate authority of Nixon Inc, of the War Inc, of America Inc.
Butch and Sundance’s less handsome but just as important twins are of course Hawkeye and Trapper (Donald Sutherland and Eliot Gould) who represent (M*A*S*H the film is from the same era) society inhabiting a grey zone – within the corrupt system but subversive if still compromised.
In the new Western the system is Modernity and the war and in the army hospital, it is Modernity and the war and in one case the mythic cowboy is turned upside down and in the other the always trustworthy Dr. Kildare archetype is turned upside down into a hard drinking, nurse seducing, talented malcontent.
In Butch and Sundance the same issues play out from the start.
Challenged by a member of the Hole in the Wall Gang Butch (Newman) cheats to win a fight that is itself a cheat because it’s within the context of a gang engaged in organized crime.
But, compared to the crimes of the railroads and the gangsters running the country as it engaged in slow motion industrial scale genocide at the close of the 19th century and again outside the theaters in the lase 1960s, Butch and Sundance become honorable because, while existentially fucked, they act with honor.
Or a reasonable facsimile.
On a few occasions they try to go straight (by for example, joining the army but, long haired, Beatnik, draft dodgers that they are, with their loud inappropriate music – Burt Bacharach’s Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head is hardly the right theme for a “Western” – and thus exactly on point) they fail and return to “a life of crime.”
In a sense they are Sam Spade but with Stetsons instead of a fedora. And to go further, with the slapstick and deadpan humor, they are Abbot and Costello Meet the Western.
The same moral ambiguity (from which absurdity flows) defines their range war with a corrupt system that preaches law and order while engaging in one crime after another.
At the same time and hanging over the entirety of the film is a sense that the Modern is not better per se but simply a new version of the previous bs – or, as another renegade from the same era said – meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Half seducing his best friend’s love, Butch brings the future in the form of a bicycle which, when confronted by the blunt force of a bull, proves far less able than the old tech of a horse.
Ultimately forced out of Dodge by Harriman’s hired guns (“Lord Baltimore” a half authentic tracker bounty hunter with a name right out of the pantheon of tricksters from Mark Twain – a fabricated identity that claims the power of aristocracy while being in truth, snake oil but still lethal) they again attempt to go legit but fail – or, if you prefer, succeed.
But in the end, in a mirror of Vietnam, they end in a hopeless firefight that they cannot win.
Echoing what would become the mythic death of another renegade in Central America, they are gunned down by the army which of course was just another extension of Harriman’s rail road and that of course was just another extension of the rest of the corrupt empire.
Raindrops keep falling croons Burt, like the guy whose feet are too big for his bed.
Unable to fit into the world as it is, the old mythic hero meets a tragic end because the Modern has to eliminate him.
And yet, despite the machinery of night’s best efforts, “Butch and Sundance” like Spade and Rick and Louis, like any other re-iteration of the Trickster, endures.
The fall, says a rueful Butch, will probably kill you but they jump all the same and Harriman and his goons, never quite realize, the more they chase, the more the chase becomes who they are and no one, with any sense, imagines being Lord Baltimore, while everyone else imagines being Butch and Sundance.*
After all, the hero never really dies.
He just changes his costume and rides again.
*To be fair, one should assume, people of limited or predictable imagination surely dream of being Lord Baltimore. Or as a noted wit once put it in a slightly different context: Even barbarians have their heroes.